When Rita Grofer heard that Royce Clyde Zeigler II was accused of
beating his 2-year-old stepdaughter to death because the toddler failed
to say "please," and "yes, sir," her blood chilled.
About 30 years ago, she had been married to Zeigler's father,
who she said imposed the same disciplinary rules on their baby daughter
and became violently enraged when she tried to intervene, once grabbing
her by the throat and smashing her head into a kitchen cabinet.
"What (the younger Zeigler) did with that child was exactly what I saw, but mine never got killed," Grofer said.
Grofer and another of Zeigler's four ex-wives are pleading for
mercy for Zeigler II, 24, and his 19-year-old wife, Kimberly Trenor,
saying they were caught in the same cycle of violence that threatened
their lives decades ago.
Trenor and the younger Zeigler are accused of killing Riley Ann
Sawyers, storing her body in a shed for two months, then dumping her in
Galveston Bay, where she washed ashore in October.
A grand jury will decide Wednesday whether Trenor and Zeigler
II, should be charged with capital murder, a charge eligible for the
Riley was known as "Baby Grace" for weeks after her tiny body
washed ashore in a plastic box in Galveston Bay. Her identity remained
a mystery until a police sketch caught the attention of her paternal
grandmother in Mentor, Ohio.
That led authorities to the young couple, who married in June
after meeting through an online game. They were living in Spring, a
suburb north of Houston.
Trenor's attorney, Tommy Stickler Jr., said Grofer and another
of the elder Zeigler's four ex-wives, along with a close relative the
lawyer wouldn't identify, contacted him.
All of them blame the elder Zeigler and said the son was likely mirroring his father's behavior.
The elder Zeigler did not return several telephone messages left
at his home by The Associated Press seeking comment. No one answered
the door at his stately brick house in prosperous suburb about five
miles from where his son and daughter-in-law lived with Riley.
Neither Royce Zeigler has a criminal record in Texas. Police
were called to the family's old home in the Houston suburb of Tomball
for a family disturbance in 1996, but additional information was not
Neal Davis III, the younger Zeigler's attorney, said he was shocked by the ex-wives' allegations.
Davis said he believes the elder Zeigler has been with his
client's mother since the 1980s, although marriage records indicate
they wed in 2004. The other marriages occurred between the late 1960s
"As far as we know, everything was just kind of normal," Davis
said of his client's childhood. "Royce and Hiram (his younger brother)
both have said 'No, my mom and dad when we got in trouble we would get
kind of a time out, go to your room or occasionally a spanking.'"
But Grofer said her ex-husband called their daughter, April, a
few years ago at her urging because the young woman was critically ill
with a seizure disorder.
He screamed through the phone that he hated her and she
sickened him, said Grofer, who listened to the call. Afterward, she
spent three hours holding her sobbing daughter, worried about another
The other ex-wife who contacted Stickler declined to speak to the AP out of fear of the elder Zeigler.
A third ex-wife, who also did not want to be identified for fear
of retaliation, said Trenor's claim that her husband wouldn't let her
work outside the home or put her name on their bank account, "was just
like listening to my life."
"When I saw the news, I said out loud to myself, 'What did you do to your child to make him such a monster," the woman said.
The Associated Press could not locate the elder Zeigler's other
ex-wife, Deborah, but documents from her 1981 divorce petition said
that after she filed for divorce, he tied an unidentified object around
her left hand and tightened it until the bones snapped.
Trenor told Galveston authorities that she and the younger
Zeigler beat Riley with leather belts, held her head underwater in a
bathtub and threw her across a room, her head slamming into a tile
An autopsy revealed that Riley suffered three skull fractures, but the cause of her death has not been determined.
Stickler said the fatal beating happened after the younger
Zeigler stayed home from work to enforce the disciplinary plan he'd
established for Riley.
He wanted Trenor to spank Riley with a belt when she failed to
say things like "please" and "yes sir" or "no sir," but didn't believe
Trenor was complying because the 2-year-old's behavior wasn't changing,
Davis has declined to comment on the ex-wives' stories or
Trenor's account, but has said Trenor's credibility will become a big
issue after all the evidence is examined.
People who experience or witness abuse as children are 10 times
more likely to become abusers than people who don't, said Richard
Gelles, dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice at the
University of Pennsylvania.
Davis said he'd just begun researching his client's background
and planned to closely examine his father's past and any influence it
may have had on his son's behavior.