TERRE HAUTE —
A Terre Haute man has received a 24-year prison sentence after admitting that he confined three of his adopted children in their bedroom and deprived them of food, water and bathroom facilities for several weeks.
Larry Russell, 40, must serve all of his sentence in prison with no probation, Vigo Superior Court 1 Judge John Roach ordered on Wednesday. However, it is likely that Russell will serve only about four years in prison — because of state sentencing rules.
Russell faced six felony counts of child neglect and five counts of criminal confinement.
Roach sentenced Russell to the eight-year maximum for each of the three victims in the case. And Roach ordered the sentences to be served consecutively for a total of 24 years.
However, because state law limits the enhancement of his class-C felony sentence to no more than the presumptive sentence of a class-B felony, Russell must serve only 10 years, rather than 24. With credit given for the time he has already served in jail since his arrest almost a year ago, along with the day-for-a-day-served credit (commonly called “good time”), Russell’s time behind bars will decrease to four years in the Indiana Department of Correction.
“This is more than just ‘I didn’t have the skills to parent these kids,’” Roach told Russell as he announced his decision after about two hours of sentencing testimony and arguments. “It’s significantly more than just a single incident of bad parenting and bad judgement.
“You took them in. You locked them up. And you treated them like animals,” the judge continued.
Five children lived in the Russell home — a biological child and four children placed there as foster children who were later adopted by Larry and his wife Nikki.
The Russells were arrested Nov. 23, 2012, after one of their adopted children escaped the family’s North 12th Street home and sought help for two of his adoptive siblings. Police described that 17-year-old boy as underweight, having dried blood on his face and bearing visible signs of ligature marks on his arms where he had been tied to an object.
The teen told police that he and two brothers had been locked in an upstairs bedroom with no access to food, water or bathroom facilities. The teen told police that he and another brother had been tied with rope to their beds, had their mouths stuffed with socks and covered with duct tape, and had been beaten and tortured.
After serving a search warrant at the home, police collected evidence and discovered holes and tunnels, allegedly created by the boys and used to escape their room to get food and water and access to the bathroom.
Detective Travis Chesshir testified in court Wednesday that he found latches, padlocks and rods on the doors of the bedroom where the three boys were confined. One door had been blocked so it could not be used, and both doors were inoperable from the inside. The room contained only three beds for the boys — no personal items, posters or toys, he said. The mattresses had springs showing through, and there were drops of blood found on the floor and the bed, along with a piece of plywood used to block the window.
Chesshir said that he interviewed the children who lived in the home, and the three boys told him that they were confined in their room for hours at a time in the dark. The low-functioning mental capacity of the children made it difficult to get times and dates from them about their experiences, he said.
Vigo County Prosecutor Terry Modesitt played video of the Russell home taken by investigators to show the living conditions in the home. The video revealed holes in the ceiling and the walls where the children tunneled out of their room to get food, water and use the restroom. One image showed a sign taped to a refrigerator that said “Larry’s food Stay Out No kids”
The video also showed the living area of Russell’s biological son, who had a bed, clothes, television, posters and other items in his room.
Testimony from a Department of Child Services caseworker revealed that the oldest child — who escaped the home through his bedroom window and was found wandering the streets seeking help — gained 52 pounds three months after he was removed from the Russell Home. The teenager had weighed 82 pounds when he was found.
The caseworker said that the children’s experience in the Russell home has “affected them greatly” to the point of needing individual therapy and medication as they try to adjust to new foster homes.
The judge also heard a letter from one of the children, who stated that he and the other youths are “mentally messed up” from being treated like animals by Larry and Nikki Russell.
“I think they should be in jail for life so no other kids can get messed up,” the child wrote.
Four family members attended the hearing to show support for Russell. His mother testified that her son could live with her and her husband if he was ordered to serve his sentence on work release.
Russell read a letter to the court in which he accepted accountability and responsibility.
“I’m ashamed of my actions that led to all of these charges,” he said. “I didn’t possess proper skills to parent correctly.”
Modesitt pointed out that Russell had another criminal case pending at the time that he was arrested on the child neglect charges. He had been arrested in May 2012 for domestic battery, and had been granted a deferral by the court. That case was resolved as part of the plea agreement upon which Russell was sentenced Wednesday.
The prosecutor requested that Russell be sentenced to the 10-year maximum sentence.
“I don’t think the sentencing standard does it justice,” Modesitt said. “It don’t think 10 years is enough.”
Defense attorney Matthew Daley asked the court to sentence Russell to eight years that could be suspended to work release.
Following the sentencing ruling, Modesitt said the most troubling thing about the case was that state law allowed Russell to receive only the 10-year maximum sentence.
“The law says that if it is consecutive sentences, they he can’t get more than the advisory length of the next highest sentence,” Modesitt said. “He got the maximum, but I don’t feel like it’s enough.”
The prosecutor said he hopes that the resolution of the case against Russell will allow the children — who are again in the state’s foster program — to move on with their lives. Modesitt said he plans to raise the sentencing issue next month during a meeting of the Indiana Prosecutors Council in hopes of getting the sentencing rules modified.
Meanwhile, the guilty plea and sentencing date for Nikki Russell is set for Nov. 19 in Superior Court 1. She also faces six counts of child neglect and five counts of criminal confinement, along with two counts of battery by bodily waste and one count of battery resulting in bodily injury for a total of 14 criminal charges.
Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.