News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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December 29, 2012

2012 in Review: Steady flow of local crime produces big headlines

Third of five parts

TERRE HAUTE — America’s fascination with crime and the bad acts of others is nowhere more apparent than in the media. Whether it’s in the plethora of who-done-its on TV or a scan of the Tribune-Star’s daily jail log to see who was locked up overnight, people are hooked on crime, as long as someone else is the victim.

Taking a look back at 2012, a few criminally minded deeds stood out among the news events of the Wabash Valley.

Fostering problems

One of the top crime stories came to light as the year was coming to a close, but as is the unfortunate case in many abuse-related incidents, the alleged crime may have been going on longer than anyone outside the immediate family knows.

Former foster parents Larry and Nikki Russell were arrested on the day after Thanksgiving when one of their adopted children reportedly escaped from a house on North 12th Street and tried to reach authorities to report alleged neglect in the home.

Terre Haute Police found that the Russells — long-time foster parents for the Indiana Department of Child Services — had apparently locked three of their adopted children in a bedroom for long periods of time with no access to food, water or a toilet. Children in the home reported being tied to their beds, having socks duct-taped in their mouths, being beaten, humiliated and starved as punishment.

Police also found tunnels in the walls of the home that the children allegedly created to both escape their room and to hide food.

Police Chief John Plasse called the Russell case the “lowlight” of 2012.

“Any abuse to children is saddening, but the abuse these children went through is shocking,” Plasse told the Tribune-Star.

The case also aroused community outrage that, while the Russells were licensed as a foster family for several years, no one in the local child services office caught the alleged abuse of the children.

The Tribune-Star received numerous calls and letters from the public concerned about the oversight, as well as calls from people wanting to help the children through the holiday season.

Both Larry and Nikki Russell face six counts of child neglect and five counts of criminal confinement. Nikki Russell also faces two counts of battery by bodily waste and one count of battery resulting in bodily injury for a total of 14 criminal charges. They both have April 2013 trial dates.

Deadly fire at Garfield Towers

In May, an arson fire displaced dozens of residents of the Garfield Towers apartment building and resulted in the death of a well-known and well-liked resident.

The fire was a hallmark of community cooperation. The Wabash Valley chapter of the American Red Cross fed and sheltered people with the assistance of area businesses, motels and the Vigo County School Corp., which provided both transportation and shelter at Terre Haute North Vigo High School.

The nearby United Methodist Church assisted displaced residents and supported emergency workers at the scene. Neighbors rushed to assist in evacuating people from the apartment building. And the Terre Haute Humane Society sent personnel to help residents who had to leave their pets inside the smoke-filled building.

Resident Freddie Poore died a few days after being injured in the fire, and his passing prompted celebrations of his life. As several people remarked, when Poore met you, he never forgot you.

Even after not seeing you for years, he could greet you by name just like he last saw you yesterday. Poore’s remarkable memory for people had the added gift of making him memorable to a lot of people as well. So when the 61-year-old man died, his passing affected people all over the city who knew him as a gentle soul with a kind, sharing spirit.

The investigation continues into the arson fire, which is reported to have begun on furniture in a public lounge area. A reward has been offered. Anyone with information about the cause of the fire is still encouraged to call police or fire authorities.

Federal sentences

Five defendants indicted for their actions on the day of the July 2011 shooting death of a Terre Haute police officer were sentenced during the summer in federal court for making false statements to investigators.

Heather Elkins, Charles Elkins, Jesse Padgett, Roberta Utterback and Virginia Torres all signed plea agreements admitting to lying to investigators at the scene of the shooting death of Officer Brent Long on North Eighth Street. They all still face drug-related charges filed against them by the Vigo County Prosecutor’s Office. Those cases have been venued to Monroe County because of pretrial publicity, and all have a future hearing date in March.

Woman’s body found

A murder charge was filed against the estranged husband of a woman whose decomposing remains were found Nov. 3 in rural eastern Vigo County.

Enzert G. Lewis, 38, faces charges alleging that he killed Allyson Elmi Lewis on Oct. 10, altered the scene of her death by attempting to clean up the murder scene in her apartment, attempted to conceal the crime, and lied to authorities about the disappearance of his wife.

Investigators for the sheriff’s department worked around the clock trying to determine the identity of the woman, whose body was found by a fisherman in a remote area north of Indiana 42 at the Vigo-Clay county line.

After a family member identified the woman, police found that the victim and suspect had a tumultuous relationship that included a prior allegation of rape by the victim, who later married the suspect.

A May trial date has been set for Lewis.

Human trafficking

An international problem was brought home to Terre Haute after a local woman bravely told her story of human trafficking, as the world’s eye settled on Indianapolis as host to Super Bowl XLVI.

At the age of 12, Hope (not her real name) was sold by her mother into slavery. It happened in Florida, in the early 1980s.

Hope was a blond-haired, blue-eyed American girl whose only “crime” was being born to a poor mother who beat her and left her $3 a day to find her own food.

As an adult now living in Vigo County, Hope found support in a faith-based community, and she wanted to help others caught in the web of human trafficking.

As the spotlight was shined on the exploitation that comes with the celebration of a national sporting event, Indiana lawmakers, police and many social justice groups tried to combat crimes against individuals that many Americans think of as only a foreign problem.

Jan. 11 was recognized as Human Trafficking Awareness Day, as established by a 2007 act of Congress, and a prayer service developed by the Intercommunity Peace and Justice Center in Seattle, Wash., and adapted for use at St. Mary-of-the-Woods by the Sisters of Providence, was attended by more than 200 people of all religious denominations.

Several youths were reportedly rescued from human traffickers in the days surrounding the Super Bowl, and Terre Haute resident Hope continues to share her message so that others will see the signs of people being trafficked.

An Inside View

One person on the front lines of law enforcement also weighed in on some of the events and trends that have caught the public’s attention in the past year.

“Another lowlight,” Chief Plasse said, “is the amount of deaths due to impaired driving locally. I believe the awareness is there but people still get behind the wheel when they are impaired.

Local businesses have offered free cab rides home during certain events but people need to learn to be responsible for their actions and not risk the safety of others and themselves by impaired driving.”

A “highlight” given by Plasse is the continued cooperation between local law enforcement agencies and the prosecutor's office.

The cooperation “in solving crime and protecting our communities has made our community as safe as I feel it has ever been,” Plasse said. “Not all communities have this level of cooperation, and we are blessed to have it here locally.”

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com.  

 

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