A Vancouver couple pleaded not guilty Wednesday to unlawful imprisonment charges for allegedly keeping two young autistic boys behind a cage-like door in a dark, mostly empty room.
John Eckhart, 30, and Alayna Higdon, 26, who are both free on bail, appeared separately for arraignment on two counts each of unlawful imprisonment, a class C felony, relating to the two boys, ages 6 and 7.
Clark County Superior Court Judge John Wulle set trial for Sept. 26 after the pair waived their right to a speedy trial so their attorneys can build their respective cases.
Eckhart and Higdon both exited the courtroom quickly after their two-minute appearances. Their attorneys stayed to give interviews to TV and newspaper reporters in the courthouse lobby.
Brian Walker, the defense attorney retained by Higdon, criticized the way the boys’ living conditions were perceived by law enforcement and reported by the media.
Describing it as a caged room was an “improper characterization,” Walker said.
“That is a law enforcement perception,” the attorney said.
Jonny McMullen, an attorney retained by Eckhart, echoed Walker’s comments, saying the case is really an issue of how overwhelmed parents care for autistic children.
“The reality of having a child who has autism is that there is a responsibility to protect the child,” he said.
In response to repeated questions about specifics on the boys’ living conditions, McMullen said he was still receiving reports in the case, adding that it would be premature to comment.
According to police reports, the boys had been living in a bedroom where the door and window had been covered with bars similar to those commonly used in closets. The boys were wearing diapers and the room was bereft of toys and furnishings, except for one juvenile-sized bed frame and mattress, police said. They were not enrolled in school.
An apartment maintenance worker at the complex on Northeast 66th Avenue, Springfield Meadows, became aware of the situation during a routine premises check and notified authorities.
The charges carry a standard sentencing range of one to three months in jail. Prosecutors filed aggravating factors that the alleged crimes were committed with deliberate cruelty and against a vulnerable person, which could bring a punishment outside of the sentencing range.
Eckhart, the boys’ father, and Higdon have no criminal record.