Trial set to start for couple accused of imprisonment

They allegedly locked young boys in room with cage-like door

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A Vancouver couple accused of keeping two young autistic boys locked in a room behind what police described as a cage-like door last year are expected to go to trial Thursday.

Alayna Higdon, 27, and John Eckhart, 31, are charged with unlawful imprisonment, a Class C felony. Their trial, in Clark County Superior Court Judge Robert Lewis’ courtroom, is expected to last one week.

A hearing to check the status of the trial is set for Wednesday morning. Jury selection begins Thursday morning.

The couple were arrested April 12, 2011, after Vancouver police officers found the boys, ages 5 and 7, locked in a dark room with a metal slatted door inside the couple’s apartment at Springfield Meadows, off Andresen Road. They had no toys and shared a single mattress. The boys were wearing diapers, and were not receiving medical attention or enrolled in school, police said.

According to court documents, the couple allegedly imprisoned the boys, the biological sons of Eckhart, from Oct. 1 to April 12.

The case surfaced after an apartment maintenance worker became aware of the situation during a routine premises check and notified authorities, who inspected the unit and found the boys. The children were then placed in protective custody by Child Protective Services.

Questioned by police, Eckhart reportedly said he did not want the boys to “run around the house” because of their autism.

Based on pretrial hearings, the defense is expected to center on adequate parenting methods of autistic children and how parents can restrain children for their safety.

Unlawful imprisonment carries a standard sentencing range of one to three months in jail. Prosecutors filed aggravating factors of “deliberate cruelty” and that the victims were “particularly vulnerable,” which could bring a potential sentence above the sentencing range.

The maximum sentence for unlawful imprisonment with aggravating factors is five years in prison.

Laura McVicker: http://twitter.com/col_courts; http://facebook.com/reportermcvicker; laura.mcvicker@columbian.com; 360-735-4516.