Vancouver father defends lockup of autistic boys

He testifies he heard on a TV show that it's OK for their own safety

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

Published:

 
photo Alayna Higdon, here Thursday in Clark County Superior Court, resumed testifying Friday morning. Of her ex-boyfriend's autistic sons, she said, "I loved them. I still love them."

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John Eckhart took the witness stand Friday afternoon and told jurors he's barely literate, so he couldn't read books on how to help his autistic sons, but that he'd heard on either "Nanny 911" or "Supernanny," that if a parent becomes worried a child might hurt himself, it's OK to lock the child in a room where he's safe.

And that's what led him to install wire shelving to cover the entire doorway of the bedroom his two sons shared in the family's Vancouver apartment. The makeshift door had a lock.

He said baby gates hadn't worked. His former live-in girlfriend and co-defendant, Alayna Higdon, testified earlier Friday that the original bedroom door had been ruined because the boys, then 5 and 7, would pound on it, kick it and beat their heads against it.

Both Higdon and Eckhart said the boys were happier when the cagelike door was installed because they could see out of their room.

"I would say they were content in there," said Eckhart, who was the final witness called to testify.

Attorneys will give closing arguments Tuesday morning. The Clark County Courthouse will be closed Monday, Memorial Day.

Higdon, 27, and Eckhart, 31, are charged with unlawful imprisonment. If convicted, they face up to three months in jail, although if a jury finds that there were aggravating factors, they could receive a longer sentence.

Clark County Superior Court Judge Robert Lewis decided at 4 p.m. Friday that instead of keeping everyone late for an anticipated three hours of closing arguments, he would set the matter over until Tuesday.

The trial started May 21.

The boys were removed from the apartment on April 12, 2011, after maintenance workers alerted Child Protective Services, which in turn contacted the Vancouver Police Department. At the time, Higdon and Eckhart lived with Eckhart's two sons, Higdon's 9-year-old son and the couple's 11-month-old son. Eckhart stayed home with the children while Higdon took elementary education courses at Clark College and was part of a work-study program that placed her at Harney Elementary School.

Jurors have heard different estimates of how often the boys were locked in the room, when the cagelike door was installed and how often the boys, who were not toilet-trained, were bathed.

On Friday, defense attorney Jon McMullen highlighted Eckhart's lack of education -- he went through only the eighth grade and was in a special education course -- his unwillingness to medicate his children because he was scared about side effects, and his devotion to his boys.

Eckhart said he's single and works in Boring, Ore., for a company that makes markers for timber.

Eckhart disputed testimony from Higdon's son, who had told jurors that he would have to feed the boys sandwiches and waffles through the door.

What would that room have looked like had the boys been allowed to eat in it? McMullen asked.

"It would look like a food fight in a cafeteria," Eckhart said.

He said he would play video games with the boys, not lock them in their room while he played alone, as Higdon's son told jurors.

He said the boys would receive a bath whenever they had a dirty diaper, and sometimes he would draw a bubble bath for the boys just so they could play, letting them go so long that he would drain the cool water and fill the tub back up with warm water.

While prosecutors have tried to make the case that the couple locked the boys up for convenience, Eckhart said he used the room only during the day when he couldn't be completely focused on the boys, such as when he had to give the baby a bottle and put him down for a nap. While prosecution witnesses said Eckhart would lock the boys away so he could take long smoke breaks, he said he would go out to his car and smoke only when Higdon was home. When asked why he would go to his car to smoke, he said it's because he liked to listen to Lars Larson on the radio or listen to music that's "not appropriate" for children.

Even though there was only one bed in the room, Eckhart said he would bring in a second mattress and blankets at night. The 5-year-old had broken a second bed frame, and they couldn't afford a new one, Eckhart said.

He detailed for jurors how he cared for the boys and how he would try to ward off any meltdowns, mentioning, for example, that the 7-year-old boy had to have a green lid on his sippy cup or he would throw a fit.

"Are you a caring father?" McMullen asked.

"I do my best," Eckhart said.

Both Higdon and Eckhart said if the boys weren't locked in the room, they could hurt themselves by climbing on furniture or trying to eat inedible objects.

Higdon testified the cage-like door was installed fewer than two weeks before the boys were removed from the apartment.

She said she and Eckhart planned to install a door with a clear plastic panel in it so the boys could see out of the room. But when Eckhart went to the store, he determined the plastic was too thin, and they couldn't afford a thicker plastic.

Instead, she said, he bought wire shelving that he installed as a makeshift door.

As soon as the door was installed and the boys could see out of the room, they calmed down and were happier when they woke up in the morning, she said.

Even though she was given notice that maintenance workers would be coming to the couple's apartment in April 2011, she didn't think to remove the cagelike door.

"I knew the environment. I knew what it was used for," she told jurors.

"You didn't think you were doing anything wrong," said her attorney, Brian Walker.

"No," she said.

Eckhart's father and stepmother, both retired from the Portland Police Bureau, testified Friday that although they were never in the Vancouver apartment, they saw the boys at family gatherings, and the boys were always well-groomed. They said they didn't have any concern about the children's well-being, and they said the boys were very energetic and difficult to control.

The case hinges on whether Eckhart and Higdon deliberately imprisoned the boys, or whether they took reasonable safety precautions because of the boys' autism.

The oldest boy, who has a more severe form of autism, is in foster care, while the younger boy lives with his mother. The jury has heard testimony that both boys are doing better than they did while living with Higdon and Eckhart.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.