When investigators crossed the threshold of Jeffrey and Sandra Weller’s home to do a welfare check on Oct. 7, 2011, the tidy living room appeared to be a model of suburban family life. But as officers stepped into other rooms in the North Hearthwood house, they began to see signs of something more sinister, said Clark County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Dustin Richardson.
Richardson’s description during an opening statement Monday kicked off the trial of the Wellers, accused of imprisoning, starving and beating their 16-year-old adopted twins. The couple faces nearly a dozen charges of unlawful imprisonment and physical abuse of the twins.
The allegations are expected to be strongly contested by the Wellers’ attorneys.
“Pay close attention and careful attention and keep an open mind,” Suzan Clark, who represents Sandra Weller, told the jury. “The allegations in this case are false, and in the end, we will ask you to return a verdict of not guilty.”
After rejecting a plea offer in the case, Jeffrey Weller was slapped with an additional five charges of physically abusing four other children in the household. They include two biological sons, 14 and 12, of Jeffrey Weller and his ex-wife, a 10-year-old biological son of Sandra Weller, and a 4-year-old biological son of Jeffrey and Sandra Weller.
Richardson said investigators found a well-stocked kitchen pantry under lock and key. The refrigerator was locked with a rubber-coated bicycle lock. Upstairs, investigators found the bedroom that belonged to the twins, one boy and one girl. It lacked electricity, lights and floor covering. The bunk beds were missing one mattress. The door was locked from the outside, and there was no handle on the inside so that the children could let themselves out.
The twins told police that they were locked in their room, isolated from others and fed no more than once a day, Richardson said. They were prohibited from dining with the rest of the family. Instead, they were fed a can of vegetables, usually spinach or collard greens, with a spoonful of shortening. They had to eat it, standing, out of the can, Richardson said.
Because they were hungry, the twins often took food without their parents’ permission, he said. Their siblings would find the keys and give it to the twins, he said.
“When they were inevitably caught, this was when they would get this horrendous punishment,” Richardson said.
The 16-year-old girl took most of the blame, he said. Following Sandra Weller’s instructions, Jeffrey Weller would force the girl to remove her pants and panties and lie on her stomach on the kitchen floor, Richardson said. Jeffrey Weller then struck her with a piece of scrap lumber, measuring 1 inch by 2 inches by 42 inches. On one occasion, he also attempted to strangle her, he said.
Richardson said he would present evidence of marks and scars on the girl that are consistent with this type of punishment. He said forensic evidence also would show that her blood was on one end of the board, and Jeffrey Weller’s DNA was on the other part, which would have been used as a handle.
The other four children, interviewed by police, corroborated the twins’ story and added their own accounts of abuse, including being thrown across a room for keeping a messy bedroom, the prosecutor said.
Defense attorney Clark said Sandra Weller denies abusing the twins and denies encouraging her husband to do so.
Clark said unlike the prosecution’s claim, the twins, who were home-schooled, were not isolated. She said they participated weekly in home-school social events outside the home.
“(They) were very much part of this family,” Clark said. “The children bear Mr. Weller’s last name (even though they were adopted by Sandra Weller and her ex-husband). They by choice wanted to adopt … the surname, Weller.”
Clark said the allegations of abuse happened after a change in the family dynamic: Jeffrey Weller’s sons from his previous marriage came into the home in June 2011 after a custody battle. Those children had behavioral issues, Clark said.
Monday began with jury selection in the case. Fifty-five candidates were whittled down to a jury of 12 with one alternate. Testimony is expected to begin today.
Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://twitter.com/Col_Courts; http://facebook.com/ColTrends; firstname.lastname@example.org.