12-year-old girl's tale of torture ends with escape at DMV office

Sacramento BeeOctober 8, 2011 

SACRAMENTO — In the dry language of court papers, Duewa Abeana Lee is charged with 12 felony counts of violating California's penal code in a "serious" fashion.

Here is what that means, according to prosecutors, who charged the 36-year-old south Sacramento woman Friday with child abuse, aggravated mayhem and torture of her boyfriend's 12-year-old daughter:

She used a frying pan to beat the child, then a hot clothing iron to burn her back. She used an electrical cord to cause permanent scarring on the girl's back, chest and arms, then stapled her ear to cause permanent disfigurement.

She heated a spatula and burned the girl's hand and buttocks, pushed her head through a window and shoved her down a flight of stairs, court papers state.

These are the allegations in a horrific tale that follows two other high-profile torture cases in the Sacramento region involving teens who escaped their captors after months of extreme abuse.

"What happens is, people don't believe this could happen," said Dr. Deborah Stewart, a pediatrician and child abuse expert formerly associated with the UC Davis Medical Center. "Trust me, they don't believe this could happen."

In this case, though, somebody did – a patron at a DMV office where the girl sought help last Friday. Documents show that the girl slipped away when Lee went to the restroom and the customer she approached sounded the alarm.

In a similar incident in December 2008, a 16-year-old boy who came to be known as Kyle Doe suddenly appeared in a Tracy health club, emaciated and bleeding and chained at the ankle. Investigators soon learned that the teenager had escaped from a home in Tracy, where he had been shackled, beaten, burned and held captive for a year.

Four adults were sent to prison on numerous felony charges, including torture.

This summer, The Bee chronicled the story of 15-year-old Lilly Manning who escaped in November 2007 from a cramped closet in south Sacramento after suffering months of torture and abuse. Her great-aunt, also named Lillian Manning, was sentenced in July to consecutive life terms. The woman's husband, Joseph Horvath, was convicted by a jury in 2009 and also sentenced to life terms.

The allegations in the Lee case go back to July, when her boyfriend was incarcerated and she ended up caring for his 12-year-old daughter.

From July 28 until last Friday, Lee allegedly inflicted such terrible abuse that she was arrested Wednesday and ordered held in lieu of $1 million bail in the Sacramento County jail.

She made her first court appearance Friday afternoon, emerging from a backroom into a holding cell in the courtroom of Sacramento Superior Court Judge Lawrence G. Brown.

Lee appeared to take a step back in shock as she saw four television cameras and a still camera aimed at her, then spoke quietly through the bars with her lawyer, John Casey.

After reading portions of the charges aloud, Brown agreed to a request from the prosecution to double her bail to $2 million, an amount that will be argued at the next hearing on Thursday. Casey declined to comment after the hearing.

Experts say such extreme cases are relatively uncommon.

"Luckily, we see this rarely," said Stewart, who now works at California State University, Chico.

Stewart said torture sometimes accompanies difficult developmental stages in children, such as a crying and colicky 2- to 4-month old, or an adolescent seeking more independence. Stewart recalled one case in which hot candle wax was dripped on a 2-month-old baby's ear.

Perpetrators often have mental health issues, she said.

In Lilly's case, for instance, her great-aunt's trial was delayed for several years by challenges over her mental competency. She ultimately pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to a charge of child endangerment, and guilty to an additional 15 felony charges.

Dr. Randell Alexander, a nationally recognized child abuse expert, said the torture of a child sometimes results from escalating violence. A caregiver begins physically punishing a child and, over time, the acts become more cruel and intense.

"They start out small and they keep adding things and adding things," he said. "At the point where most people would have stopped, they don't. They keep upping the ante."

Alexander said others "get right to the torture."

"They don't go through the escalation process," he said. "A significant percentage of them were treated badly themselves when they were kids, so you see it coming back again."

In grand jury testimony, Kyle Doe described how he was beaten with belts and a mallet if he didn't clean the house or yard properly, or forgot to feed the dog. As in the newest case, his captors also were accused of burning him with hot objects. Kyle said his captors taped his mouth, tied his hands behind his back and forced him to kneel in the fireplace for hours.

Lilly Manning, now 19, whose body is etched with more than 100 scars, was burned with boiling water and routinely beaten with a hammer, a 2-by-4, a pink high heel and a steel-toed boot. She described how her caregivers threatened to kill her and bury her in the backyard.

Authorities said the girl in the latest case suffered severe injuries, as well. She had bruises on her face, mouth, neck, left ear, front, back, both legs and buttocks. She suffered internal injuries to her liver, upper intestine and pancreas.

Many perpetrators come to view the child or teen more as an object – an "it" – than a human being, said Alexander, a pediatrics professor at the University of Florida who has served on the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect.

In interviews with The Bee, Lilly Manning repeatedly stated she had a favorite book. Written in 1995 by David Pelzer, it is billed as "an unforgettable account of one of the most severe child abuse cases in California history," and chronicles his years of childhood torture and abuse by his alcoholic mother. The title is, "A Child Called 'It.' "

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