NORWALK, Ohio – The sheriff who searched the house where parents are accused of caging some of their 11 special needs children testified Friday that he knew something was wrong when he stepped inside.
"The first thing that grabbed my attention was the smell of urine," Huron County Sheriff Dick Sutherland testified at the trial of Michael and Sharen Gravelle.
Sutherland went to the home Sept. 9, 2005, to investigate a report of children in cages. The house "just didn't look right," he said.
He came across what he described as painted "wood-framed enclosures with rabbit wire" and assumed the children had been sleeping there, he testified.
"I had never seen anything that compares to this kind of child neglect, child endangering," he said.
The Gravelles are charged with 16 counts of felony child endangering and eight misdemeanor child endangering charges. If convicted, they face one to five years in prison and a maximum fine of $10,000 for each felony count.
The Gravelles deny abusing children in their care and have said they had to keep the youngsters in enclosed beds to protect them. The children suffered from problems such as fetal alcohol syndrome and a disorder that involves eating nonfood items.
The children ranged in age from 1 to 14 when authorities removed them from the home in rural Wakeman, about 60 miles west of Cleveland. The youngsters were placed in foster care last fall and the couple lost custody in March.
Lt. Randy Sommers, chief investigator for the Huron County Sheriff's Office, testified Thursday that none of the children was inside the cages when he and Sutherland were there, he said.
Former social worker Jennifer James testified that in 2000 she occasionally met with some of the children, but she made no observation about their sleeping arrangements or whether there were cages.
James said that in November 2000 Michael Gravelle contacted her about stress in the household and said Sharen Gravelle was "emotionally beat" and needed a break.
"He said they loved and wanted to take care of the children," James testified.
Another witness, Carlyle Smith, 54, of Norwalk, who was working for a company that provides baby sitters, said he visited the Gravelle home in October 2003 and left shaken after hearing Sharen Gravelle call the children monkeys.
On a four-hour visit size up the home, Smith said a boy asked at mid-afternoon to use the bathroom and was told by an angry Sharen Gravelle that it wasn't his scheduled time.
"She told him to go to his cage until morning," Smith said.
Smith also testified that he met with Michael Gravelle after that at the small chapel on their property and Gravelle told him, "I consider myself to be Moses."
Smith said at that point he wanted to leave. "I was hoping to get out of there real quick," Smith said.