SPLENDORA, Texas – The abandoned school bus had no engine and no front wheels. But there were crude curtains in the windows, an air conditioner and even bunk beds.
So when a postal worker peered inside, it became clear that two children had been living for more than two months in the dilapidated vehicle at the end of a muddy, one-lane road. Now child welfare agents are trying to unravel the story of the siblings, ages 5 and 11, who apparently began staying in the bus with an aunt after their parents went to prison.
The postal carrier discovered the children Wednesday near Houston, and the two were swiftly placed in foster care while authorities investigate. Their parents were convicted of embezzling money from Hurricane Ike victims in 2008, and the kids are not enrolled in school.
Randal McCann, a Louisiana attorney who represented the children's mother prior to her sentencing, said the aunt had been taking care of the kids since the case against the parents was launched more than a year ago.
"It was believed by everybody involved in this case that (the aunt) was properly tending to those children. What I saw in the newspaper this morning was shocking," McCann said, referring to a report in the Houston Chronicle.
McCann said the aunt would often contact him but only to discuss the criminal case and not the well-being of the children.
"But there was no indication that the living conditions were as bad as those photographs," McCann said.
The children's mother, Sherrie Shorten, is scheduled to be freed in April after serving time for her role in the scam involving federal loans offered to hurricane victims.
An Associated Press reporter visited the site Thursday. The bus appeared to have electricity, and outside there was a small propane tank and homemade grill.
A woman who was in the bus declined to identify herself and told the reporter to leave.
Neighbors told the Chronicle that the children typically looked unkempt and could often be spotted running around at night.
"They always had dirty clothes on (and) no shoes, even in the winter," said Gayla Payne.
Investigators told Houston television station KTRK that the children have been living in the bus since the beginning of the year.
Lindy Sanitz, who also lives nearby, said the bus had been on the lot for a long time, but she didn't suspect anything was seriously wrong.
"I've seen the one woman there off and on," Sanitz said, adding that she occasionally saw one of the kids riding a bike. "They stayed pretty much over there."
The children told welfare workers that they were home-schooled. A woman on the property told the agency she worked 12-hour shifts Monday through Friday but that she stayed with the children at night.
"The aunt said that she does provide meals for them during the day," Montgomery County Constable Rowdy Hayden told the TV station.
Looking around the bus, "we didn't see a lot of food readily available," Hayden said. "One of the neighbors had told us earlier that from time to time she will bring food over for the children."
Splendora is 35 miles northeast of Houston.
Associated Press writers Schuyler Dixon and Nomaan Merchant in Dallas and Paul J. Weber in San Antonio contributed to this report.
Information from: KTRK-TV, http://abclocal.go.com