After being locked away in the unfinished basement of her stepmother's Southeast Side home since she was 9 years old, a badly malnourished 15-year-old girl who was on her way to a young death told police that between infrequent meals she survived on whatever food she could scavenge from the garbage, off the floor and even from the dirty laundry.
According to a criminal complaint filed Thursday, her life outside the basement consisted of cleaning the house, sometimes naked at the demand of her stepmother, in order to make sure she wasn't hiding anything in her clothes.
"I like to hide food in my clothes," the girl told police. "'Cuz I'm hungry."
The girl's stepmother, Melinda Drabek-Chritton, 42, along with her father, Chad G. Chritton, 40, were charged Thursday with first-degree reckless endangerment, child abuse and child neglect. Her stepbrother, Joshua P. Drabek, 18, was also charged with child abuse, along with two counts of sexual assault of a child.
Assistant District Attorney Matthew Moeser, who is prosecuting the case, said Thursday that more charges are likely as Madison police continue their investigation.
The case has drawn the attention of media from outside Madison. Reporters and cameras easily outnumbered other spectators in the Dane County Public Safety Building's small courtroom.
The three remain in the Dane County Jail, Drabek-Chritton on $30,000 bail, Drabek on $25,000 bail and Chritton on $22,500 bail.
The girl has two half-brothers, ages 7 and 4, who were living in the house and have been placed in foster care.
According to the complaint, the girl, who was barefoot and wearing only pajamas, was found outside by a neighbor after leaving the home at 4609 Treichel St. on Feb. 6. She told Dr. Norman Fost of UW Children's Hospital that she ran away from home after her stepmother had threatened her because she was too slow picking up papers from the floor.
"My stepmom told me that if I didn't hurry up and pick up the papers that 'I'll take a knife and slit your throat,'" the girl said. "It just gets me upset and I just had it. I don't wanna go back home."
Explaining her terrible condition — she weighed only 70 pounds when she was taken to St. Mary's Hospital that day — the girl detailed for investigators how she was forced to live in the basement of the home at 4609 Treichel St. She described how she was starved and had to relieve herself in the basement, instead of in the bathroom upstairs, to avoid setting off an alarm on the basement door. She said she was sometimes forced by Chritton or Drabek-Chritton to eat her own feces as punishment.
She also said she was rarely fed, surviving only on occasional meals and whatever scraps of food she could find. She told police that she had also gotten into trouble for digging food out of the trash, the complaint states.
Within 10 days of being hospitalized on Feb. 6, she had gained more than 17 pounds, the complaint states, although at first she ate more than her frail digestive system could handle. Her height was that of an average 11-year-old and her initial weight was that of the average 9-year-old, the complaint states.
The girl and her family told police that she had initially attended Glendale Elementary School after moving to Wisconsin from Texas in 2006. But after being removed from school, the girl told police, her stepmother home schooled her. In the home police found only a third grade-book that appeared to have been used and several seventh-grade books that appeared never to have been opened.
The girl said her father told her that she has autism and Asperger's syndrome, among other disorders, but the girl said she was never medically diagnosed or took any medications for those conditions.
According to the complaint, the girl told police that she was kept in the basement because her father had told her he was trying to protect the rest of the family, and because of her behavior. Chritton told police that several knives had been found under the girl's bed and he believed she planned to hurt other family members. He also told police that she once stood over him with a knife.
But told about those statements, the girl appeared shocked and confused, and said her father was lying. She admitted once verbally threatening her stepmother but said she had never picked up a knife.
On Feb. 9, Chritton showed police security cameras he had set up by the basement door in addition to the alarm and a remote device he had to alert him to alarms from motion sensors, the complaint states.
A few days earlier, after Drabek-Chritton had reported the girl missing, a Madison police officer asked to see the girl's bedroom. Drabek-Chritton showed him the upstairs bedroom of her half-brothers and said it was the girl's room, never mentioning that the girl actually slept in the basement, according to the complaint.