Oklahoma boy says his mother, her friend beat him regularly, set him on fire over food

By Sean Murphy, AP
Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Okla. boy says mom, her friend beat him over food

OKLAHOMA CITY — Bernell McCall used his scarred wrists to tell part of his story: Showing them to a judge Wednesday, he said his mother and her friend often bound him or locked him in a closet for “stealing” food from the family’s kitchen.

The Oklahoma County judge later ordered LaRhonda Marie McCall, 37, and Steve Vern Hamilton, 38, to stand trial on multiple counts of felony child abuse. Both have pleaded not guilty.

According to the boy, who is now in foster care, his mother and Hamilton would use twine, a telephone cord or plastic ties to bind him, whichever was handy, and put him in a closet, the boy said, lifting his arms toward the judge.

“Sometimes they would leave me in there for a couple of nights before I got free,” the 15-year-old said.

Half-siblings would risk punishment by sneaking him food while their mother was away, he said in a cold, unemotional courtroom recitation.

“I remember her saying ‘Die’ and that she regretted having me,” Bernell McCall testified, telling the judge that his mother and Hamilton often choked him until he passed out.

At times during the hearing, his mother shook her head in disagreement.

“I think there’s a lot more to the story than what we heard today,” LaRhonda McCall’s attorney, Brian Young, said after the hearing. “We’ve only heard from two witnesses today. There will be a lot more at trial.”

Young said there were inconsistencies between the boy’s testimony and what he told police.

The teenager said Wednesday that the abuse began shortly after he moved from New Jersey to Oklahoma at age 10 to live with a mother he had never known. He said he was punished for taking food from the kitchen, with beatings, bindings or isolation occurring about four times a week. His mother once doused him with rubbing alcohol and set him ablaze, he alleged.

“All of a sudden I was in a blue flame,” Bernell McCall testified. He said he had many scars on his upper legs but didn’t show them to the judge.

Other items used as weapons against him included an extension cord, a two-by-four, a bike chain and a car jack.

At one point, he said, his mother and Hamilton tied him to a ladder in the garage and covered him with sugar water. “The sugar attracted the bugs in the garage. They started to bite me.” At other times he was put out in the snow naked.

He never went to school.

Malnourished and covered with bruises and scars, the boy escaped on Sept. 25, working free of his bindings and walking 1 1/2 miles to a National Guard armory. He has since gained 42 pounds. His siblings, who apparently were not abused, also have been placed in other homes.

Bernell McCall — family members gave conflicting spellings of his name; one relative spelled it Burnell — said he lived with a female cousin in New Jersey but traveled to Oklahoma five years ago to meet his mother and half-sisters. “I wasn’t expecting to stay,” he testified.

Prosecutor Gayland Gieger said that when the boy arrived in Oklahoma, he was a “normal-sized kid.”

Daryl McCall of Cumming, Ga., the boy’s uncle, said his sister had been estranged from the family for years and he was stunned by the stories his nephew told.

“It’s mind-boggling to hear this abuse had been going on for so long,” Daryl McCall said during a break in the hearing. He said he hadn’t seen his sister since 2002 but visited her in jail last weekend — when she proclaimed her innocence.

“It’s really hard to gauge how much is youthful exaggeration,” he said. “It’s hurtful to hear this having happened to my nephew.”

The boy’s mother faces 33 child abuse counts and Hamilton is named in 24 counts. Both also are charged with child neglect for allegedly withholding food from the boy.

McCall was convicted of second-degree manslaughter in New York in 1996 in the death of her 2-year-old daughter and served six months in jail. Prosecutors in that case alleged McCall, who then went by LaRhonda Presley, essentially starved the toddler, who died in February 1995.

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