VANCOUVER, Wash. - A Vancouver couple accused of imprisoning their two young autistic sons in what prosecutors call a cage listened quietly Monday during their first day of trial as they were accused of treating their boys cruelly.
John Eckhart and Alayna Higdon were arrested more than a year ago after a maintenance worker at their Vancouver apartment saw their 5- and 7-year-old boys being kept in their room behind a locked door made from metal shelving.
While the defense contends the couple had to confine the boys because of their severe autism, prosecutors say the couple simply didn't care how they treated their sons and were lazy and careless.
"Convenience, computer games, extended smoke breaks, these are the reasons that these defendants, John Eckhart and Alayna Higdon, kept two young boys locked behind a makeshift cage in a bedroom in their apartment," said senior deputy prosecutor Dustin Richardson.
Defense attorneys countered that the couple have neither training nor experience with severely autistic children.
"We would suggest it's not just reasonable what (Eckhart) did to raise his two children, but it was absolutely required to safely raise his children," said Jon McMullen, Eckhart's attorney.
Prosecutors say the boys often only wore diapers and their room only had a small, single mattress in it.
The maintenance worker, Willis Mousseau, who discovered all this in April 2011, took the stand, testifying he could smell urine in the room and saw what looked like saliva smeared on the window.
That window was also covered only by a sheet or blanket. He called police. Mousseau and a police officer both told jurors they could smell urine in the room where the boys were kept.
A photograph, introduced as evidence, showed the improvised wire doors the children were allegedly kept behind inside the apartment. The wire shelves were installed vertically and locked with a carabiner-type clasp.
One of the boys is now with his biological mother. The other is in foster care. The trial for Eckhart and Higdon is expected to last the rest of the week, and the couple may testify.
They are charged with imprisonment. If convicted, they face up to five years in prison.