Police ponder more child abuse charges

Date: 2004-06-30

By TONYA SMITH-KING
The Jackson Sun

Gibson Co. couple arraigned as investigators keep digging

TRENTON - A couple who had 18 children taken from their home last week over child abuse and neglect charges, as well as related allegations, maintained their innocence Tuesday as the FBI prepared to comb through computers confiscated from their home in search of evidence that could lead to other charges.

Thomas and Debra Schmitz were arraigned Tuesday in Gibson County General Sessions Court. Debra, 44, is charged with three counts of aggravated child abuse and one count of child abuse and neglect. Tom, 45, is charged with one count of aggravated child abuse and one count of child abuse and neglect. Both are out on bond.

Judge James Webb set a preliminary hearing for 1 p.m. Aug. 17.

The charges stem from several incidents involving two 14-year-old girls, Gibson County Sheriff Joe Shepard said Tuesday. The charges include allegations that Debra Schmitz threw a knife at one girl, striking her in the shoulder, and that both Schmitzes held down the other girl in the bathroom and lanced a boil beneath her arm with a rusty box cutter.

The search warrant contains a number of other allegations the Schmitzes have not been charged with, based on observations of two nurses in the home. It contains allegations of children being locked for hours at a time in a storm cellar, one child being beaten with a steel wire brush and that the Schmitzes had records of "swapped, traded and interchanged children in the home" on their home computers.

"That's what I'm trying to figure out right now," Shepard said of the Internet-related allegation. "That's what I'm really looking into."

He was expecting experts from the FBI to start work Tuesday combing through computers obtained through the search warrant. Shepard expects other charges to be filed.

One nurse said Debra Schmitz introduced her to an Internet group specializing in children from disrupted adoptions and told the nurse "that she (Debra Schmitz) could get a child through the Web site within three weeks and would not have to go through the Department of Children's Services," the search warrant said.

The Department of Children's Services removed 18 children, ranging in age from 1 to 17, from the home outside Trenton on June 21. Some children have special needs.

Seven or eight children have made statements that they were abused, Shepard said. Some of their statements correspond with the nurses', and police found items described by the nurses during their search of the home, Shepard said.

An 18-year-old and a 14-year-old who had lived at the home are the Schmitzes' biological children, the search warrant said. Ten others were adopted. The rest were respite children not under DCS's "sanction or supervision," according to the search warrant.

The couple formerly lived in Howard, Wis.

The Schmitzes are being represented by separate attorneys, both of whom said they were retained Monday.

"My client is saying she is not guilty," Debra Schmitz's attorney, C. Michael Robbins of Memphis, said following the arraignment. "My client is saying she wants the children back."

Tom Schmitz is represented by Frank Deslauriers of Covington.

"He's obviously denying the charges," Deslauriers said.

Those attending court with the couple Tuesday included Tom's parents and the Schmitzes' son, Deslauriers said.

The Schmitzes were due in Gibson County Juvenile Court at 1 p.m. Tuesday on a separate "dependent neglect action," Robbins said.

A protective custody order prevents the Schmitzes from having any contact with the children, Juvenile Court Clerk Lee Hayes said. Judge Robert Newell ruled Tuesday that the order would remain, Hayes added. A full hearing is scheduled for July 27.

Robbins requested a General Sessions hearing on his belief that on three of Debra Schmitz's charges the affidavit in support of a warrant is "insufficient to state an offense."

He explained after court that the warrants "must recite language that amounts to that offense." He added a fourth charge alleging Debra Schmitz threw the knife and struck a 14-year-old girl in her shoulder "is marginal, it's close."

Judge Webb said he'd take that matter up on Aug. 17.

Two other incidents the Schmitzes are charged with allege Debra Schmitz attacked a 14-year-old girl with scissors and cut off all her hair and told a 14-year-old girl to "dig her own grave." Tom Schmitz is charged in the latter incident because he allegedly had knowledge of his wife saying this, according to the arrest warrant.

The arrest warrants indicate the Schmitzes are charged only with telling the girl to dig a grave. But one nurse "personally knows" children were forced to dig their own graves and were told by the couple "they could be killed and buried in the backyard and no one will care," the search warrant said.

One allegation in the search warrant not mentioned in a recent article in The Jackson Sun said a nurse observed a 14-year-old girl forced to pull weeds in a garden outside the home until 1 a.m. with no light. The girl was covered in mosquito bites, the search warrant said.

The nurse also reported seeing Debra Schmitz yell at the same girl, slap her and slam her head into the kitchen counter in an effort to get the girl "to admit to something she did not do," the search warrant said.

Debra Schmitz grabbed the girl by her long hair and started cutting "large chunks out of her hair each time she denied doing what she was accused of doing," the search warrant said. The girl's hair was cut off to a length of 1 to 3 inches. Debra Schmitz then took the girl's glasses "so she could not see" and began throwing the cut hair at her, "calling her a slut," and telling her she was "no good," that "no one wants you" and that "I could kill you, and no one would care," the search warrant said.

The nurse said Debra Schmitz told her she was going to home-school the girl because she was afraid she'd talk, the search warrant said.

When asked about Debra Schmitz's possible bid to regain custody of the children, Shepard said, "I pray to God that they don't get them back."

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