Fatal abuse case still awaits trial five years later

Date: 2000-05-13

Fatal abuse case still awaits trial five years later

Lucas Ciambrone's adoptive father is serving life; his adoptive mother goes to trial in the fall

May 13, 2000
Barrouquere, Brett
Sarasota Herald Tribune

Investigators called it the worst case of child abuse ever uncovered in Manatee County.

When 7-year-old Lucas Ciambrone died in 1995, his body had more than 200 bruises, scars and cuts in various stages of healing. Investigators said Lucas' adoptive parents tortured him for years. They said his parents forced him to eat scant meals from a bucket and repeatedly locked him in a room as punishment for misbehavior.

He died five years ago today, after slipping into a coma.

But the case continues.

Heather Ciambrone, the adoptive mother who prosecutors say tortured Lucas, is scheduled for trial in October. Questions about her mental state and her ability to stand trial have delayed the trial an unusually long time.

Ciambrone, 31, is claiming in court records that she was insane at the time Lucas died. Her husband, 46-year-old Joseph Ciambrone, was convicted of first-degree murder in 1997. He is "a model inmate" serving life in prison in the Florida Panhandle, said Deb Buchanan, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections.

Lucas' abuse and death drew statewide attention, prompting Gov. Lawton Chiles to appoint a panel to investigate the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, now the Department of Children and Families.

"All of us dropped the ball on that one," said Dr. Charles Mahan, a University of South Florida professor who studied Lucas' case for the state. "We're still paying for those mistakes."

At the time of his death, Lucas weighed 27 to 32 pounds and was covered with injuries. He'd fallen into a coma two days earlier.

Doctors said the head injury that killed Lucas could not have been accidental or self-inflicted. Heather Ciambrone told investigators that Lucas slammed his head against a wall during a temper tantrum about an hour before she took him to the hospital on May 13, 1995.

Deputies suspect that the Ciambrones abused Lucas physically, psychologically and socially for four years, beginning a few months after he became one of their foster children in 1991. The Ciambrones cared for about 30 foster children at various times and were able to adopt Lucas in the years before charges were leveled against them.

During Joseph Ciambrone's 1997 trial, Lucas' sister recounted the abuse. Assistant State Attorney Jeff Quisenberry pointed to various parts of his body, asking the young girl if her brother was hit in those places.

Brenda Garcia said yes, Heather Ciambrone had thrown Lucas to the floor, kicked and punched him, and held his head under water. Sometimes, her adoptive father, Joseph Ciambrone, was in the Rubonia house when the acts occurred, the girl said in 1997.

"I don't think that kid had a happy day as long as he lived," Mahan said.

Mahan said the Ciambrone case is a good example of what was wrong with the state agency conducting child-abuse investigations without help from law-enforcement officers.

"There were just all kinds of red flags there. Nobody caught any of them," Mahan said.

As a result of the case, investigations are now done jointly by the Manatee County Sheriff's Office and the Department of Children and Families. The pairing allows for better preservation of evidence and a more complete investigation, Mahan said. In turn, more abuse cases are caught at an earlier stage than was Lucas', he said.

The joint investigations, which have been in place for about two years, have worked well enough to get the attention of other Florida counties, including Pinellas and Broward.

Other children once living in the Ciambrone house have been placed with other families. Brenda Garcia is living with family in Ohio; a younger adoptive brother is in Southwest Florida.

Assistant State Attorney Bruce Lee, who is working with Quisenberry in prosecuting the case, said there is work to be done before the trial. Heather Ciambrone's insanity defense will require a review of statements taken four or five years ago, as well as new statements, Lee said.

And Quisenberry will have to walk Brenda through the details of her brother's death a few more times between now and October.

"I've made quite a few trips to Ohio to talk to her," Quisenberry said. "I'm sure I'll make a few more."

Staff writer Brett Barrouquere can be contacted at 742-6163 or brett.barrouquere@herald-trib.com.

Ciambrone case time line

Investigations into Lucas Ciambrone's life began when he was a toddler. Five years after the 7-year-old's death, his adoptive father is serving life in prison. His adoptive mother awaits trial in October.

1988

A boy, who later is to be given the adopted name Lucas Ciambrone, is born. His biological mother, who was in junior high when she gave birth to his older sister, lives in foster care pending her 18th birthday.

1990

Lucas, now 2, lives with his mother and her husband, Erasmo Adame Briseno. (The man is not Lucas' father). Reports of abuse against children in the household are lodged.

1991

More abuse is reported. Lucas' mother is murdered. Her husband is the prime suspect. Lucas enters foster care.

1992

Lucas' stay with the Ciambrones as a foster child is marked with a psychiatric hospitalization, missed school days, a fractured elbow and a marked increase in unruly, violent behavior.

1993

The Ciambrones adopt Lucas. The first and only abuse report is received regarding their treatment of Lucas.

1995

Lucas dies. His parents are charged with murder. Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles demands an investigation into HRS, the state agency charged with overseeing the care of abused or parentless children.

1996

HRS works to terminate the Ciambrones' parental rights; the governor's panel recommends increased funding for HRS; Legislature cuts HRS budget.

1997

Joseph Ciambrone is convicted of first-degree murder in December and sentenced to life in prison. On the eve of the trial, Heather Ciambrone is found incompetent to stand trial and is sent to a state mental hospital.

2000

Heather Ciambrone is found competent to stand trial. Her attorney says the adoptive mother intends to rely on insanity as a defense against the charge of first-degree murder. A trial is scheduled for October.

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