Father blames abuse on wife

Date: 1997-12-12

The Tampa Tribune

Author: SALLY KESTIN; of The Tampa Tribune

BRADENTON -- A man on trial in the death of his son denies harming the boy, but says he should have stopped the abuse.

Joseph Ciambrone admitted Thursday to locking his son in a bathroom and feeding him out of a bucket but blamed his wife for starving and abusing the boy.

Testifying in his first-degree murder trial, Ciambrone said he was wrong not to stop the abuse of his adopted son, Lucas.

"I think I was just so close to the picture that I was blind," he said. "I let Lucas down. I just didn't stop it. I didn't say, "Enough.' "

Prosecutor Deno Economou attacked Ciambrone for not intervening or taking Lucas to a doctor. Ciambrone admitted knowing his son was "severely malnutritioned."

When he died May 13, 1995, the 7-year-old weighed just 32 pounds and had hundreds of scars and injuries. A child-abuse expert testified this week that Lucas was more emaciated than many starving children in Africa.

Doctors also testified that Lucas was abused for months. The boy had seven broken ribs, some as old as 2 months, hundreds of puncture wounds and scars all over his body, including his genitals.

Defense lawyer Charles Williams showed Ciambrone autopsy photos of his son's battered body and asked him to explain the injuries.

"I don't have an explanation," he said. "The last time I saw him alive, I didn't see that."

Ciambrone testified that Lucas was fine when he left for work the day the child received a fatal blow to the head. The boy was home alone with Ciambrone's wife, Heather, whom he described as the primary disciplinarian and caretaker of the children.

Ciambrone said he never noticed many of the scars on the child. He said he did see bruises but attributed those to Lucas' penchant for hurting himself.

Ciambrone described the boy as unruly from the time he first arrived as a foster child in 1991. Over time, his behavior worsened, he said.

Lucas urinated and defecated around the house, ripped the heads and arms off toys and burst into violent rages, striking out at his parents and other children in the home, Ciambrone said.

The Ciambrones took Lucas to psychiatrists but ended the visits in 1993 after one social worker told them Lucas would not likely improve, Joseph Ciambrone testified.

The couple used conventional discipline on Lucas such as time-outs in the bathroom when he misbehaved, he said. But two other children adopted by the Ciambrones have testified that Lucas was locked in his bedroom or the bathroom for days at a time, often naked.

Ciambrone said locks were installed on the outside of both rooms after Lucas and his sister wandered off in the middle of the night.

He admitted to forcing Lucas to sleep in the bathroom but only after discovering the boy, then 7, and his 8-year-old sister having sexual intercourse one night.

"We were devastated," Ciambrone said. "We had to put them in separate rooms."

He denied locking his son in the bathroom for days and said it was his wife's idea to feed him out of a bucket.

"There was no intention to be hateful," Ciambrone testified. "We were faced with a situation that was beyond our control. We didn't know which way to turn. We were frustrated, exhausted."

Prosecutor Economou asked Ciambrone why he never reported the sexual encounter between Lucas and his sister to anyone and suggested it was "an excuse" to explain why the boy was locked in the bathroom.

Under questioning by Economou, Ciambrone admitted that Lucas slept on the concrete floor of the bathroom with no blanket or pillow. He admitted noticing his emaciated son's ribs protruding when he hugged the boy but never took him to a doctor.

"There are things that I see now that I didn't see then," he said. "It just went too far. We should have taken him back to (the social services agency) and said, "We can't deal with him anymore.' "

Ciambrone testified that he cooked scrambled eggs and potatoes for the family on May 10, 1995, the day before Lucas was hospitalized unconscious. An autopsy revealed the only food in Lucas' stomach was a raw potato.

"There's a lot I should have done," Ciambrone said, sobbing. "If I would have put my foot down, if I would have said, "Heather, stop this now,' ... we wouldn't be here in this room and my son would be alive. It's my fault."

Testimony concluded Thursday. The case is expected to go to the jury today. If convicted, Ciambrone faces life in prison.

Heather Ciambrone's trial has been postponed indefinitely while she undergoes treatment for depression. She also is charged with first-degree murder.

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