Gravelles plead innocent in criminal case

Date: 2006-02-23

NORWALK -- Testimony during the first day of a hearing to determine if the 11 adopted children of Michael and Sharen Gravelle will be returned to their custody brought out stories of sexual abuse, abandonment and neglect of their biological children from other marriages, according to testimony yesterday.

Two of Michael Gravelles' biological children testified that they were treated as "boarders" in their home after the death of their mother. His eldest son also told the court how, as a teenager, he had to take his youngest brother to a runaway shelter and then his brother never came home again.

"Mr. and Mrs. Gravelle have a very complex history," testified Ronald Hughes, a mental health professional hired by the county Department of Job and Family Services, in hearing before Huron County Juvenile Judge Timothy Cardwell.

The 11 adopted children were removed from the couple's St. John Road home in Clarksfield Township last September after county authorities said some of the children were sleeping in "cages" or enclosed, home-made bunk beds, which were also used to punish the children.

"It was very institutionalized, inappropriately institutionalized. That type of control is something that is done in a kennel," said Hughes about the enclosures.

Also yesterday before the custody hearing, the Gravelles pleaded innocent to 30- count indictments that included charges of child endangering, falsification and perjury in connection with the care of the adopted children. A Sept. 12 joint trial date was set in Huron County Common Pleas Court. The Gravelles signed signature bonds for their release from custody during the joint arraignment hearing.

Reports submitted to Hughes indicated Sharen Gravelle's biological daughter was sexually molested for two years by Sharen Gravelle's previous husband, said Hughes.

Her ex-husband was convicted and sent to prison, but she allowed him to move back with her and her daughter after his release, said Hughes.

"This shows Sharen Gravelle's lack of ability to protect her children," said Hughes.

A clinical analysis was conducted on the Gravelles' current situation, which turned up "intense" results in regards to the likelihood of repeated abuse against the adopted children in the current home setting, said Hughes. The fact that the Gravelles have removed the enclosures didn't sway Hughes' opinion, he testified under questioning from defense attorney Kenneth Myers.

The family has a long history documented with Job and Family Services beginning before the Gravelles were married in Lorain County, said Hughes. "It was a pretty powerfully distressing case record," said Hughes.

Michael Gravelle's daughter, Jenna Gravelle, 31, of Elyria, testified yesterday her father fondled her in a sexual fashion during her childhood and made her touch him inappropriately on at least one occasion.

Though Jenna Gravelle couldn't remember when the conduct began, she recalled her father telling her it started when she was 8 or 9 years old, she testified.

Michael Gravelle took Jenna to Job and Family Services where he "signed a form" concerning the allegations, which stated Gravelle agreed to therapy "to control my inappropriate sexual behavior with my children," according to Jenna Gravelle's and Hughes' testimony.

When asked by Myers if she had misconstrued the fondling, Jenna Gravelle replied, "No. He turned himself in. I didn't turn him in. He did."

After the testimony, Myers said Michael Gravelle didn't sign the document and that Myers had not seen the document.

Much of the day's testimony surrounded reported "neglect" the couple's biological children faced when they lived in Elyria with the couple during the 1990s.

"Do you think your dad and Sharen intentionally treated you badly," asked Myers of Michael Gravelle's son, Jesse Gravelle, 33, who lives in New Mexico.

"I feel that we were abandoned and neglected. Yes," responded Jesse Gravelle.

The Gravelle siblings testified they were kept segregated on the first floor of their Ninth Street home in Elyria without proper food, clothing or appliances to care for themselves, such as a stove and laundry machines.

The "worst day" of Jesse Gravelle's life was when his father instructed him to take his youngest sibling, Timothy Gravelle, an adolescent, to a runaway shelter and the brother never came home, Jesse Gravelle testified.

"He cried the whole way there. I felt like I was abandoning him," said Jesse Gravelle of the last walk he took with his younger brother.

"Were you aware that (Timothy) became so unruly and hard to handle that Michael and Sharen couldn't handle it?" asked Myers.

"I wasn't aware of any attempts to handle it," said Jesse Gravelle.

"Abandoning your kids when you're frustrated is not the proper way to handle it," Jesse Gravelle told Myers when asked if Timothy's unruly behavior had contributed to the decision to take him to the shelter.

Jesse and Jenna Gravelle got along well with Michael Gravelle during their early years, prior to their mother's death, they testified.

Jesse Gravelle testified that his father was his baseball coach and took an interest in his life.

Family dinners and being cared for by their parents became a memory after their mother died and Sharen Gravelle moved in, the Gravelle children testified.

"There were times when I thought about reporting things that were going on in my home, but I was afraid," Jesse Gravelle said.

"Afraid of what?" asked Myers. "Afraid of it getting worse," Jesse Gravelle countered hotly.

The brother and sister testified they were "afraid" of Sharen Gravelle and had been told by their father that she had at one point fired a gun at him inside their home.

"I love my father and it's hard to testify against him. I fear Sharen and her reactions, but I don't fear my father ... I fear she'll come after me and (my eight-year-old) son," said Jenna Gravelle.

"The reason I came forward was because I don't feel those children should be returned. I'm not doing this to be vindictive. I just know how bad it was for me," said Jenna Gravelle.

When asked by Huron County Assistant Prosecutor Jennifer DeLand if they were contacted by social service agencies or anyone for references when Michael and Sharen Gravelle were adopting the children, the two siblings said no.

They also responded with "no" when asked by DeLand if they would have recommended Michael and Sharen Gravelle as adoptive parents.

The custody hearing is expected to continue today and Friday, according to the court.

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