Behind closed doors

Date: 2005-09-14

ALEX M. PARKER

But beneath the surface, they were clearly suffering, Huron County Sheriff Dick Sutherland said.

"You could see it in their faces," Sutherland said. "I can't believe this type of thing would go on in the community, and go on and be undetected."

The sheriff's office executed a search warrant at the home on Friday, hours after a county children services investigator made an unannounced visit to the house and saw nine wooden and wire cages -- two of which had children in them, authorities said.

The children's adoptive parents, Michael and Sharen Gravelle, have not been charged. Huron County Prosecutor Russell Leffler said his office has filed 11 complaints with the Huron County Juvenile Court, including nine complaints of abuse and neglect and two involving dependents living at the home. The complaints are not against specific people, said Leffler.

The sheriff's office said they are investigating possible criminal charges of abuse and neglect, and would present the evidence to the prosecutor.

"There's personal opinion, and then there's legal opinion," Sutherland said. "Personally, I think this should be looked into with great depth."

Michael and Sharen Gravelle denied on Monday during a court hearing that they had been abusive.

According to the search warrant filed by the sheriff's office, the couple told the investigator the cages were used to protect the children from themselves and each other.

After they were removed from the home, each child passed with a clean bill of health with no signs of abuse, such as bruising or malnourishment, according to the Department of Job and Family services.

The children ranged in age from 1 to 14 and had some developmental problems, including autism and fetal alcohol syndrome, Down syndrome, HIV and reactive detachment disorder, according to the warrant.

The sheriff's office believes that at least nine of the 11 children slept in the cages, which were all about 40 inches high, 30 inches wide and 4 feet deep. The cages had no pillows, and few blankets or mattresses, according to the sheriff's office.

The cages were not locked, but some were set with wire alarms, which would go off if any of the children tried to get out, according to the sheriff's office. Two cages were blocked by a large dresser, the warrant said.

The prosecutor's office has refused to release photos of the cages, saying that it could compromise the integrity of the investigation.

"If you could see these pictures, you'd be appalled," Sutherland said. "A picture speaks a million words."

In one of the cages, the wire had been pulled in and snapped, Sutherland said.

"It takes a lot of determination to rip that wire," Sutherland said.

The oldest child, a girl of 14, told the investigators that she had been adopted by the family seven years ago.

The children were adopted through private adoption agencies, the sheriff's office said, but there is no more information about which agencies the couple used, or if they did any house visits or inspections of the family.

"It's a part of the investigation," Sutherland said.

The two bedrooms the children slept in had none of the toys or playthings many young children are used to having, according to sheriff's Lt. Randy Sommers.

"Normally, when you've got a house full of kids you have a house full of toys," said Sommers, the investigating officer for the case. "This bleakness of this house was really quite drastic."

Their cages were stacked two cages high in two rooms without air conditioning, according to the sheriff's office. Some of the cages were painted blue, with splashes of other colors, apparently decorated by the children, said Sutherland.

The children rarely ventured outside the immediate area of their home as they were home schooled and they attended a church that the Gravelles built on their property, according to the sheriff's office.

The Gravelles also didn't take the children to church because of their race as the Gravelles felt they would not be accepted, said Sharen Gravelle's mother, Mildred Brent Timperman, 84, who lives in a home on the south side of the Gravelles' home. The children are black and the Gravelles are white.

Erich Dumbeck, director of the Huron County Department of Job and Family Services said the couple also built on to their home to make more room for the children.

The children were often seen playing outside, especially on the skateboarding ramp that the family built against their church, according to the sheriff's office.

Sommers said that the children reacted casually when he came to investigate the parents.

"They all stopped and looked at us. They looked at us for 20 seconds, and then just went on playing," Sommers said. "I never saw what I'd describe as fear."

Sutherland agreed.

"They knew we were here for a reason," Sutherland said.

When inspecting the cages Sommers began talking to the family, who said they hadn't done anything wrong. When Michael Gravelle called his attorney, Sommers said he stopped interviewing them, because he was worried of compromising their legal rights.

"They were all nice, polite and well-spoken," Sutherland said of the children.

The sheriff's office said they weren't worried about the couple fleeing to escape possible charges.

"I think they've got too much involved in their denial," he said. "They don't think they've done anything wrong."

Sutherland said the couple told investigators they had been instructed by a psychiatrist to use the cages, but added he didn't take the statement seriously.

"They were just grabbing at straws," he said.

Someone recently called the sheriff's office and said he had seen the children in cages more than a year ago. Because of the time lapse, the sheriff's office didn't have probable cause to enter their home, so they decided to see if the family would let the children services investigator in to inspect the home, according Sommers. After they did, the Norwalk Municipal Court Judge John Ridge quickly approved a search warrant, which was executed at 5:30 p.m. Friday.

According to documents provided by the Huron County Common Pleas Court, in 2001, Sharen Gravelle filed for a legal separation, claiming that Michael Gravelle had committed "extreme cruelty and gross neglect of duty."

In papers filed through the court, Michael Gravelle replied that he cared for and loved the adopted children.

"We have done our best to provide a decent home for several needy children and I dearly love them," he wrote, "I have done nothing wrong to the children in the house."

According to the records, the children were initially foster children, who were eventually adopted.

Gravelle also said in court papers that that his wife received $4,265 per month from adoptions subsidies and Social Security when the couple had seven children.

The request for separation was eventually dismissed.

Michael and Sharen were married in Elyria in 1987, according to records from the court. In other court filings from 1989, the address for the family was listed as 336 Ninth St., Elyria.

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