exposing the dark side of adoption
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Bradenton Herald, The (FL)

Author: Natalie Neysa Alund, Herald Staff Writer

BRADENTON --- Shortly after her younger brother died in 1995, 8-year-old Brenda Preston told authorities that their adopted mother did not abuse him.

But Preston's story changed Tuesday, during the murder trial of Heather Ciambrone --- her adopted mother at the time.

Preston, now 20, told a Manatee County jury why she denied the abuse 12 years ago.

"I thought I'd be . . . going back home, felt very scared," said Preston in the first day of testimony in Ciambrone's first-degree murder trial.

The 38-year-old woman is charged in the May 1995 death of her 7-year-old adopted son, Lucas, stemming from what prosecutors called "long standing abuse" at the family's Rubonia home.

Heather Ciambrone in 2001 pleaded no contest to killing Lucas and was sentenced to 55 years in prison. Last year, the conviction was overturned by an appeals court ruling that she was misled about how much time she would have to serve in prison. Her husband, Joseph Ciambrone, is serving life in prison for the boy's death.

Dabbing her eyes, Preston testified Ciambrone abused Lucas daily.

"She would come from behind him and pick him up by his ears off the ground . . . maybe 4 or 5 inches off the ground," Preston said. "He was in a lot of pain. He would scream and cry very loudly."

Preston, who said she and her brother were home-schooled, said Ciambrone would often lock her and Lucas in the bathroom at their home on 82nd Street East.

"The floor was cold," she testified. "We'd stand in the dark. Lucas would be standing naked."

The children often ate dry noodles and oatmeal out of a plastic bucket in the bathroom, Preston testified.

The beatings would lessen when Joseph Ciambrone, who worked for a snack food company, would come home.

"I don't think it could have got any worse," said Preston, who was removed from the Ciambrone household and eventually adopted by an Ohio family.

Under cross-examination by defense Attorney Jennifer Fury, Preston admitted she previously told authorities that her parents never hurt her brother and that he pulled his own ears or hurt them when he wrestled with people. She also testified he had bit their mother.

During opening statements, Assistant State Attorney Jeff Quisenberry said Lucas died May 13, 1995, after spending about two days at Manatee Memorial Hospital and All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg. Quisenberry said testimony will reveal that Lucas died from trauma to his brain, similar to shaken-baby syndrome.

Prosecutors also plan to show during the trial the boy was malnourished and emaciated. He added that when Lucas died he weighed 32 pounds, had four broken ribs and numerous bruises and abrasions over his entire body. His ears were partially torn from his head.

Doctors will testify that the abuse occurred for some time, Quisenberry said.

Defense attorneys contend there were "facets not investigated" in the case, including Lucas' mental and physical health.

The defense said it plans to present testimony about attachment disorder, how a child becomes the way he is and how families respond.

Ciambrone's other attorney, Adam Tebrugge, told jurors Lucas was a troubled child. Before Lucas was adopted, he lived with his biological mother and stepfather, who abused him.

As a result, he was placed with the Ciambrones, Tebrugge said.

"Some children who go through this trauma at an early age don't form normal bonds of attachment with new parents, don't respond to discipline, logic, love or reason. Instead, this child traumatized the rest of their family and the parents tried to protect the child and their family."

Lucas often fought with his brothers and sisters, Tebrugge said He would urinate and defecate throughout the home as defiant acts and his eating habits were unpredictable.

Lucas was locked in the bathroom for his own protection and the protection of the family, Tebrugge said.

"Heather's actions toward Lucas were not motivated by malice. She was instead an increasingly desperate woman," Tebrugge said.

Hank Mallol, a detective formerly with the Manatee County Sheriff's Office, testified Ciambrone told him she took Lucas to the hospital after finding him slumped over the tub in the bathroom.

Mallol also testified Ciambrone told him Lucas was homicidal and suicidal and had a history of fits.

When Mallol visited the Ciambrone's home that night, he said that, the bathroom where Lucas was kept was bare. It had no light, no toilet paper, no rug and no shower curtain. He also testified he did not see any toys.

Testimony is expected to resume at 9 a.m. today.

2007 May 10