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Allains to stand trial beginning this week

The Spring Hill couple accused of starving a 10-year-old girl in their care face minimum sentences of more than eight years in prison if found guilty.


BROOKSVILLE - Arthur and Lori Allain were arrested June 18, 2004, charged with child neglect and aggravated child abuse in connection with a dehydrated, malnourished, 29-pound 10-year-old girl allegedly kept behind a double-locked door in a trailer that reeked of urine and rotting food.

The Allains were the girl's "long-term, nonrelative caregivers," approved by the state Department of Children and Families.

Now, 12 pretrial hearings and more than 16 months later, their trial is set to begin this week. The trial was to start today but was delayed because county offices are closed because of Hurricane Wilma.

The trial promises to be one of Hernando County's biggest and most watched of the year, as this story's focus shifts from the mobile home in northwest Hernando's sparse landscape into Circuit Judge Jack Springstead's courtroom.

Arthur Allain, 47, is a truck driver.

Lori Allain, 49, is on disability because of a 1977 motorcycle crash and has a tattoo on her chest that says "Only God Can Judge Me."

Both of them face minimum sentences of more than eight years in state prison if they're found guilty. The maximum punishment is 30 years.

"There have been no real plea negotiations," Assistant State Attorney Sherry Byerly said last week from her office in Brooksville.

Byerly didn't want to talk specifics, she said, "but I can say that the state believes it can prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt."

She also said the girl and the girl's older half-brother are expected to testify.

The case led to an ugly, embarrassing postmortem for DCF, and "at least a dozen" DCF employees have been subpoenaed to testify, agency spokesman Al Zimmerman said last week.

"Obviously," Zimmerman said, "these were horrible allegations - these are horrible allegations - and we have been looking forward to the legal system playing itself out. A jury will decide guilt or innocence."

"It is time to have these cases resolved," Byerly said. "There's been more than adequate time for everyone to prepare for trial."

Robert Christensen of Homosassa is Lori Allain's lawyer. Elliott Ambrose of Brooksville is Arthur Allain's state-appointed public defender. Neither responded to multiple messages left with his office by the Times.

Phone messages or business cards were left at the homes of the Allains' two older daughters, who live in Spring Hill, and at the Allains' Spring Hill house.

No response.

Except, that is, from Lori Allain, who left a voice mail message on a reporter's cell phone one night last week at 12:32 a.m.

"I'm going to tell you what ...," she said. "Get up off my family. Got it? And you can quote me on that."

All of this started in May 2004 when the girl's brother ran away and told sheriff's deputies that he had been threatened for sneaking medicine and food to his sister underneath a locked door.

In a bedroom near the rear of the mobile home, with no bed, no furniture and nothing to do, officials said, the girl was forced to go to the bathroom on the floor or in a paint bucket that was cleaned out only every once in a while.

Her eyes were sunken.

Her cheeks were hollow.

Her skin draped over her ribs.

She was 60 pounds less than the norm for her age and was "at risk of imminent death," a DCF attorney later said, when she was taken to All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg - where she reportedly quickly gained 23 pounds.

Privacy laws prevent DCF from disclosing where the girl and her half-brother are living now or how they've been doing.

In the immediate aftermath, though, the birth mother of the children, Sonya Guntor, blamed the Allains. And the Allains blamed DCF for not giving them more help. And DCF blamed its caseworkers for not spotting red flags.

DCF Secretary Jerry Regier acknowledged the agency had mishandled the case and ordered an independent review.

The review found "a pattern of torture and starvation."

And months of initial fallout revealed two children who already had had it tough.

The girl and the girl's brother were removed from Guntor's custody in 1999. Guntor's record includes arson, writing bad checks and driving under the influence - with the children in the car - and the kids had been neglected and beaten with a belt, according to records.

First came foster care.

Then, in 2000, the children were placed with the Allains - friends with Guntor.

The Allains became the long-term caregivers in 2002.

They doled out punishments, according to records, like withholding food and giving bad haircuts.

"The Allains, not DCF, are responsible for torturing these children," Miami Circuit Judge Scott Bernstein, a member of the independent task force, wrote in a report. "The difficult question for DCF in this case is how the Allains got away with it for so long."

After all, in May 2002, an adoption agency deemed the Allains unfit caretakers.

Their criminal record, including felony drug trafficking charges and drunken driving convictions, should have disqualified them as caregivers.

Each also has filed for bankruptcy three times.

But Lori Allain said the girl suffered from an eating disorder that made her gorge herself until vomiting - the result of neglect, she claimed, while with the biological mother. She said she and her husband were better caregivers than Guntor.

DCF caseworkers did document some warning signs. But nothing was done.

In February 2002, when DCF decided to make the Allains the long-term caregivers, two evaluators visited the mobile home set back from the limerock road called Hurricane Drive.

One described an environment that was "disorganized and a safety hazard."

The other saw something else.

"These children," that evaluator wrote, "... are very lucky to have the Allains."

--Michael Kruse can be reached at 352 848-1434 or mkruse@sptimes.com

2005 Oct 24