exposing the dark side of adoption
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Hernando couple guilty of starving child



BROOKSVILLE - Lori and Arthur "Tommy" Allain were found guilty Friday of starving nearly to death a 10-year-old girl who was in their care.

Almost two years after authorities took the 29-pound girl from the Allains' double-wide mobile home in rural northwest Hernando County, the jury took 31/2 hours to find the couple guilty of aggravated child abuse and child neglect.

They face up to 45 years in prison. Sentencing was set for April 6.

The court clerk read the verdicts at 5:37 p.m. in the still courtroom of Circuit Judge Jack Springstead.

The Allains' four biological teenage sons started crying and were heard screaming later in the lobby men's room.

Sheriff's deputies escorted the defense attorneys to their cars. "I'm disappointed with the results," said Elliott Ambrose, Tommy Allain's attorney.

The case began in May 2004 when the girl's brother, who wasn't being starved, ran away and told authorities what was happening to his sister. The Allains, the girl's long-term, state-approved caregivers, were arrested a month later. But they skipped the start of their trial in late October and were on the run until they were arrested in January in New Jersey.

While on the run, and later in the Hernando County Jail, the Allains told the St. Petersburg Times that the girl had an eating disorder that made her throw up, that they didn't get enough help from the state Department of Children and Families and that the girl was small because of fetal alcohol syndrome and a neglectful mother.

But there were certain facts in this case and about the girl even the defense attorneys said were unavoidable and irrefutable:

She weighed 30 pounds in 1999. She was 5.

She weighed 29 pounds in 2004. She was 10.

She now weighs more than 70 pounds. She turns 12 Monday.

The trial ultimately pitted defense witnesses against facts presented by the state - dates and weights and doctors' diagnoses. State experts testified that there was only one explanation for the girl's condition in May 2004: She wasn't being fed.

Wednesday's testimony was the most emotional. The girl, whose name is not being published because of the nature of the charges, held a stuffed-animal and told the jury in a soft voice how the Allains starved her.

Thursday's testimony had a harder edge. Prosecutor Sherry Byerly spent the day centering the state's case on stark before-and-after photos and a blown-up growth chart that showed the girl's graphic lack of development when she lived with the Allains. A doctor testified that the girl would have died if she had stayed at the Allains' mobile home.

On Friday, Ambrose and Robert Christensen, the Allains' court-appointed attorneys, painted their clients as the heads of a working-class family with limited resources. Lori Allain was portrayed as a well-meaning mother who did the best she could but was overwhelmed.

The defense rested after 2-1/2 hours. Neither Lori Allain, 49, nor Tommy Allain, 48, testified.

"Lori Allain was doing everything she knew how to do," Christensen said in court.

"Tom Allain knows about this child only by what Lori Allain is telling him," Ambrose said.

The state's tactic on Friday was simple. Byerly had photos of the girl from 2002 and photos of the girl from 2004. She showed them to family members and friends of the Allains who took the stand and asked all of them if they saw any difference.

Some said no. They said the Allains were loving. More than one of them used the word "petite" to describe the girl.

Byerly pressed them.

Kristen Staab, 23, one of the Allains' two grown daughters who live in Spring Hill, finally admitted there was a difference.

"She looks like she - she looks like she's got a problem," Staab said.

Byerly asked 14-year-old James Allain if any of his brothers had ever been that thin.

"No," the boy said.

Christensen tried in closing arguments to raise doubts about the Allain's intent. "I want you to think about motive," he told jurors. "Why would she do this? Why? It doesn't make any sense."

Byerly countered: "Sometimes we don't know why someone does something."

The Allains stood as the court clerk read the verdicts, metal cuffs around their ankles. Chains shackled them to the floor, and to each other.

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

2006 Mar 17