The stench of urine and feces overwhelmed Detective Juli Johnson as she and other Fort Bend County Sheriff's Office deputies made their way upstairs and into the room where seven special-needs children had been locked away.
The bedroom windows had been boarded up with plywood, and deadbolts had been placed on all of the doors, including the closet. Soiled clothes were scattered about the room. A deflated air mattress rested in the corner. Black mold decorated the ceiling, and the carpet was ripped up in various places to reveal sharp metal staples in the floor.
"I'd never encountered this in my 27 years," Johnson told the Houston Press. "It was just heartbreaking."
For an untold amount of years or months, it was in these conditions that the seven adopted children, ages 13 to 16, were kept for what seems to be 24 hours a day, Johnson said. In interviews, the children said they had never been to school, were beaten with a paddle if they made too much noise and were locked in the closet whenever their adopted mother or her husband left the house.
In fact, two of three mentally or physically disabled men who lived in the group home the pair operated downstairs said they did not even know children lived in the house, Johnson said.
The children — one of whom has Down syndrome and was found in a dirty diaper — were finally released from the hospital Tuesday and have been placed in a foster home together, Child Protective Services confirmed. Their adopted mother, 54-year-old Paula Sinclair, and her husband, 78-year-old Allen Richardson, have been charged with aggravated kidnapping and felony injury to a child, and remain in the Fort Bend County Jail in lieu of $200,000 bail.
On Wednesday, Johnson took the Houston Press through a timeline of the sheriff's office's involvement with the family, who lived in the Richmond area, which began in 2011.
That year, an eighth child, whom Sinclair had adopted with her ex-husband, Larry Sinclair, died of what doctors concluded were "natural causes." According to the sheriff's office, the seven-year-old child had cerebral palsy, was blind and could not speak — but the authorities did not launch an investigation into the child's death since it was described as natural. No investigation will be reopened, Johnson said.
It wasn't until late 2015 and early 2016 that sheriff's deputies went out to the residence again. Johnson said deputies were called to the house twice in that time period for calls related to the adults with disabilities: once after a man threatened to commit suicide or harm himself, and again after an argument between one of the men and the couple became so heated that Sinclair made a domestic disturbance call. Johnson said it was unclear whether the children or their conditions were observed at that time.
But months later, in April, a sheriff's deputy went back — this time after receiving a call about possible child abuse in the home.
The deputy, however, never made it upstairs to see the children's living conditions, Johnson said. (It is unclear if the parents would not allow her to go or she chose not to ask; Johnson was not certain). Instead, Sinclair and Richardson simply brought the children downstairs, told the deputy the kids were home-schooled and "made the deputy believe that things in the house were better than what they were," Johnson said. "Based on the information she was given at the time she went out there, there was nothing to make her suspicious that this might not be anything more than teenagers being unruly."
The deputy had still generated a summary of the visit and sent it to CPS, but Johnson said that for whatever reason the case was closed at intake, and did not meet CPS's criteria to open an investigation. (CPS spokeswoman Tiffanie Butler did not return a phone call asking for an explanation of those criteria.)
That changed when CPS got another call in November on its anonymous tip hotline, with more concerns about the conditions of the children. It was serious enough that an investigator traveled out to the home and asked Richardson if she could see the children.
He led her upstairs, unlocked a door and then there were the kids, sitting in the dark.
The investigator determined they needed to be removed from the home immediately. After being interviewed at the Fort Bend County Children’s Advocacy Center, they were taken to the hospital to be nourished and evaluated, where they remained until yesterday.
When Johnson and other deputies went to the home to execute a search warrant November 23, they tried to talk to the couple about what was going on, Johnson said, but "they did not say anything."
Johnson said the cases remain open, and prosecutors could still file more charges against Sinclair and Richardson.