CHARLOTTE, N.C. » Handcuffed and shackled to a block of steel, the young boy would brace himself when he heard footsteps outside his bedroom door. He knew that once the grown-ups entered, the abuse would begin.
For years, he was whipped with belts, his face was burned with electrical wires and his fingers were broken with pliers — all to "teach him a lesson." The abusers, who have since pleaded guilty, were his legal guardian — a supervisor with the Department of Social Services in Union County, North Carolina — and her longtime boyfriend, an emergency room nurse.
The abuse ended in November 2013 after police discovered the boy in handcuffs, chained to the front porch of the house with a dead chicken hung around his neck.
When police entered the roach-infested house "covered with urine and animal feces," they found something else: four other children, ages 7 to 14, who had been adopted by the couple over the years. They were removed and placed in protective custody.
All were abused, but authorities say the boy bore the brunt of the couple’s rage.
"I was scared to death," the boy, now 13, told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "I thought I wouldn’t survive."
The AP is not naming the boy because of the nature of the abuse.
Three months after Wanda Sue Larson and her boyfriend Dorian Harper were sentenced, the boy is telling his story. Larson was released from prison in April, just nine days after pleading guilty to child abuse charges. Now, the boy wants everyone to know she didn’t serve enough time.
"I want her to be in jail longer," he says.
His mother agrees.
"It’s ridiculous," his mother said. The AP isn’t identifying the mother, to avoid indirectly identifying her son.
Jeff Gerber is founder of the Justice for All Coalition, which organized protests against the plea deal that led to Larson’s release. He said there is widespread outrage over Larson’s lenient sentence.
Harper, 58, was sentenced to up to 10 ½ years in prison after pleading guilty March 17 to maiming, intentional child abuse inflicting serious injury and assault with a deadly weapon.
Two weeks later, Larson, 58, was sentenced to nearly 17 months in jail after pleading guilty to four counts of child abuse. But she was given credit for time served in jail after her arrest and was released April 9. She lives in the same county where the boy now lives.
Telephone messages left for District Attorney Trey Robison were not returned Wednesday. Robison has said he agreed to the plea deals mainly to spare the child-victims from having to testify.
Messages left for Larson’s attorney, Robert Leas, were not returned Wednesday.
At her sentencing, Larson expressed remorse for failing to protect the boy and the four others. She blamed most of the abuse on her boyfriend.
The boy, however, says Larson not only knew about the abuse, but encouraged it. As he tries to recover, he worries that he might run into her at a neighborhood store, a mall. What would happen then?
"That’s why I want to tell my story," he said, softly.
He now lives with his mother in a Charlotte apartment. Wearing a green Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirt and blue gym shorts, he sat on a couch in his living room, patiently answering questions.
Barely 5 feet tall and slender, with brown hair and brown eyes, he looked younger than 13.
Court documents say he was put in foster care a decade ago after problems arose at the home of an aunt where he had been staying while his mother was moving from another state, and he ended up with Larson. When the boy’s mother found out he was in foster care, she tried to get him back. But Larson said the boy had developed a bond with her family and he stayed with her. Eventually she became his legal guardian.
The mother only got to see her son a few times a year at a neutral setting, and he said nothing about the abuse.
Meanwhile, the boy says Larson told him his mother was sick and he couldn’t visit her.
"She’d say, ‘Your mom is in the hospital. She’s there because of your behavior. You’re killing her,’" he says.
Eventually, Larson and Harper pulled the children out of a Union County school, saying they’d school them at their secluded home where they also kept farm animals.
The boy says he was handcuffed and chained to a steel anvil in his locked room where he slept on the floor. At times, they’d starve him and he’d have to beg for scraps. Sometime, the other children would sneak food to him and he’d hide the wrappers in a hole in the wall. Many nights, he wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom.
The boy says he was even shackled when he went outside. The only time they removed the chains was when he cleaned the house, or picked up animal feces.
One time, he says Harper cut his left arm and poured salt in the wound. The scar is still visible. It reached a point that every time they entered his room, he’d pray: "I hope I don’t get hurt."
Then he’d think about his mother, that maybe they’d be reunited. He kept dreaming of escaping, and that kept him going.
A few days before the boy was rescued, Harper blamed him for the death of a chicken and made him wear it around his neck — even at night.
The police were responding to a call about a loose animal when they stumbled on him, chained up on the front porch.
The boy is still recovering. His mother says it will be a long road. Her son goes to therapy twice a week. He’s in summer camp and public school. Still, there are times he can’t escape. He had a nightmare that Larson came to his house and took him away. He couldn’t find his mother.
"I woke up and I thought it was real," he said. "It was just a dream, but I couldn’t go back to sleep."