For weeks, the three wives of Mansa Musa Muhummed and most of their 19 children have been telling a jury countless stories of torture and starvation that they kept to themselves for years.
Muhummed sat in a desert courthouse with a hand over his face, shaking his head in denial as family members described being beaten, strung up by their feet and forced to eat vomit and feces.
“It is the worst case we’ve ever heard of,” prosecutor Julie Baldwin said last week.
The alleged atrocities went undetected by social service agencies, and police now have Muhummed, 55, facing up to seven life sentences if convicted of a raft of abuse charges.
Muhummed, whose given name was Richard Boddie, is on trial at Riverside County Superior Court after more than nine years of legal wrangling in which he changed lawyers four times and represented himself for more than two years.
He has pleaded not guilty to charges of torturing seven of the children, abusing 12 of them and falsely imprisoning two wives.
The trial delays may have hurt his case because his children - once reluctant to talk to authorities - are now telling strangers of extreme deprivation, physical abuse and starvation.
Standing just 4-foot-6 and weighing about 98 pounds, Sharon Boddie, 27, told jurors last week that she had grown and gained weight since her father was arrested nine years ago and the children were sent to foster or group homes.
But she still has scars from beatings and burns. She said she was taken out of school in second grade because she kept running away and teachers no longer wanted her there because she stole other children’s lunches.
“I’d go like a week without eating, not even water,” she said in a flat, unemotional voice. She said she would be beaten when she tried to steal food from the refrigerator.
One son caught sneaking food testified that he was forced to eat what he took until he regurgitated. Then he was forced to eat his vomit. Another daughter said she was ordered to hand feed her father while she was denied food.
Doctors said the children were extremely malnourished. A 19-year-old daughter was 4-foot-1 and weighed 56 pounds.
After moving to rural Riverside County, they lived for about three years in a van at a Muslim campground, Sharon Boddie testified. The van had no running water or gas for cooking. Baldwin said Muhummed had no known occupation.
The now-adult children have testified that Muhummed forced them to beat each other when he wasn’t doing the hitting.
His lawyer has suggested some of the children abused each other and he is challenging testimony as exaggerations. Baldwin said she expects the defense to accuse the wives of being responsible for abuse.
Muhummed has told authorities he believed his Muslim religion allowed him to have multiple wives.
Marva Lewis Barfield, 53, the first of Muhummed’s three wives and mother of 14 of his children, testified that she beat some of her children with a boat oar at his instructions because she feared he would kill her if she disobeyed.
Barfield said she married Boddie when she was 18 and that she was repeatedly beaten and threatened with death during 26 years of marriage.
Barfield was jailed for 17 months in the case and pleaded guilty to one count of child endangerment as part of a plea bargain to testify against Muhummed.
Another wife, Laura Cowan, said that he took control of her bank accounts and finances. She and other members of the family also collected public assistance.
It was Cowan who finally got the attention of authorities when Muhummed took her with him to a post office and she slipped a 13-page letter about the abuse to a postal clerk.
The letter was sent to the county social services agency and to sheriff’s deputies, who found the family living in a filthy garage in a gated community. Cowan presented authorities with tapes she secretly recorded of some beatings.
Sharon Boddie said social workers had checked on their welfare before, but her father put food boxes in cupboards before they arrived and the children were taught to lie.
“I told them everything was OK because my dad had coached us what to say,” she recalled. “I’d say my dad treated us really good - that he was the best parent in the world.”
When they were removed from his Muhummed’s home, most of the children said they could not read or write and had not been to school.
The brothers and sisters have said they were denied use of a bathroom and could not bathe for weeks at a time or wash their clothes. Sometimes, Boddie took them in the yard and hosed them down.
Sharon Boddie said she was strung upside down by her feet and left in a dark basement for hours at a time.
Baldwin said many of the children were unwilling to talk to authorities when their father was first arrested in 1999.
Even when her father was handcuffed to a car outside their home, Sharon Boddie wouldn’t speak because she feared he wouldn’t go to jail. She said he once waved a gun around and said, “I can kill all of you and nobody will ever know.”
She said she decided to tell her story when her father was behind bars and she realized she was “finally going to have a life.”
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