Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Couple Arrested in Chained Teen Case

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Authorities in Tracy, Calif., said Tuesday that 34-year-old Michael Schumacher, above (link), and his wife were charged with torture and other counts after a half-naked teenager with a chain around his ankle appeared at a gym on Monday claiming he had escaped his captors.

TRACY, Calif. (Dec. 2) - A Girl Scout leader and her husband were arrested after an emaciated, terrified and nearly naked 17-year-old showed up at a gym with a chain locked to his ankle, saying he had just fled his captors, authorities said Tuesday.

Police were also seeking the boy's aunt and had an outstanding felony warrant against her for an earlier alleged assault against the teen.

The boy, who authorities said ran away from a Sacramento foster home last year, came into the In-Shape Sports Club in Tracy on Monday wearing only boxer briefs and covered in what appeared to be soot, gym manager Chuck Ellis said. Tracy is about 70 miles south of Sacramento.

Ellis said the teen was scared someone was going to come after him and asked to be hidden.

"He said, 'Don't let them get me, don't let them get me,'" Ellis said. "He was totally terrified."

The boy said he had been held captive for nearly a year, said Ellis, adding that he looked as if he was only 10 to 12 years old.

Authorities said they believe the boy had been chained to a car seat but picked up a dropped key, unlocked himself and fled when the car stopped.

Police arrested Kelly Layne Lau, 30, and Michael Schumacher, 34, late Monday after questioning the couple. A subsequent search of their nearby home found further evidence implicating them, said Tracy police spokesman Matt Robinson, who would not describe what officers found.

The couple were booked on charges of torture, kidnapping and child abuse, and were set to appear in court Thursday, according to online jail records. They were being held at San Joaquin County jail in lieu of bail of nearly $1.2 million each. Prosecutors did not know if the couple had hired attorneys.

Lau and Schumacher's four young children, two of whom were home when police arrived, have been taken into protective custody, authorities said.

Lau started serving as a local Girl Scout leader sometime in September, after a background check turned up nothing to cause concern, said Pam Saltenberger, chief executive of Girl Scouts Heart of Central California.

Police still were seeking Caren Ramirez, 43, the boy's aunt, on suspicion of participating in the alleged abuse, Robinson said. Investigators were trying to figure out the connection between the couple and Ramirez, who authorities believe occasionally visited their home.

Ramirez had become the teen's guardian after child-welfare officials took him from his abusive father three or four years ago, Robinson said. After Ramirez was arrested for allegedly abusing the boy, he was placed in another foster home, which he fled in late 2007, police said.

Since then, the boy's whereabouts hadn't been known until around 4 p.m. Monday, when he entered the fitness center, Robinson said.

The family's tidy two-story house was decked with two large Christmas wreaths on the front doors. No one answered Tuesday when a reporter knocked on the front door.

According to neighbors, the couple seemed to lead lives that revolved around their kids. On her MySpace Web page, Lau describes herself as a stay-at-home mom and says her husband worked as a contractor. She posted many photos of her family, friends and pets.

Jennifer Foster, 33, said she and Lau became acquaintances through their children, who were neighborhood playmates. Foster said she first noticed an older boy with the family about a year ago.

"She told me that he was a nephew that was staying with them because he was having problems at home," Foster said. The boy was outside frequently, and his appearance never suggested anything unusual was happening behind closed doors, though the last time she saw him was May, she said.

Another neighbor said that more recently, the boy looked unwell.

"The last time I seen him, maybe two weeks ago, we were both taking our cans in from garbage days and he was really skinny and pale," Rachel Portillo said.

Robinson, the police spokesman, said the boy was confused when approached by detectives Monday, unsure where he had come from and how long he had been held. He was taken to a hospital and was in stable condition Tuesday afternoon.

"The victim says he was held against his will," Robinson said. "When you have a 17-year-old boy showing up with a bloody ankle from having a chain wrapped around it, it's one of those things for officers to put one and one together."

Robinson said detectives would interview the boy more when he is a "little healthier." Police wouldn't release details about any conversations they've had with the boy or the couple since the arrests.

Marcus Wohlsen reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers Sudhin Thanawala and AP videographer Haven Daley contributed to this report.

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