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Parents, grandmother jailed in near-fatal abuse case

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Two parents and a school official were arrested, Thursday, on allegations they were starving two infants.

The 13-month-old, twin boys looked like they had been released from a concentration camp, Clayton County police said, and they were so malnourished they might have died in another 24 hours.

Police Chief Jeff Turner said the case was "very disturbing," and was the worst case of child neglect he's ever seen. "It almost makes you lose your faith in humankind," he said. "It hurts you down to the very core of your soul."

The infants' father, 23-year-old James Alvin McCart, III; mother, 23-year-old Tessa Zelek, and grandmother, 51-year-old Christi Zelek, were arrested and charged with child cruelty and child deprivation.

Christi Zelek has been employed as a Special Education Coordinator with the Henry County Board of Education since 2000. She also was charged with failure to report child abuse. Education system employees are required to report cases of suspected abuse.

Detective William Clendenen said Christi Zelek, of McDonough, was teaching a class in early childhood development when arrested. According to Clendenen, the woman claimed, "there was nothing wrong with those children."

Doctors at Egleston Children's Health Care of Atlanta, however, told police the infants weighed about nine pounds each -- 18 to 30 pounds less than normal -- and were nearing death.

Christi Zelek has been placed on administrative leave, with pay, according to according to Ethan Hildreth, Henry County's administrative services assistant superintendent. The system plans to investigate the charges, he said.

The boys' parents, McCart and Tessa Zelek, who are unemployed, "both pointed the fingers at each other, both said it was the other one's fault," when interviewed by detectives, Clendenen said.

According to police, Christi Zelek arrived at McCart and Tessa Zelek's mobile home, at 31 Lacosta Drive, in Lovejoy, and found the parents unconscious. Christi Zelek allegedly called family members in Fayetteville, and asked them to take the boys, "to keep police and [Department of Family and Children Services] from discovering the condition of the children," Turner said. After hiding the children, she returned to the Lovejoy trailer home, cleaned it up, and called 911 for her daughter and her daughter's boyfriend, police said.

At the hospital, McCart tested positive for cocaine. Tessa Zelek refused to take a drug test. According to police, narcotics agents found prescription drugs -- oxycontin, percocet and methadone -- in the residence.

The investigation is ongoing, but police suspect McCart and Tessa Zelek "had serious problems with drug use," Capt. Greg Dickens said.

The Fayetteville family members took the twins to Egleston on Nov. 20, and DFCS was notified, police said. The twin boys are recovering at the hospital, but are having problems gaining weight.

"They were starving, skin and bones," Turner said. "These two children deserved much better."

Staff writer Johnny Jackson contributed to this report