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'The two children looked like little skeletons'

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

The first time the detective saw the allegedly starved twins, the 13-month-old boys were attached to feeding tubes at a children's hospital, but still looked emaciated.

"The two children looked like little skeletons," said Joanne Southerland, a child abuse and sexual exploitation detective with the Clayton County Police Department.

"Just little skeletons, that's the best way I can describe it," she said. "The doctors told me it was the worst case of child neglect any of the experts had ever seen. [Children's Health Care of Atlanta at] Egleston has never seen a case as severe as this."

The twins' parents, 23-year-olds who lived in a trailer at 31 La Costa Drive in Lovejoy, are charged with child neglect and forging prescriptions for opiate-based drugs. Tessa Noel Zelek and James Alvin McCart III walked into their probable cause hearing in the Clayton County Magistrate Court together, Tuesday evening. Zelek wore a green jump suit, McCart orange, and the couple walked in and slouched into the big black chairs next to their respective attorneys.

Southerland testified that the parents accused each other of failing to feed the baby boys.

"As best you can determine," Joe Roberto, Zelek's attorney, asked, "who was the last person to feed the children?"

"We have no idea," Southerland said.

"When was the last time they were fed?" Roberto asked.

"No idea," Southerland said.

According to the police department's investigation, the two boys weighed about nine pounds each, when they were taken to the hospital.

Even given the fact that they were born prematurely -- weighing a little more than three pounds each at birth -- the boys should have weighed between 20 and 26 pounds if they were healthy, Southerland said.

When taken to their pediatrician in May, they weighed about eight pounds. In October, they weighed more than 10 pounds each.

Both Roberto and Stanley Schoolcraft, McCart's attorney, suggested, during the hearing, that the low weight was due to medical conditions and couldn't be contributed solely to neglect.

"Was there a pattern of consistent health care?" Roberto asked the detective.

"No," she said.

"No?" he said.

"No," she repeated. "The children were not taken regularly to the pediatrician as is required."

McCart reportedly told police that it wasn't his responsibility to feed the children, blaming Zelek. His attorney tried to take the argument further, saying that since the twins are illegitimate and since there hasn't been a paternity test, the man who believes he is the boys' father can't be considered, legally, their father.

"The statute is very specific as to who, your honor, can be charged with child neglect," Schoolcraft told Magistrate Judge Bobby Simmons. "[McCart] doesn't apply. He's not a parent. He's not a guardian. He can't be considered legally responsible for someone who he's not legally responsible for. He can't even be charged with this."

Both defendants, during interviews with detectives, and both of their lawyers, during the hearing, accused the other defendant of forging the prescriptions for prescription pills. Special Agent Amy Kemper, with the county police's drug task force, testified that she found empty pill bottles bearing false names in the kitchen, bedroom and bathroom at the family's Lovejoy trailer home.

Officers seized prescription forms bearing multiple fake names, empty bottles of legally controlled pain killers, receipts under multiple fake names, a paper cutter, and a legal pad on which someone allegedly practiced forging doctors' names.

The doctors whose names were on the prescriptions, approving the purchases of drugs, told Kemper that those weren't their signatures, that they didn't have any patients with those names, that they didn't normally prescribe those drugs, and they would never prescribe that many pills with one prescription, the narcotics agent testified.

The magistrate judge found there was probable cause to charge both McCart and Zelek for the prescription forgeries, since the evidence was found throughout the home. Looking at pictures of the emaciated and skeletal twins taken at the hospital, Simmons found there was probable cause to charge both parents with neglect. He bound both cases, and all the charges over to Superior Court, where they will go to a grand jury for indictment.