'They would have died within hours, to days'
Lead doctor testifies in child-cruelty trial

By Linda Looney-Bond


Dr. Lindsey Chase was on the stand for about an hour and a half Wednesday, testifying in Clayton County Superior Court in the child-cruelty case of Tessa Zelek.

Zelek, 25 -- the mother of the twin boys she is accused of allowing to nearly starve to death -- faces two counts of cruelty to children, four counts of deprivation of a minor, and two counts of forgery.

Two other adults have been charged in connection with the case, but will be tried later: The children's father, James Alvin McCart, III, also faces cruelty to children charges. The babies' grandmother, Christiann Zelek, is charged with failure to report child abuse, according to court records.

A witness for the state, Dr. Chase said she was the supervisory attending physician during the majority of the time Zelek's infant twins were hospitalized at Egleston Children's Hospital in Atlanta in late 2007.

"They were essentially starved," Chase said on the stand. "They probably had significant pain just from being touched. They basically had no fat. Their bones were just protruding everywhere," she said.

"They would have died within hours, to days," she told the court.

The one-year-old twin boys spent a month in the hospital after an aunt saw their condition and took them to Egleston on Nov. 20, 2007, according to a Clayton County Police application for an arrest warrant.

The aunt, Lorea Thornton, of Peachtree City, testified earlier in the trial that she had met the infants' grandmother at a local gas station to pick up the children. "When I undressed them, their bodies were like little skeletons," she said. "Obviously, their bodies were disproportionate to their heads ... They seemed like they needed medical attention. We loaded them into the car and took them to Egleston."

Police say the children's grandmother, Christiann Zelek, contacted family members on Nov. 20, 2007 to pick up the infants, after she discovered her daughter, Tessa, and James McCart "unresponsive, and the children severely malnourished" at a residence in Lovejoy.

"Instead of calling the Emergency Medical Services to provide aid to any parties involved, Christy Zelek called a family member and requested they pick up the children, so the police and DFACS would not see the children how they were, and observe the gross malnourishment," said Clayton County Police Detective Joanne Southerland, in an application for an arrest warrant sought by police.

On Wednesday, Chase testified that one of the infants weighed 9 pounds, and the other 9.9 pounds when they were brought to the hospital. She said that, at 12 months of age, "they should have been 18 to 20 pounds, at a minimum."

The doctor testified that it appeared that the infants' brains had stopped growing normally, and were "too small for their skull size."

"They had no teeth," Chase continued, when questioned by Clayton County Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney Anece Baxter White. "At 12 months, they should have at least a few teeth. Around six months, we start to see teething," she said. "You need adequate nutrients, most importantly calcium, to produce teeth."

During cross examination, Zelek's defense attorney, Marc Pilgrim, told the court there had been concern that the twins previously suffered from some form of reflux.

"Would your advice for reflux be not to feed them as often?" Pilgrim asked Chase. Chase answered that it would depend on the child and the circumstances.

The twin boys are now in the care of family members, according to trial testimony.

Testimony in the case, before Superior Court Judge Deborah Benefield, is expected to continue today.