0

Mother found guilty in child-cruelty case

By Linda Looney-Bond

lbond@news-daily.com

A Clayton County jury, Thursday, determined that a 25-year-old Lovejoy woman bears responsibility for her infant, twin boys nearly starving to death in 2007.

Tessa Zelek showed no reaction as the jury announced guilty verdicts on all eight counts against her, including cruelty to children.

Presiding Superior Court Judge Deborah Benefield set sentencing for Oct. 16.

The prosecution had argued that Zelek - strung out on prescription drugs - failed to feed the children, causing their brains to shrink, and leaving them emaciated, with bed sores from prolonged neglect.

The babies' father, James McCart, 25, also faces child-cruelty charges, and has been offered a plea deal in the case, according to Anece Baxter White, deputy chief assistant district attorney for Clayton County.

McCart testified for the prosecution Thursday. While he was on the stand, Baxter White told the court the state had offered McCart a plea deal of 15 years in prison, with 12 to serve.

The twins' maternal grandmother, Christiann Zelek, also faces charges for an alleged failure to report child abuse.

The condition of the children came to the attention of authorities on Nov. 20, 2007, after Christiann Zelek discovered her daughter, Tessa, and James McCart unresponsive, and the twin boys severely malnourished, at the couple's mobile home, located in Lovejoy, according to an application for an arrest warrant sought by the Clayton County Police Department.

Christiann Zelek called the children's aunt, Lorea Thornton, to pick up the boys, according to Clayton County Police Detective Joanne Southerland, in the warrant application. After Thornton picked up the children, she discovered their condition, and took them to Egleston Children's Hospital in Atlanta. Hospital personnel later alerted police to the children's condition, according to testimony in the case.

Dr. Lindsey Chase, testified earlier in the trial that she was the lead physician caring for the babies during the majority of their stay at Egleston.

"They were essentially starved," Chase said on the stand. "They would have died within hours, to days," she told the court.

While testifying for the state, during Tessa Zelek's trial Thursday, James McCart said he and Tessa Zelek obtained prescription drugs by forging prescriptions, printed on a home computer. "We would print the prescriptions, and she [Tessa Zelek] would take them to the pharmacy and pick them up," McCart testified.

He said the couple would primarily use the drug methadone, and would get a prescription for 90-120 pills filled every three to four days. McCart said he and Tessa Zelek each consumed about 20 pills per day, and that he would also drink about 12 Bud Light beers per day.

"At some point, we started getting pretty sick ... throwing up," McCart testified. "We stayed in bed and we ignored the baby monitor. We turned it down at one point," he said.

When asked by the prosecution whether the twin babies were being fed during that time, McCart said, "I thought they were. I don't know how many days went by that the kids weren't fed. I thought it was probably two. I'm not sure," he testified.

"Right now, we're lucky at this point our kids are alive," he said on the stand.

During the state's presentation of evidence, the twin boys - who will turn three years old in November- were brought into the courtroom.

Tessa Zelek, who showed little emotion earlier, began to cry and wipe away tears when the boys walked into the room.

"It was important to see their development. To see that they were speaking, walking, laughing, jumping, and doing what any other child would do," said prosecutor Anece Baxter White. "And all it took was [for them] not to be neglected," she said.

Tessa Zelek's defense attorney, Marc Pilgrim, did not call witnesses to the stand on behalf of the defense.

During closing arguments, Pilgrim said Zelek was not guilty of neglecting her infant sons, because she took them to doctor's appointments, and followed a doctor's advice to feed the children less food, because they had a reflux problem.

Tessa Zelek was found guilty of two counts of cruelty to children, four counts of deprivation of a minor, and two counts of forgery. Prosecutors said they will recommend the maximum sentence of 70 years in prison during the sentencing phase of the trial.

"It's not a victory by any means, but it's just good to have closure," said Denise Spruill, James McCart's mother, who has temporary custody of the twin boys.

Pilgrim said Tessa Zelek will file an appeal.