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Grandmother of starved twins faces new charges

By Linda Looney-Bond

lbond@news-daily.com

A Clayton County grand jury has issued a new indictment against Christiann Zelek, adding more charges against the grandmother of infant twins, whose mother was recently found guilty of nearly starving the boys to death.

In the previous indictment, in Aug. 2008, Christiann Zelek faced six charges, including contributing to the deprivation of a minor and failure to report child abuse, but did not face charges of cruelty to children. The new indictment, handed down Wednesday, includes contributing to the deprivation of a minor, failure to report child abuse, and cruelty to children, according to Clayton County Superior Court documents.

Zelek's daughter, Tessa Zelek, 25, who was convicted Oct. 1, faced several similar charges, and was sentenced to 70 years in prison, by Superior Court Judge Deborah Benefield.

The children's 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. Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson said Thursday that McCart will likely be sentenced following Christiann Zelek's trial.

In Tessa Zelek's trial, prosecutors argued that she and McCart were strung out on prescription drugs and failed to feed their children, causing their brains to shrink, and leaving them emaciated, with bed sores from prolonged neglect.

The condition of the children came to the attention of authorities on Nov. 20, 2007, after Christiann Zelek discovered the couple unresponsive in their home, and the twin boys severely malnourished, according to an application for an arrest warrant sought by the Clayton County Police Department.

The grandmother called the children's aunt, Lorea Thornton, to pick up the boys, according to Clayton County Police Detective Joanne Southerland. 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 police.

Thursday afternoon, an assistant in the district attorney's office said Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney Anece Baxter White was unavailable for comment, regarding the new charges against Christiann Zelek. Christiann Zelek's attorney, Ricky Morris, however, said the charges against his client do not fit the circumstances.

"It actually astounds me that the state would still seek to indict Christiann Zelek," he said. "If it weren't for Christiann Zelek, I believe the state would have had to indict Tessa and James for murder, because I believe those children would have starved to death," Morris said.

"She [Christiann Zelek] tried to reach them [Tessa Zelek and James McCart] for several days, unsuccessfully, so she finally went over there personally. And when she did, she immediately intervened, sent them [the twins] to Jay's [James McCart's] sister to get medical attention, and then called 911 for Tessa and James," Morris said.

However, in court documents, police said Christiann Zelek's actions suggested she tried to cover up the children's condition, while delaying aid to Tessa Zelek and James McCart.

"Instead of calling the Emergency Medical Services to provide aid to any of the parties involved, Christy [Christiann] 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," Detective Southerland said in an application for an arrest warrant.

According to the warrant application, after dropping off the children with their aunt, Christiann Zelek returned to her daughter's home to "clean up the house," before calling Emergency Medical Services. "After she cleaned up, and the children were not at the residence, a call was made to the EMS personnel," Southerland said in the warrant application.

Concerning the new indictment against his client, Morris also said that the charges of failure to report child abuse, which refer to Christiann Zelek as a "school administrator," are not valid charges.

"I don't think there's one shred of evidence that she is a school administrator, nor will there be any evidence that she is a school teacher. She is neither of those two things.

"At the time this occurred, she was an employee of the Henry County Board of Education as a Special Education Coordinator, which has no direct contact with students or children. She was not a 'mandatory reporter' [of suspected child abuse] as required by Georgia law," he said.

The twin boys are being cared for by family members, according to testimony in Tessa Zelek's trial.

Christiann Zelek is scheduled to go on trial Nov. 9, according to prosecutors.