ST. CHARLES COUNTY • An unusual crowd gathered in a courtroom last week to witness a happy ending to a horrible crime.
Prosecutors, police officers and victims’ advocates who work sex crimes had come for the adoption of a toddler at the center of one of the worst abuse cases they had seen.
“We usually don’t ever get to see the good,” said St. Charles County Sheriff’s Detective Mikki Morris, who led the investigation.
The child was one of three young girls sexually assaulted by their baby sitters last year. She was just 7 months old when she was raped. The other victims, who were the girl’s neighbors, were 3 and 5.
Rebecca Sue Russell, John Scott Thomas III and Billy Joe Bunch Jr., all of Tee Kay Mobile Home Manor near O’Fallon, Mo., pleaded either guilty or no contest to multiple sex offenses. They are in prison now, and the young girl’s mother was stripped of her parental rights. The other victims are living with their mother.
Fortunately, the toddler, who is almost 2 now, shows no signs of the abuse she suffered, said her court-appointed guardian, George Tillman.
“It’s a tremendous ending,” he said. “She’ll get to grow up a normal, healthy child.”
The girl seemed unaware it was her adoption day, but she didn’t mind the attention. She was wearing a maroon dress with white polka dots, brown Mary Janes and lace-trimmed socks. A bow kept her light brown hair in place.
The only time she got fussy was when her new mother left her side to take the stand. The girl ran after her with arms outstretched.
“If that doesn’t say it all…” said one of the detectives.
The woman held her daughter in her lap as she testified. She told Associate Circuit Judge Elizabeth Swann that she had been the girl’s foster mother since the girl was taken into state custody and that she loved the child.
“It feels like we’ve always had her,” she said.
The woman and her family have moved to Lincoln County, and they legally changed the girl’s name to keep her past private. The Post-Dispatch generally does not identify victims of sexual assaults.
A few people giggled when the toddler picked up some earplugs used by court reporters and started playing with them. But many were grabbing for tissues moments later, when her mother gave a halting speech about how grateful she was for everyone who had worked on the case.
“Many of you have jobs that are horrific, but I’m eternally grateful that you made the decision to be in the role you’re in, to protect the people who are unable to protect themselves,” she said.
The girl’s new dad testified about how he and his wife had held the baby for hours while tests were run at the hospital after police took her from the home.
“Every one of you was used by God to put her in a place where she could have a happy life,” he said.
When the judge approved the adoption, the courtroom exploded in applause.
Assistant Prosecutor Becky Schaffer called the proceeding a miracle: “She came from hell to a very loving family.”
Vickie Roberts, a victim’s advocate, said she’s had many days when she thought she couldn’t continue her job.
“Then something like this happens,” she said. “I guess I’ll come to work tomorrow.”
As the girl, her family and many of the law enforcement officials posed for photographs together in the courthouse, the little girl stroked the hair of one of her two older siblings.
Her mother said her daughter’s favorite things right now are pretty typical — peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and baby dolls.
Assistant Prosecutor Jillian Anderson said the police officers who put together the case should get much of the credit for the positive outcome.
“If it wasn’t for the work of these detectives,” she said, “this child probably would still be with her abusers.”