TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - One of three girls allegedly held captive by their mother and stepfather took the witness stand Wednesday afternoon in Tucson.
The trial of the Tucson couple accused of imprisoning and abusing the three young sisters resumed in the morning with testimony from Tucson police officers and detectives who were involved in the investigation.
Det. Oscar Cuellar continued his testimony under examination by lawyers for the defense. Cuellar was followed on the witness stand by Det. Jeff Lockwood, Sgt. Pete Dugan and Sgt. Cindy Mechtel.
Testimony from the alleged victims, who are now aged 14, 15 and 19, began with the middle sister's testimony after the lunch break on Wednesday.
The girl, who was 13 when she was found, described being punished often. She said, "If I obeyed, did what (stepfather) Fernando (Richter) said, I didn't get hit."
Fernando and Sophia Richter are facing three counts of kidnapping, domestic violence and child abuse. Fernando Richter, the stepfather to the children, is also facing two counts of aggravated assault.
Tucson News Now does not identify minors so we will refer to the girls by their ages, or as the youngest, middle or oldest sister.
Before Wednesday's session, the sisters' great-grandmother told Tucson News Now the girls were scared of Fernando and still 'nervous' to testify. The oldest sister has spent the first two days of the trial with her great-grandmother, who said she has cried during parts of it.
The great-grandmother plans to be in court every day of the trial. She described Tuesday's testimony from the prosecution's witnesses as 'disturbing.' She had a hard time looking at the evidence presented to the jury, which included pictures of mold on the windows and covers over the air vents to the girls' rooms.
The great-grandmother said she feels frustrated. She believes that Sophia is a victim in this case as well, saying she was controlled by Fernando.
Authorities claim the girls were monitored by video surveillance 24 hours per day, fed the same "disgusting food" day after day, forced to drink bath water out of moldy plastic jugs and sometimes had to use their closets as a bathroom. Authorities also said the Richters blasted loud music through the home.
Paul Skitzki, who is representing Fernando Richter, said the sisters were unhappy with Fernando's relationship with Sophia. Skitzki claimed there is no evidence of abuse or beatings and the girls were allowed to come and go as they pleased.
The allegations came to light November 2013 when two of the girls managed to escape the family's Tucson home. The girls said they escaped through a window when Fernando Richter tried to break down their bedroom door with a knife in his hand.
Investigators said the Richters, who pleaded not guilty to all charges, moved to Tucson in August 2013 after living in Pinal County for several years.
The testimony from the alleged victims began with the middle sister after the lunch break on Wednesday.
She described how she was always afraid of getting in trouble and being punished. She described being spanked or hit repeatedly with a stick, belt or metal spoon.
"Like with our waters, we couldn't spill them," she said. "If we did, we got in trouble. Or if we didn't eat our food fast enough, he would come in and he'd yell … and say we needed to eat fast."
She said they were given a lot of food. She said they were fed so much, she was always full. But she ate anyway because she didn't want to get in trouble.
"I didn't want to know what would happen if I didn't eat," she said.
At times during the testimony, Sophia Richter wiped tears from her eyes and held her head in her hands. Fernando Richter looked forward without showing emotion throughout the testimony.
About her final night in the house, the girl said Fernando Richter broke the bedroom door and she could see he was holding a knife, and saying something she couldn't understand. She thought he might be drunk.
"Something in my heart, I knew I needed to get out or something bad was going to happen," she said. She told her younger sister to come with her and they opened the window to get out.
When asked why she didn't run away earlier, she responded, "Because that was my home."
The girls would use hand signals to let their parents know they needed to use the bathroom, she said. If they weren't allowed out, sometimes she would relieve herself in the closet. Asked if she ever just walked out of the bedroom, she said she didn't try because the door made a noise if it opened. She said sometimes the girls would be invited out to do something, such as watch a movie on TV, as a family.
According to the middle sister's testimony, the girls were taken out of school to be home schooled when she was in the fourth grade. She is now a sophomore in high school. The next year, they returned to school briefly, but were pulled out again. She said they were told they'd be home schooled again, but she said that never resumed.
When asked about dental hygiene, the middle sister responded, "I don't remember brushing my teeth." Later, she recalled that they would be allowed to brush after eating, but soon her mother started forgetting to have them brush. Eventually, the girls would ask for toothpaste and floss and would sometimes get it.
When she was asked if she knew why she and her sisters were treated the way they were, the middle sister said, "He (Fernando) treated us the way he did because we weren't his. He said he was allowed to make the rules, the decisions because we weren't his. So we had to follow his rules. And my mom, she agreed to that. She let him do what he wanted."
The 15-year-old described a daily routine they called the "mumble." They would have to wake up early in the morning and exercise by doing a sort of march in their room. This would continue for what she thought felt like hours until they were told to stop. Her legs and feet would hurt after the mumble, she said. Asked what would happen if they refused to do the mumble, she responded, "I knew not to."
After the mumble, she and her younger sister would use the bathroom, eat and play. They had toys and stuffed animals that they played with in their room. She said they had lots of fun playing, and that she still has the toys.
Wednesday's testimony began with continued testimony by members of the Tucson Police Department.
After Det. Oscar Cuellar was examined briefly by Fernando Richter's attorney, Paul Skitzki, Det. Jeff Lockwood was called to the stand.
Lockwood described encountering sour smells of urine and rotting food in the bedrooms where the girls were allegedly held.
Sgt. Pete Dugan, who was on the domestic violence unit at the time of the initial investigation, was asked to describe the strategy of the search of the crime scene. He said after an initial walk-through inside and outside the house, he gathered the members of his team for further searching. They went together through the house room by room, Dugan said. He described the smell inside the house as overwhelming, saying that after only a couple of minutes in one of the bedrooms, police had to open the window to allow fresh air in.
Dugan described the bedrooms as neat, saying everything had a place, but filthy.
Dugan said the air vents in the bedrooms were sealed shut with plastic and duct tape. Dugan said the house smelled of urine and feces. He said he observed both on the tile floor in the living room, where police also found two dogs that were kenneled. Dugan said he called Animal Control to remove the dogs.
In the refrigerator, Dugan said police found an orange bucket that contained a mixture of noodles and chunks of meat. He said there was also some fruits and vegetables in the refrigerator.
Dugan had said police found alarm sensors on a bedroom door, that made a loud sound when the door was shut and reopened. He said the bedroom alarm did not appear to be connected to the alarm on the house's front door.
Sgt. Cindy Mechtel, who at the time of the investigation was in the sexual assault unit, was next on the stand. She testified about video evidence that she shot at the house after the search warrant had been completed. Asked about an audible beep heard in the video, Mechtel could not recall what made the sound.
On Tuesday, members of the Tucson Police Department took the stand.
Det. Michael Cuestas told the court what he saw when he first encountered the girls.
"It appeared they hadn't bathed in an extremely long time," he said. "Kind of a musty smell. Their clothes were disheveled."
Cuestas also testified Fernando and Sophia Richter both had blood-shot, watery eyes and "the odor of intoxicants."
Detective Oscar Cuellar, one of the first people to search the Richter home, spoke about what he found in one of the girl's rooms.
"That room had a horrific smell of urine, throw up and vomit," he said. "First thing I did was open a window because the smell was so bad and while I was actually searching it I actually got a paper mask to actually conduct the search because the smell was just horrific."
The prosecution has claimed that the Richters closed off the vents in the girls' rooms to keep the smell from traveling to other rooms in the home.
Cuellar also talked about the five-gallon bucket of macaroni or pasta authorities found in the Richters' kitchen.
Prosecutor Frances Kreamer Hope has said the Richters would make large batches of pasta and gave it to the girls to eat, even after it became rancid.
Cuellar said the bucket appeared to be full of pasta and a variety of meats and sausage. He said the food had a rancid, oily smell.
Opening statements were given by the prosecution and Fernando's defense attorney on Friday, Nov. 13.
Three witnesses, all who lived by the Sophia and Fernando, also testified. They told jurors they did not know the couple had children.
Hope said the evidence will show the Richters held the girls captive, fed them only once a day, beat them with belts and plastic and metal spoons and sometimes forced them to use their closets as bathrooms.
Paul Skitzki, who is representing Fernando Richter, said the sisters were unhappy with Fernando's relationship with Sophia. Skitzki claimed the jurors won't see any evidence of abuse or beatings and that the defensive team would call witnesses to testify the girls were allowed to come and go as they pleased.
Leo Plowman, defense for Sophia Richter, chose to reserve his opening statement for a later date.