TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - The trial of a Tucson couple accused of abusing and imprisoning three young girls for years took another turn when one of the witness broke down on the witness stand Thursday.
Sophia Richter and Fernando Richter are accused of holding Sophia's three daughters captive inside their Pinal and Pima county homes in filthy prison-like conditions for up to two years. The Tucson couple faces multiple charges, including kidnapping.
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.
Thursday afternoon, the oldest sister took the stand after listening to hours of testimony from her youngest sister. The judge ordered a break after the oldest sister collapsed in tears when asked about siblings.
After a few minutes the trial resumed with testimony from the oldest sister.
Oldest Sister Takes the Stand
The oldest sister said at first, she and her two sisters were in a room together when they lived in a house in Catalina.
Eventually, she said, her two younger sisters were removed from the room, and she was left alone.
As punishment, more and more of her things were taken away and never given back.
The biggest punishment was her music.
She said a regular hip-hop station would be played on full blast in her room nearly 24/7. As punishment, she said her mother, Sophia Richter, would turn the music to static. She said the static would make her ears ring and would make it hard for her to sleep. She was not allowed to touch the radio.
The oldest sister said in the Tucson home where she was found, she was never physically punished.
However, in the Catalina house, she said she was hit several times with objects such as a hangar, a TV wire or a belt.
She said Fernando Richter hit her with a stick once so hard that the stick broke and made her back bleed.
While alone, the oldest sister said she would find things to do to fill her time. She said she would sing, write song lyrics using crayons and paper from old textbooks, or talk to herself.
The oldest sister said she had a very strict day. She was told when to wake up, when she could go to the bathroom and when to eat. She was not allowed to get off of her bed, and would sit for hours a day.
When she was given food - a pasta mixture that she described as "nasty" - she was given so much that she would sometimes be too full to finish. If she didn't finish, she would be force fed. This caused her severe stomach problems that sent her to the hospital when she was around 14.
"My mom would force feed me, throw the hot food at me if I didn't eat it," she testified. When asked what she meant by "force feed," she said, "Just grab a spoonful and try to put it in my mouth."
She said her mother gave her medication for a bit, but eventually stopped. Her stomach problems came back, but she was never taken to the doctor again.
The oldest sister also described her living conditions in her room.
She said Fernando Richter covered the vents in her room to block the smell from the rest of the house.
She also had to put a towel under the bedroom door.
She said she was often denied using the restroom for hours, and would be forced to go in her closet. In the Tucson home where she was found, she was not allowed to shower. The smell from her room came from her not showering, her garbage can and her accidents, she said.
There was no air conditioning in her bedroom.
The youngest sister took the stand first Thursday, describing much of the same events as her sister had the day before.
Though she said she spent time in other rooms of the house, often in a hallway, computer room and at one point in she described living in a closet.
She also mentioned how she would be in the same room, other than the bedroom, with her sisters but was not allowed to look at them. When she was finally able to see her oldest sister on the day of her escape, she said she hardly recognized her.
The girl spoke about a time Fernando Richter allegedly beat her for not "reading the dictionary right".
"He was mad because I wasn't reading the dictionary right," the girl said. "At the time I had to read the dictionary out lout 24/7, like all day. And I wasn't reading it right, I guess. And he pulled me by the ear, pulled me to the garage and whooped me many times. I had scars on my back."
She also testified about a time Fernando slapped her out of a chair.
"Again, he was also mad that I wasn't reading right, so he came in and he was really angry," she said. "He slapped me off the chair and I had a bloody nose. He thought I was playing with my blood. And I don't know what he meant by that. But he thought I was playing with my blood and I told him that I just got a bloody nose. Then he went out of the room, Mom came in and she tried to do…she tried to make it stop and he told her to just let me bleed."
The allegations came to light in November 2013, when two of the girls escaped the home and ran to the neighbors.
The youngest sister also claimed Fernando threatened them against leaving.
"He told us that if we ever run away, he would find us and bad stuff would happen," she said. "Fernando even told me to my face that we would kill me the first chance he got. I was scared to leave. At the time, they were all I had. Living with someone so long, you just get used to it."
The court broke for lunch at noon and the youngest sister is expected to resume her testimony around 1:30 p.m.
The middle sister was the first victim to take the stand.
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."
The teen also 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.
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.
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, beat with belts and spoons 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.
• DAY 3: Middle sister takes witness stand.