TUCSON — The two girls, ages 12 and 13, were barefoot and trembling as they pounded on a neighbor's door shortly before 4 a.m. Tuesday. The couple inside were shocked when the girls told them they had been imprisoned in a home across the way.
A day later, that neighbor was still at a loss.
"I didn't even know there were children living in that home," Phillip said. He and his wife, Alice, who declined to give their last name, helped the girls calm down and then called police, though the sisters had begged them to instead phone their grandmother.
Tucson police Wednesday said three sisters — the oldest is 17 — had been confined to their bedrooms for months, where music or a static sound played at all hours and surveillance cameras were pointed at their beds 24 hours a day. Sometimes they weren't allowed to go to the bathroom, forced to relieve themselves in their bedroom closets, police said.
Authorities said the family moved into the Tucson neighborhood in August, but the girls said they had been imprisoned for up to two years in previous homes.
Sophia and Fernando Richter, the girls' mother and stepfather, were taken into custody shortly after police arrived and were booked into Pima County Jail.
The stepfather, 34, was arrested on suspicion of kidnapping, emotional child abuse, physical child abuse and sexual abuse with a person under 15 years of age. The mother, 32, was arrested on suspicion of kidnapping, emotional child abuse and physical child abuse. A judge set their bail at $100,000 and $75,000, respectively. They did not enter pleas.
Phillip, the neighbor, said he and his wife opened the door only because the girls were so distraught. "They kept saying their stepfather had a knife and tried to break into their room," he said. "They were also afraid that the mother was going to be killed by their stepfather."
The girls, who told police they had escaped the single-story suburban home through an alarmed bedroom window, appeared unkempt and smelled of urine and body odor, Phillip said. He also said the girls were worried about their older sister because she was still in the house.
When officers responded to the Richter home, they found the 17-year-old in a locked bedroom with loud hip-hop music blaring from speakers facing the bed.
"I can tell you that the music was so loud that she had no idea what was going on around there," Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villaseñor said at a news conference Wednesday. "She was totally surprised to see police there."
Phillip said he heard loud music whenever the couple were out but had figured they wanted to make it appear someone was home so nobody would break in.
The 17-year-old kept a satchel around her neck with a small calendar where she documented in detail the number of days she had been confined and the food she had consumed, Villaseñor said, adding that the girls were fed once or twice a day and were kept in filthy living conditions.
An elaborate alarm system had been attached to the two bedroom doors, and vents were shuttered with duct tape. The space between the bedroom doors and the floor were blocked off with some sort of cloth.
"It seemed to be a way of soundproofing the rooms," Tucson Police Sgt. Chris Widmer said.
Villaseñor said the locks to the bedrooms were from the inside and, except for the alarm system, it appeared the girls could have opened the doors on their own.
"But something kept them from doing that," he said. "Until you've been in those shoes, you really can't understand. ... I will say that they did do things that made these girls feel isolated and made real sure that they didn't feel like they were in control."
Villaseñor said the two bedrooms were monitored with security cameras and that the girls had to signal to the camera if they needed to use the bathroom. A parent would escort each to the bathroom and back through a hallway where a barrier blocked the view to the rest of the house.
There were also times when they were not allowed to use the bathroom, Villaseñor said. Investigators found jars of what appeared to be human waste along with piles of clothes contaminated with urine inside a closet.
Relatives never visited because they believed the family was living in San Diego, police said, noting that the mother had a cellphone number with a San Diego area code.
Villaseñor said the girls had not attended school for the last two years, though their mother said they had been home-schooled. Phillip said one of the girls told him, "We're not allowed to go to school." The neighbor described the girls as polite and articulate.
The three girls are in a group home for now. "We didn't want to separate them," Villaseñor said. "We made sure they are together."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun