Charges dropped against parents living in squalid sailboat

Prosecutors have dropped criminal charges against a couple who were found living with their two boys aboard a cold, filthy sailboat in the Magothy River this winter.

Sherri Kelly, 44, and John J. Kelly, 53, initially were charged with failing to send the boys to school, second-degree child abuse and neglect of a minor. Natural Resources Police officers found them living in squalid conditions aboard a 28-foot sailboat, Suki Too, anchored at the mouth of Cypress Creek on the Magothy near Severna Park on Feb. 14.

According to police and court records, the couple, an adult son, their two teenage boys and two dogs were living in a 10-foot by 9-foot area with two small makeshift mattresses. The boys told police they hadn't been going to school and couldn't remember when they last showered, police said. They ate cold canned foods, police said.

The only way to get to shore was to use an inflatable raft, police said.

While the living conditions were far from ideal, it did not meet the criminal standards for child abuse or neglect, said Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Anne Colt Leitess.

Child abuse requires physical injuries, which the boys did not have. And the Kellys did provide food, water, shelter, supervision and heat -- there was a space heater aboard -- for their children. To meet the criminal standard for neglect, the parents would have had to purposefully withhold necessities from their children, Leitess said.

The children were found to be living in a dangerous situation, so Child Protective Services officials sent them to live with a relative in Florida, Leitess said.

While awaiting trial, the Kellys had spent several weeks in jail, which is more than the maximum penalty for not sending a child to school, Leitess said.

The Kellys first came to the attention of authorities on Jan. 28, when they called the Coast Guard for help when they were aboard another sailboat that had become iced in near Poplar Island.

Then on Feb. 9, Natural Resources Police received a call from someone concerned about a family living aboard the boat on the Magothy. Police visited the boat, but the Kellys declined assistance.

Natural Resources Police returned on Feb. 12 to warn the family of an impending snowstorm and realized the Kellys were the same family rescued from near Poplar Island. That's when police made a plan to return to the boat with social services officials.

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