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Child cruelty case: Infestation described at hearing

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

LAWRENCEVILLE -- An officer testified Thursday that what he found in an unassuming Grayson home was enough to turn stomachs, conditions a prosecutor described as horrific.

The Pinella Road home in question was occupied by Ronnie, 39, and April Keais, 38, active Boy Scout leaders and parents of three boys, ages 6 to 14. Both are charged with three felony counts of cruelty to children for allegedly subjecting the children to filthy living conditions.

April Keais has driven a bus route for Gwinnett County Public Schools since 2001 and is the subject of an internal investigation. The couple faced a judge for the first time Thursday during a bond hearing in Gwinnett Magistrate Court.

Gwinnett police Officer D.K. Doane said police became privy to the situation the evening of Oct. 26, when motorists called 911 to report a boy playing in a ditch near the Keais home, fearing the child would be hit. Doane questioned the boy, the Keais' youngest son, who claimed he "was just getting his exercise," Doane said.

Doane escorted the boy home, knocked on the front door and got a peek at the deplorable conditions as the boy bolted inside, he testified.

"There's a horrible smell," Doane recalled from the witness stand. "There's just filth everywhere."

April Keais was home and granted Doane permission to view a family room and dining room, though she was fearful of losing the children, he said. The boy had escaped out a window, and she'd spent the evening searching for him, Doane testified.

Moments into the inspection, Doane said he "looked down at my arm, and it's completely covered in fleas." Moving to a hallway, Doane noticed one wall was a different color than others. "It was at that time that the wall started moving," he said of the dense cockroach population.

Throughout the home police found overflowing garbage bags, ankle-deep rotting food and trash, spoiled milk containers left open, rodent and insect droppings and a toilet so full of human waste it flooded a hallway when flushed, Doane said.

In the kitchen, a pile of spare ribs practically brimmed with cockroaches, which had overtaken the refrigerator as well, Doane said.

"You couldn't even see the bottom of (the refrigerator)," he said.

The family dog was seized by animal control, its toenails so overgrown it couldn't walk, Doane said. The couple was cited for animal cruelty, he said.

"The living condition were absolutely horrendous," Assistant District Attorney Carole Cox told the court. "It's something out of a horror movie, this house."

Attorneys for the couple argued unsuccessfully that the child cruelty charges should be dismissed, in that it couldn't be proven the boys suffered mental or physical pain. Doane testified the children exhibited no signs of malnutrition or insect bites.

"In this case, the pain's nonexistent," said attorney Pamela Britt, representing April Keais. "They've not been denied any sustenance whatsoever."

Magistrate Judge Mark Layng didn't see it that way. He bound all charges against the couple to Superior Court for indictment, but halved their bond amounts to $15,000 each.

A condition restricting the Keais from contacting their children will remain in place until the Division of Family and Children Services "has their say-so," the judge decided.

The boys are staying with their grandmother and have been assigned a DFCS case worker.

"I'll give you the opportunity to get out of jail," Layng said. "I'm not going to let these children be at risk."