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2 Tell of 'Torture Session' at Abuse Trial : Testimony: Westlake neighbors say shouting drew their attention to garage, where they saw Charlotte Russo beating her daughter.

May 10, 1994|DWAYNE BRAY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Charlotte Russo was seen last year punching her teen-age daughter into submission inside the family's Westlake garage, slugging her in the head, face and body with a closed fist, two neighbors testified Monday.

Throughout the beating, the neighbors testified, Russo's daughter offered no resistance, simply moaning and crying as her mother repeatedly struck her.

"My impression was it looked like a torture session, rather than a discipline session," Peter Kozak told a Superior Court jury hearing the 52-year-old mother's child-abuse trial.

Kozak and his wife, Jackie, were the first two witnesses to take the stand Monday as the dramatic trial entered its third week. It was their call to sheriff's deputies after the alleged incident last May that triggered the child-abuse prosecution.

The Kozaks, who testified that they feared for the teen-ager's life, said their attention was first drawn to the garage by the screams of Richard Russo, the girl's father.

From the sidewalk, they testified, they could hear him yelling at his daughter at the top of his voice. Charlotte Russo, they said, was trying to quiet him even as she carried out the assault on her daughter, they testified.

"What sounds was the girl making?" Deputy Dist. Atty. Dee Corona asked Jackie Kozak.

"It was a very guttural wail," she answered. "A very ugly sound. Definitely somebody in pain and struggling. There was some sobbing, yes."

Through it all, testified both Kozaks, the girl--15 at the time--never defended herself.

"That was the thing that seemed strange," Peter Kozak said. "Typically, if you're getting hit, you're going to try to block the shots."

The testimony followed the girl's own testimony during the last two weeks that her mother imprisoned her in the bathroom of the family's racquetball court, often striking and biting her, and forcing her to eat the same meal--either oatmeal or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches--four times a day.

Charlotte Russo, 52, faces one charge of felony child abuse for allegedly biting the girl and one count of misdemeanor for reportedly locking her in the racquetball court for months on end during 1992 and 1993.

Wednesday's testimony focused entirely on the events that led to the May 24 arrest of Russo and her husband last year. Richard Russo, a stockbroker, already has pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of child abuse and was sentenced to 30 days in jail and three years probation. He still denies abusing the girl, but a family lawyer said he entered his misdemeanor plea to keep his broker's license.

The Kozaks testified that they were strolling past the Russos' nine-bedroom home when they heard a man repeatedly scream inside the garage.

The garage door was closed, but Peter Kozak said he and his wife could still see inside the structure from the sidewalk through its windows. Richard Russo appeared to be agitated and "bordering on out of control," Kozak testified.

Charlotte Russo was pulling her daughter by her neck or shoulders and striking her, he testified. At the same time, he testified, the mother kept trying to quiet down her husband in an apparent effort to keep neighbors from knowing about what was taking place.

The girl did not cry, but sounded like "an injured animal," Kozak said. He said even from his distance of several hundred yards he could tell she was gasping for air.

"And what was he (Richard Russo) saying?" Corona asked.

" 'I'm not going to stand for this one more minute!' He said it over and over," testified Kozak.

Kozak said he called deputies because he felt the girl was in a "life-threatening situation."

The girl, who was adopted by the family at the age of 1, was taken from the Russo home last year and has been living in foster care ever since.

Under cross-examination, Kozak said he could not explain why the girl did not suffer serious injuries from the alleged beating.

He maintained the blows she allegedly suffered were severe, however. Pictures taken by deputies show the girl had scratches on her arms, face and chest and a bite mark on her right arm.

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