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Russo Gets 6 Months for Child Abuse

August 03, 1994|DWAYNE BRAY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Charlotte Russo was the textbook child abuser, a Ventura County judge said Tuesday, sentencing the affluent Westlake mother to six months in a work-furlough program.

"This is basically a manual on how to destroy a child, how to slowly tear them apart, how to destroy her confidence . . . how to treat her like an animal," Superior Court Charles W. Campbell lectured a somber Russo moments before announcing the sentence.

The 52-year-old Russo, who must report to the work program Aug. 23, was also placed on five years' probation. Under the program, inmates work their regular jobs during the day but are locked up at night at a county facility.

Her sentence brings to an end one of Ventura County's highest-profile child-abuse cases in recent memory.

Russo and her stockbroker husband, Richard, 50, were arrested and charged with child abuse 14 months ago after two neighbors on a nightly stroll reported seeing them abusing their daughter in the family's garage.

At Tuesday's hearing, Russo's usual stern expression was replaced by a more conciliatory demeanor.

She told Campbell she was sorry for mistreating her adopted daughter--abuse that included imprisoning the girl in the family's back-yard racquetball court and punching, pinching, scratching and biting her, according to court testimony.

Russo maintained that she loves the girl to this day and would be willing to reunite with her. She also said that she was only trying to discipline the girl and did not intend to abuse her.

But Deputy Dist. Atty. Dee Corona told the judge that if Russo were really remorseful, she would have owned up to her actions much sooner. Because of abuse from Russo, the girl has been left "with a legacy of hate," Corona contended.

"It sounds like Mrs. Russo would like to rewrite the facts of this case," Corona said. "It's a little late for that."

Defense attorney James M. Farley took issue with that assessment, asking Judge Campbell to state his opinion on Russo's sincerity.

"I don't believe that she's acting," Campbell obliged.

Russo pleaded guilty to felony child abuse July 5 after Campbell promised that she would spend no more than six months in custody. She had been convicted of misdemeanor child abuse, but a jury deadlocked 11 to 1 in favor of conviction on the felony charge. Richard Russo also pleaded guilty to misdemeanor child abuse and served 30 days in work furlough.

In court Tuesday, Farley said his client decided not to take the felony case to trial a second time because she was both worn down and financially strapped.

Farley said his client still denies most of the allegations against her, including washing the girl down with a garden hose and forcing her to eat oatmeal mixed with raw eggs and tap water.

He also denied that she was forced to live in the racquetball court for two years, as the girl claims. He said she was only made to sleep there at night for about a month.

The problem, according to the defense attorney, is that the girl wanted to set her own rules and not listen to her parents.

"(She) has one mind, her mind, and everybody else is wrong," he argued.

The family has lost its nine-bedroom house because of publicity from the case, Farley said. Many of Richard Russo's stock clients abandoned him after police made public their investigation, he said. He once earned $20,000 a month, but now earns about $4,500, Farley said.

And worse, Farley said, is that the Russos are not bad parents.

"There was no malice here, no attempt to hurt," he told Campbell.

Corona, though, said the abuse on the girl was so pervasive that the victim thought that she somehow deserved it.

"She accepted tremendous responsibility for her mother's behavior," Corona said. She also said the girl once said, "If I had done my homework, she would not have hit me."

The prosecutor also told the judge to take into account the "volume of perjured testimony" by Russo at the trial.

Russo lied when she said she only bit her daughter in self-defense, did not lock her daughter in the bathroom of the racquetball court and only made her sleep there for a month, Corona said.

"(The girl) spent the vast majority of two years locked in that bathroom during the night," Corona said. "This is all perjured testimony, your honor, and I think when people come into court and lie, that should be considered."

The girl was on vacation with her foster family and did not attend Tuesday's hearing. In a letter to the judge, she suggested that her mother be sentenced to live in the racquetball court, shower with a hose and be fed oatmeal continuously.

Russo refused to comment after the hearing. She has a job framing artwork, said Farley. Campbell said he does not believe Russo intended to cause lasting harm to her child, but that she needed to be punished nonetheless.

"Clearly, these 180 days are for punishment," he said. "In the face of everything, I believe this is a lenient disposition."

Outside the courtroom, one of Russo's other three daughters, Mary Ann Walsh, plopped down in a chair. She and the family's other five children side with their parents.

"Would I want to take back my sister?" Walsh asked. "Hell no."

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