SPRINGFIELD, Ga. — Toward the end, 14-year-old Mary Crocker lived in a dog pen almost 24 hours a day.
Bound with zip-ties, beaten and denied food, she kept losing weight; her joints became swollen because of the contorted position she had to assume in the tight confines, investigator Abby Brown testified Tuesday. Someone took a picture of Mary in front of the cage, which was planted in the kitchen of the family’s home. Mary was nude in the photo, allegedly found on her father’s cellphone, and she looked gaunt and near death, which she was.
The disturbing details emerged during a preliminary court hearing related to the deaths of Mary and her brother, Elwyn “JR” Crocker Jr., who was two years older. The siblings’ bodies were found buried behind the family’s double-wide trailer some 30 miles from Savannah on Dec. 20 by sheriff’s deputies. Both kids were home-schooled and had never been reported missing. Authorities say five relatives participated in abusing the girl.
The testimony marked the most detailed information yet released in the high-profile case, which has drawn national attention and led to sharp criticism of the state Division of Family and Children Services. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in January that DFCS declined in 2017 to investigate an earlier allegation of abuse at the home because the complaint was a year old. Child welfare experts said that was a mistake, and DFCS has since vowed a policy change.
Tuesday’s testimony centered on Mary because hers is the only death that has resulted in charges, but authorities said JR was also abused and charges could arise from his death once medical examiners finish examining his body. Testing is also ongoing with Mary’s remains, but authorities believe they have enough to charge the suspects already. Authorities believe JR may have died up to two years before Mary, who is thought to have died on Oct. 28, 2018.
The five relatives who allegedly abused the girl have been charged with felony murder in her death. Mary was beaten with household objects, Tased and, on the rare occasion she got a meal, it was spiked with pungent substances, such as rice vinegar, so she wouldn’t be able to choke it down. She was left nude in the pen and only bathed when someone would haul the cage into the bathroom to spray her with water.
Brown testified it was all said to be punishment for various forms of misbehavior: refusing to exercise, failing to do chores and stealing food.
The detective’s testimony elicited mournful groans from people who didn’t even know the family but happened to be in court for other hearings on the calendar. The strangers closed their eyes in anguish and let out long sighs. Relatives who were there declined multiple times to comment to The AJC. Meanwhile, the children’s father, Elwyn Crocker Sr., 50, who most recently worked playing Santa at a nearby Walmart, betrayed no emotion and looked disheveled in his orange jailhouse jumpsuit and mussed beard.
Brown said the children’s surviving brother, James, 11, who has cerebral palsy and requires special lactose-free food, told authorities even he was instructed to hit Mary because his step-grandmother said Mary took his food.
“He hit her with a frying pan,” the detective said.
James is now in DFCS custody.
Elywn Crocker Sr. and the children’s step-uncle Tony Wright, 31, were the only suspects in court. Like the others, they’ve been jailed for months without bond. The father and step uncle sought bond, but they were promptly denied on Tuesday by Judge F. Gates Peed. The other suspects are the children’s stepmother Candice Crocker, 33, her mother, Kim Wright, 50, and Kim Wright’s boyfriend, Roy Anthony Prater, 55.
Brown said all of the suspects have spoken to deputies at one point or another.
It was a statement by Tony Wright, who maintains he had no knowledge of the abuse, that brought deputies to the home outside the rural city of Guyton on Dec. 20. He claimed he’d gone to the kitchen the night before to get a drink of water and overheard an argument, which he thought was between Elwyn Crocker Sr. and Elwyn Crocker Sr.'s mother-in-law, Kim Wright. One of them allegedly said something to the effect of, “James can be dead like his sister Mary.”
He said he didn’t know she was dead and grew concerned that she might be. He told an aunt who lives out of town about it and she called the sheriff’s office.
Deputies spoke with the father, who claimed he’d sent Mary to live with her mom in South Carolina, Brown said. That turned out to be a lie. The father cycled through a series of other lies before admitting she was buried at the edge of the back yard, along with JR. Asked about JR’s death, the father told investigators he’d gotten a call one day from his wife and Kim Wright saying the boy had died. He said he came home to find the boy dead in the bathroom.
The detective said the father admitted burying the kids and taking part in Mary's abuse, but he said he did it at the direction of his wife and Kim Wright.
Neighbors have previously told investigators and The AJC they suspected Mary was being abused because she sometimes had strange markings on her hands, spent long hours doing yard work and seemed scared to go in her home. She looked perpetually frightened in the months before her death, next door neighbor Gary Bennett said. Then he stopped seeing her.
According to Brown, the abuse got progressively worse until the father, stepmother and Kim Wright were sending each other texts about things they were doing to her, how she was doing. At one point, her joints were so damaged from the confinement that she was duct taped to a ladder to see if her extremities would straighten out, Brown said.
By then, Brown said, Mary Crocker was spending almost the whole day in the dog pen.
One day, Candice Crocker said she got a call from her husband. He told her Mary was dead.
He’d just seen the “light go out of her eyes," according to Brown's testimony, and he asked his wife to get some black trash bags and cement.
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