Testimony continues in Simons/Tittle child neglect trial

Becky Campbell • Mar 1, 2012 at 9:54 AM

Editor's note: Testimony continues today in the Robert Simons/Mary Tittle child neglect trial. Staff Writer Becky Campbell is tweeting live from the courtroom in Jonesborough. Follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/@CampbellinCourt .

The following is her account of Wednesday's testimony:


Jurors were handed a full day of testimony Wednesday in an aggravated child neglect case prosecutors say led to five children suffering severe delays in their intellectual development.

Robert Simons III, 55, and Mary Ella Tittle, 39, of Jonesborough, are charged with a total of eight counts of aggravated child neglect, five that involve a child age 8 or younger and three involving a child under 18 years old.

Authorities discovered the couple and their five children after the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services received a call about unsupervised children not attending school.

Two Hamblen County school psychologists testified they examined the children and tested their intellectual levels soon after the kids, ages 7 to 13, went into state custody.

All five tested at the pre-K level of knowledge, had few social skills and undeveloped adaptive skills.

The children’s first reaction to a school building was one of amazement and curiosity, the psychologists said. Letters, numbers, shapes, colors and even the ability to use a pencil correctly also were unfamiliar to the children, they said.

When defense attorneys Matt Bolton and Jim Lonon questioned the psychologists, they asked if a child’s intellectual delays related to delays their parents have as well, or if the children were destined to have intellectual problems.

Karen Armstrong, one of the psychologists, said it’s possible for a child’s delays to be related to a parent’s delays, but said many of the problems could have improved much earlier if those delays had been addressed.

These tests occurred just a short time after the children were taken from their parents on April 22, 2010. That’s when a DCS case worker and Washington County Sheriff’s Investigator Jared Taylor went to the family’s home on Miller Drive and first encountered Leona Bentler. She had been living with the family since January, after Simons and Tittle drove to Oregon to bring her and her daughter to Tennessee. Bentler told authorities none of the Simonses’ children were in school and one was in kidney failure.

That day, authorities took custody of the children and arrested their parents on the neglect charges. Taylor testified extensively about the conditions of four structures on the property — a house, mobile home, travel bus and camper — some that the family used as living space.

During his testimony, and while showing photographs to jurors, Taylor used words like “disgusting,” “deplorable,” “stench,” “dirty” and “nasty.”

There was running water and power only to the house and numerous extension cords delivered power to the mobile home — where Tittle’s mother lived — and the travel bus.

Bentler testified later that she was “tricked” into accompanying the Simons family to Tennessee by a promise of a welding job that never existed and a house where she and her daughter could live.

Once Bentler got here and realized she had been duped, she wanted to go home but didn’t have the resources. She said she used her food stamps from Oregon to buy groceries for the family, and that she was never allowed to go to the store alone.

Bentler described an atmosphere of control on Simons’ part and said he was “intimidating.”

Bentler was very emotional during her testimony, and essentially said the decision to join the Simonses ruined her life.

She was also charged in the case for failure to report the neglect, ended up in jail and had her own daughter placed in foster care. Bentler said, through tears, that she can talk to her daughter every day, but only sees her for one hour a week.

Bentler also said she is now homeless and just wants “to go home” to Oregon, but she still doesn’t have the resources.

Other testimony Wednesday came from Dr. Martin Tran, a kidney specialist who treated the Simonses’ daughter for her kidney disease that ultimately resulted in a transplant.

Tran also treated the Simonses’ oldest son for an unrelated kidney disease that also required a transplant.

The Rev. Ed Jefferies testified Simons approached him at his church just a few days before the arrests and asked for help getting a prescription filled for his daughter.

Jefferies said he used a church credit card to get the prescription filled. From other testimony, the jury learned that prescription was for an antibiotic needed to treat a rat bite on the girl’s ear.

Taylor testified that while he was in the house on Miller Drive documenting the conditions, he heard what sounded like animals in the walls.

Bentler told the jury the rat that bit the girl was a pet rat of her daughter’s that had gotten out of its cage.

It is likely jurors will hear today about how the children have progressed from other educational witnesses.

Simons and Tittle have remained in custody under $50,000 bonds since their arrests two years ago.

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