Jury finds parents guilty of child neglect charges

Becky Campbell • Mar 8, 2012 at 9:48 PM

There were no shocked expressions Thursday morning as a jury announced guilty verdicts on all counts in a child neglect case involving five children whose parents never sent them to school.

Robert Simons III, 55, and Mary Ella Tittle, 39, were found guilty of two aggravated child neglect charges, but the remaining six were verdicts on less serious charges.

The couple had been facing eight counts of aggravated child neglect in the case.

The two most serious convictions was due to their neglect of their only daughter — not only the educational neglect, but also the parents failure to provide adequate care for the girl’s serious kidney disease.

Prosecutors presented evidence showing Simons and Tittle only sporadically sought treatment for the girl, and stopped going to the doctor altogether after a kidney specialist told Simons he might lose custody of her if he couldn’t provide a more stable living environment.

The doctor was concerned because she often couldn’t reach Simons and the family made frequent trips from Pennsylvania — where the girl was getting treatment for the disease — and Tennessee, which disrupted her medical appointments. Simons and Tittle told authorities they home schooled their children, but that proved to be a lie.

The jury rejected aggravated child neglect charges in the counts involving the other four children, opting instead for child neglect on two and felony child neglect on four.

The panel also assessed Simons and Tittle fines totalling $92,000 each, money the state will likely never get.

The couple now faces 15 to 25 years in prison on the two most serious convictions, one to two years in prison on the felony child neglect conviction and 11 months, 29 days in jail on the two child neglect convictions.

Criminal Court Judge Robert Cupp set an April 12 sentencing hearing. He could order the sentences served concurrently or consecutively.

Simons and Tittle have been in jail since their arrest April 22, 2010, and will receive credit on their sentences for that time.

The verdict came just about 30 minutes after the jury resumed deliberations Thursday morning. The panel started their talks Wednesday afternoon and deliberated three hours before Cupp sent them home for the night. The jury heard evidence 3 1/2 days last week and part of Monday and listened to closing arguments Wednesday. The judge didn’t hold court Tuesday due to the state primary election.

The Department of Children’s Services started the investigation after receiving information about several children at a residence on Miller Drive in Jonesborough not attending school.

It took several visits to the property for a DCS case worker to make contact with the family. On the final visit, the case worker took along Washington County Sheriff’s Investigator Jared Taylor.

An unrelated woman living with the family, Leona Bentler, answered the door and began giving the investigators information about what was going on in the Simons family.

Bentler had been living with the family since January 2010, having met the couple through a mutual friend. Bentler testified in the trial that she was looking for a fresh start after a divorce in her home state of Oregon.

Simons drove his family to Oregon and picked up Bentler and her daughter. Bentler was also charged in the case and pleaded guilty in Sessions Court to failure to report child neglect.

Taylor testified that the living conditions on the Simons/Tittle property were deplorable and the kids slept on a travel bus sitting in the yard. The bus had no running water and the electricity came through extension cords run from the house on the property.

Tittle’s mother, Roberta Sauls, lived in a mobile home there, and it also did not have electricity or running water. Sauls was also charged in the case, but died before her charges were settled.

After court Thursday, Assistant District Attorney Dennis Brooks said he was glad the jury found at least two aggravated child neglect counts were appropriate.

“I’ll go to my grave believing that educational neglect is cruel, heinous or atrocious,” he said.

Those were elements the state had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt for the aggravated child neglect charge to stick. Defense attorneys Matt Bolton and Jim Lonon argued that their clients behavior did not rise to that level. Apparently the jury agreed, based on the findings in the other six counts.

As the jury foreman read the verdicts, and as Cupp later assessed those findings to the defendants, neither showed any emotion. Cupp had warned everyone prior to the verdict announcement there would be no outbursts when it was announced.

Simons and Tittle’s parental rights have already been terminated, but they were in the process of appealing that ruling. Brooks said he believes the convictions will end that procedure.

The kids’ foster parents, Junior and Brenda Jordan, said they hoped to adopt the five children.

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