April and Jeff Henderson were accused three years ago in what one rescuer called “the worst case of neglect we’d seen on a person that was still alive.” The North Bend, Washington, couple, parents of four kids of their own, ultimately copped a plea in the case after fleeing Washington for Florida — about as far away as they could get without leaving the continental United States — but now the new legal guardian for Heather Curtis, the disabled young woman horrifically neglected by the Hendersons, has slapped Washington State with a $27 million lawsuit.
The suit claims that the state’s Department of Social and Health Services had numerous chances to help Heather, and “red flags” that the blind girl who also suffered from cerebral palsy and spastic quadriplegia — a severe condition that causes near-total loss of muscle control — was being severely neglected at the hands of her caretaker couple were allegedly ignored.
Police said that the Hendersons took Heather, who is not their own child, into their care when she was 10 years old, after her previous caregiver passed away, according to an account of the case assembled by KING-TV in Seattle. Heather was orphaned when she was only seven years old.
But for the next nine years, until her rescue from the nightmarish conditions in the Henderson home, the couple simply pocketed the monthly checks, of about $4,000 each, provided by the state DSHS for Heather’s care, spending the money on themselves while Heather literally rotted away, helpless to care for herself.
When King County Detective Belinda Paredes-Garrett finally arrived at the Henderson home on October 25, 2012, she said that April Henderson physically blocked her from entering Heather’s bedroom. But when the detective finally got into the room, she and firefighter Scott Foster saw what Paredes-Garrett called “one of the most horrible things I’d ever seen.”
“I remember the smell, I remember the flies, I remember the dirty diapers and this poor little girl,” Foster told KING this week. “We opened the door and immediately had the smell of feces, and there were diapers on the floor, feces on the floor. There was a bunk bed. She was under a blanket, in the bunk bed.”
“She was wailing and moaning a sound I’ve never ever heard and the only thing I could compare it to would be a wounded animal,” said Paredes-Garett, who used that same description in her official report on the rescue.
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Heather weighed just 67 pounds and appeared to be no older than six or seven, the investigators said, even though as they soon learned, Heather was actually 19 years old.
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According to a report in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer last year, when the Hendersons returned to Washington from Florida to face charges, Heather had 23 severely decayed teeth, in addition to her alarmingly underweight condition.
But outside of Heather’s room, the Henderson home was nicely appointed, the report described, with a pair of flat-screen TVs, laptop computers, iPhones, iPads, and even what police called “an extensive reptile collection,” even though the couple were unemployed at the time. Their primary source of income, prosecutors charged, was the steady flow of cash from the state that was intended for the care of Heather Curtis.
The state Employment Security Department also charged that April Henderson had collected almost $20,000 in unemployment benefits to which she was not entitled.
When the Hendersons returned to face the charges, local TV station KIRO attempted to interview them, but April and Jeff simply hid their faces and said nothing, as seen in the below screen capture of the attempted interview.
The first warning signs that something was very wrong were detected back in 2004, shortly after the Hendersons took over Heather’s care, when teachers at her school reported that she often showed up smelling of feces and urine, never wore a coat despite cold weather, and suffered from bed sores. Similar complaints about Heather’s condition were reported in 2005, 2008, and 2009 — and then in 2010, she disappeared from school altogether.
David P. Moody, the attorney who filed this week’s $27 million lawsuit on Heather’s behalf against the state, told KING-TV that the money is intended to insure that Heather received proper care for the remainder of her life.
In the months after her rescue, Heather’s condition improved and she gained 30 pounds — though she required 19 root canals and four complete tooth extractions to ease what her dentist says must have been the searing pain she suffered for years due to the neglect of her dental care.
April and Jeff Henderson ended up pleading guilty to second-degree criminal mistreatment, but they avoided jail, serving just nine months of in-home confinement.
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