Jamie Hicks, 43, and Vernon Lovel, 53. Jail booking photo
The house where the children lived on Annie Street.
TAMPA, FL (WFLA) -
Many people who live along Annie Street in Tampa were clueless that there were so many children living in the cream-colored house behind the cyclone fence. Jasmine Bisbee, a mother of five who lives nearby, grew up in the neighborhood and walked by the house every day.
"I'd never even seen kids playing outside in the yard or anything," said Bisbee. "I never knew kids lived there period."
But they did; eight of them.
Now, Tampa Police investigators believe the life those children were living was, at times, severe, cruel, and bizarre and it happened, they say, at the hands of their mother.
As of Friday, detectives were still interviewing the children who have, up to this point, described a life of abuse, including having to eat their own vomit.
"There's no way to understand how a parent could abuse a child in such a cruel and severe way," said Tampa Police spokeswoman Laura McElroy. "What was so disturbing about this case is that you peeled back the layers of the onion, as you did one interview after another and started to develop that rapport with the children that they felt comfortable to open up and talk to the detectives. The stories that came spilling out were truly chilling."
Jamie Marie Hicks, 43 of 1414 Annie St. E in Tampa, is the mother of all eight children, according to police. Her husband, Vernon Lovell, 53 of the same address, fathered five of those kids and was step-dad to the others, who are the oldest.
The couple had a girl two years ago, a boy who is 4, a 7-year-old boy, 10-year-old boy, 12-year-old girl, 13-year-old boy and two twin boys who are 16.
According to reports, the 10 and 13-year-old boys left the house on March 25. They ran to the end of the county, US 41 near County Line Rd., when a Pasco County Sheriff’s deputy spotted them just inside Hillsborough County.
Deputies picked up the two boys and returned them home, where Tampa Police started peeling back the layers. At first, things didn't seem so bad.
"Unfortunately the children in the home were not forthcoming about the abuse they had suffered, which is very typical in these kinds of cases," McElroy said.
Eventually, that changed.
"All of the children in separate interviews gave consistent accounts that they had been slapped, they had been choked to the point where they couldn't breathe. They had been kicked, punched in the stomach. Their head had been held under water," McElroy said. "They were forced to eat old and moldy food. When they would throw it up, the mother would then make them eat their vomit."
Tampa Police believe the boys would get in trouble for stealing food and at that point, their mother would stick fingers down their throats so they would regurgitate the food they'd taken without permission.
"What we've discovered in this house is a very severe and very cruel punishment," McElroy said.
The twins, the oldest at 16, are now in the hospital. McElroy said one weighed 84 pounds; the other 93. The nurses who examined them estimated the average weight for their age and height should be 135 pounds.
Because of that malnourishment, Jamie Hicks is facing child abuse and neglect charges. Vernon Lovell is facing neglect charges as well. McElroy said, at this point, detectives believe Lovell witnessed the abuse, but noted their investigation isn't complete.
The other six children are undergoing extensive testing to see if they too have suffered medically from abuse. At this point police aren't sure how long it had been going on.
How did eight children go unnoticed?
"The children were kept inside the home where neighbors or classmates wouldn't be able to see the children," McElroy said.
She added that they were home-schooled and had not been to church for over a year. All the children are now under the care of the state, The Department of Children and Families.
Now neighbors like Jasmine Bisbee are trying to process what a mother is accused of doing.
"You wouldn't even treat a dog that way," Bisbee said. "That's ridiculous."