HABERSHAM COUNTY, Ga. -- A former Mt. Airy, Ga. police chief and his wife have pleaded guilty to child cruelty charges.
Richard and Cheryle Burton were facing 28 counts of child cruelty. Richard Burton was also charged with child molestation. They were set to go on trial in Habersham County on Monday, but negotiated a plea deal.
The charges centered around alleged abuse of their four adopted children. They were accused of keeping the children confined to a room for years with little food.
They pleaded guilty to three of those child cruelty charges. In exchange, all the other counts, including child molestation, were dropped.
They received sentences of 10 years each. They'll serve 25 consecutive weekends in the county jail; the rest will be served on probation. They also must pay a $10,000 fine.
Because the child molestation charges were dropped in the plea agreement, Richard Burton is not required to register as a sex offender.
SENTENCE QUESTIONED BY CHILDREN'S NEW ADOPTIVE PARENT
The children who were allegedly abused now say they have the life they've always dreamed of on 13 acres of Habersham County farmland with loving parents and 11 adoptive siblings.It's practically the opposite of the life they describe with their first adoptive parents.
Richard and Cherlye Burton, who adopted them in 2004 when their birth mother lost her parental rights.
"It was good at first but something changed," one of the boys said.
The two boys and two girls range in age from 13 to 19 now. Even though it's painful, they want to speak out about the years of neglect, abuse and cruelty at the Burton house, where they say they were locked in a dark bedroom with boarded up windows, underfed and beaten.
"Getting hit in the head with a wooden paddle, being swung around the room, throwing us on the walls we had to stand upside down on the corner on our heads," said another one of the boys. "We had to eat noodles and they would put leftover food that they didn't want into our pot of noodles…We didn't have warm food, it was cold from the refrigerator."
The children were rescued after Will ran away in 2012 and told police. The Burtons were arrested.
Fran Chastain, who adopted the children's older brother years ago, adopted all four last year. She can't fathom how the accused couple ended up with 25 weekends in jail as a sentence.
"I think it's way too light," Chastain said. "We feel like this is just sending this wrong message."
Chief Assistant District Attorney Eddie Staples said he made the deal partly to avoid having the children testify at trial. But he says Richard Burton's connections also came into play.
"The witness list for the defense included law enforcement officers from this community," Staples said. "Those are the people we go into court everyday and tell the jurors, 'These are credible people.' And they were going to come and testify to Richard Burton particularly, but the Burtons' good character."
Chastain say the children bear physical and emotional scars, but they're healing. They're relieved there's not going to be a trial and they can spend their summer simply being kids.
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