Girl locked up in attic, mistreated, police say


OSHKOSH, Wis. – Icicle lights line the gutters of Clint and Lynn Engstrom’s home on Minnesota Street. The newly remodeled house is among the nicest on the block, and a silver SUV is parked out back. Beside the front door hangs a shiny wooden sign; six intertwined hearts contain the names of the Engstroms and four children who lived there as a blended family.

But authorities say one of the children – Clint Engstrom’s 13-year-old daughter from a previous relationship – wasn’t treated like the others. Instead, she was kept in near solitary confinement in a bare attic bedroom for two years, police say, behind a dead-bolted door and a video camera, let out only for timed bathroom breaks, meager meals and chores.

Her situation ended only after the parents took the girl to a hospital Friday when they said she began hearing voices.

“Is this something like a Cinderella syndrome?” Oshkosh police Sgt. Steve Sagmeister said. “Even in a story book, I don’t think Cinderella was even treated like this. (This is) far worse than imaginable. I can’t even fathom what the parents were even thinking.”

The parents were charged Tuesday in Winnebago County with causing mental harm to a child, a felony punishable by up to 12½ years in prison and a $25,000 fine. Clint M. Engstrom, 32, and Lynn M. Engstrom, 35, are being held in lieu of $25,000 cash bail at the Winnebago County Jail, a place Sagmeister noted provides them with more than they are accused of providing the 13-year-old girl: hot meals and a clean bed.

The criminal complaint outlines a horrible life for the girl who was only allowed out of her small room for a couple hours a day for one-minute bathroom breaks and chores that included taking out the trash and cleaning up after the family’s three St. Bernards.

The other three children, Lynn Engstrom’s two sons, ages 12 and 9, and 8-year-old daughter, were treated differently, authorities say, and had nice toys, televisions and computers.

The 13-year-old is now living with her grandmother while the other children stay with other family members, Sagmeister said.

The alleged abuse came to light Friday, the girl’s birthday, when the Engstroms took her to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital because she was hearing voices.

Police were called to the hospital and listened in shock as the girl, who had begun to pull large chunks of hair out of her head and pick at her skin, explained what her life had been like for at least two years.

Lynn Engstrom, who has worked for a day care and a bowling alley, told police she and her husband kept up the extreme punishment because the girl’s psychiatrist told her to do so.

She told police the couple “were always questioning what they were doing,” but that the doctor “told them not give in,” according to the criminal complaint.

The Engstroms admitted the girl had been grounded for about two years and said they planned to end the punishment as soon as she behaved properly for two straight days.

Court records did not indicate what behavior prompted the punishment or what behavior was required to end the grounding.

According to the criminal complaint:

The girl got a granola bar for breakfast and was not allowed to eat with the family. Sagmeister said when the rest of the family ate a hot meal, she was given only a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

In the girl’s room, police found only a urine-stained mattress, pillow, blanket, empty chest of drawers and a small space heater, which was controlled from outside the room. A towel was placed over the window. There was a naked light bulb in the ceiling socket, but Sagmeister said the string on the pull switch was too short for the girl to work it.

Clint Engstrom told police that, at a psychiatrist’s suggestion, he installed an alarm on the girl’s door after she had been sneaking out to eat the other children’s candy and watch TV.

When asked why she was singled out for such treatment, the girl told detectives she thought she was grounded for some sort of misbehavior, said Sagmeister, though what she had done was unclear to authorities. He said the girl asked what she had done wrong, and a detective tried to assure her that the punishment was not her fault.

Detectives described the girl as intelligent and strong despite her ordeal. She told police that over the past month or so she tried to cry but couldn’t produce tears.

The girl was enrolled in Oshkosh public schools until August 2002, when she was transferred to Grace Lutheran School in Oshkosh, said John Sprangers, human resources director for the Oshkosh Area School District, which has about 10,300 students. School records indicate the girl was re-enrolled on Dec. 11 and is still considered a student at South Park Middle School.

Clint and Lynn Engstrom had financial problems for several years, according to circuit court records that show numerous small claims judgments for unpaid bills ranging from $2,500 for utilities and $2,300 for medical expenses to a mortgage foreclosure on their previous Oshkosh home in 2004.

Court records show that the girl’s mother was never married to Clint Engstrom. She has since married and had four more children, according to records. The mother, who was 17 when the girl was born, could not be reached Wednesday.

Neighbors on Minnesota Street and people who know the couple weren’t answering their doors Wednesday, and two employees who worked with Lynn Engstrom at Oshkosh Lanes said their boss had ordered them not to talk about her.

(c) 2007, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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AP-NY-01-17-07 2204EST