A woman accused of forcing two of her children to take turns riding in a car trunk during a trip from Alabama to Loudoun County told the girls "that's what bumpers are for" when one expressed concern about possibly getting hurt in a car accident, prosecutors said yesterday.
New details about the trip emerged yesterday as Cheryl Ann Brown, 38, faced the charges in court for the first time. She is charged with one count of abuse and neglect of children in the July 1 road trip. A Loudoun judge ruled yesterday that there was enough evidence to send her case to a grand jury.
Authorities allege that Brown rotated her 10-year-old and 8-year-old daughters in and out of the trunk because the Nissan Sentra she had rented was cramped with three other passengers and a dog. Also in the car, they have said, were Brown's infant daughter, her 12-year-old daughter and the girl's 12-year-old friend.
Juvenile and Domestic Relations Judge Pamela Grizzle closed the courtroom yesterday while the friend, now 13, testified about what happened before and during the ride. In arguments in open court afterward, however, Loudoun Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Nicole Wittmann recounted the girl's statements.
The friend testified that Brown told her mother they would be renting a minivan for the trip. To save money, however, she rented the smaller, five-seat sedan. One of the girls noted that there would not be enough seats for everyone, and Brown responded that the girls would have to squeeze together or sit in the trunk, Wittmann said, quoting the testimony. The girl then wondered about what would happen in a car accident, prompting Brown's comment about bumpers, Wittmann said.
The friend also testified that the 8-year-old emerged from her time in the trunk drenched with sweat and singing a song about how hot she had been, Wittmann said.
"[Brown is] alerted to the potential danger here . . . because the girls bring it to her attention," Wittmann added. "All of this showed there was a gross and wanton disregard for human life."
After the hearing, Wittmann said the 8-year-old was placed in the closed trunk first, staying there for about four hours. Then the older girl was in the trunk, for four to six hours, Wittmann said. She added that Brown folded down one of the car's back seats before helping the older girl into the trunk so she could poke her head into the body of the car for air and light. The girls were not injured.
Brown had taken the children on a five-day vacation to Fort Payne, Ala., to visit relatives, according to her ex-husband, Curtis Schoonmaker, who is the father of her three older daughters. At the end of the trip, she dropped the children off at Schoonmaker's house in Aldie. Schoonmaker said that the girls told him about the ride the next day and that he alerted the Loudoun sheriff's office.
Brown and her attorney, Eric Strom, would not comment after yesterday's hearing, and Strom did not present any evidence. He told the judge that although Brown's behavior may not have been ideal, it did not meet the legal definition of the charge, which requires that the act be so gross and wanton that it shows a reckless disregard for human life.
"Sweat is not life-threatening. It may be uncomfortable . . . but it's not life-threatening, and there's no indication that it was," Strom said.
Also, he said, testimony about Brown's comments about the size of the car and about the younger girl being warm in the trunk should be considered irrelevant in a Loudoun courtroom because they did not occur in the county. Of the two children, only the older one spent time in the trunk while in Loudoun, authorities have said.
If Brown is indicted, she will face trial in Circuit Court. If convicted, she faces up to five years in prison. She has been free on bond since she was released July 8 by a magistrate in Stafford County, where she lives.