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Neighbors Wary in Child Abuse Case

September 12, 1999

NORCO, Calif. (AP) _ For years, a little girl lived chained to a bed in a darkened room so filled with trash and feces that her mother tried to blanket the putrid smell with baby powder.

So repulsive was the home, officials said, that paramedics eventually rescued the girl last week through a window _ because they couldn’t bear walking back through the stench.

Residents in this rural Southern California town now say they long suspected something was amiss at 1531 Elm Dr. But as the years passed, no one dared cross the vaguely drawn line that separates a good neighbor from a meddlesome one.

``I would have given anything in the world to be wrong,″ said DeVora Antisdel, a former Elm Drive resident who finally made the call that led to the girl’s rescue Tuesday. ``Unfortunately, it’s all too real.″

Paramedics estimated that the girl, Betty, is about 6 years old. She was in fair condition at Loma Linda University Medical Center, said hospital spokeswoman Julie Smith.

Following the rescue, neighbors recalled strange behavior by Betty’s mother, Cindi Sue Topper, and that the girl’s grandfather, Loren Bess, was a recluse.

Still, residents, said, there were no obvious signs of neglect, no screams or other loud noises coming from the house.

Inaction by neighbors is common in such cases, said retired University of Southern California psychology professor Ward Edwards. When someone calls authorities based only on suspicions, there is a good chance that nothing is out of place _ and a high probability of being ostracized as a nosy neighbor, he said.

``How much do you have to lose, how much you have to gain is crucial to every decision,″ Edwards said. ``It’s hard to be a whistleblower. ... It’s sort of like a home alarm system. How many times has it gone off, and how many times should it have gone off?″

Aaron Hawkins didn’t think about calling police because he didn’t even believe the child existed.

``I thought it was (Topper’s) brain, kind of wacko. She just kept rambling on, over and over again,″ said Hawkins, 31.

Now that he knows about the girl and the neglect, Hawkins said it makes him angry. ``If I had known about that over there, they probably would’ve had to arrest me″ for hurting Topper or Bess.

Antisdel and her former landlord, David Beck, were among those who didn’t want to jump to conclusions. But then Beck saw the little girl in a parking lot about a year ago and though she was clean, she seemed withdrawn. Beck began questioning everyone from the mail carrier to the garbage man. Nobody knew much.

They did know that Topper was attacked in 1983 by an ex-boyfriend in Santa Ana. He fatally shot her husband and then beat her with a claw hammer, pistol whipped her and cut her throat. She underwent two cranial surgeries.

An Orange County prosecutor, Richard King, has said that a doctor or counselor found that the attack left Topper with ``the mental capacity of a fifth-grader.″

Beck admits he didn’t want to be the one to call authorities even though neighbors already branded him the nosy one. Antisdel, who moved out of the area 70 miles east of Los Angeles a year ago, called. And she doesn’t care what Elm Drive residents label her.

``If they say something to me, it’s because of the guilt they’re carrying around inside that they were so close and did nothing,″ she said.

Topper and her father remained in custody at a Riverside County jail on $250,000 bail each. They have pleaded innocent to felony charges of torture, child endangerment and false imprisonment.

Betty, meanwhile, is now a ward of the county.

``We didn’t want to get involved,″ Antisdel said. ``But you know, if there’s a chance that there’s a life there, are you willing to turn your back?″

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