Couple pleads not guilty to caging 2 boys

VANCOUVER, WA Jonny McMullen, defense attorney for the children's father, said the word "cage" was first used by police to describe the living conditions of the boys, ages 5 and 7.

"The word 'cage,' I don't know if that's a fair characterization," McMullen said. He declined to give another word that would better describe the room.

John Eckhart, 30, and Alayna Higdon, 26, each pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to charges of criminal mistreatment and unlawful imprisonment.

Neither spoke during their hearings other than to confirm that they were pleading not guilty. They didn't speak to each other, a fact McMullen attributed to a no-contact order issued by Clark County Superior Court Judge John Wulle.

On April 12, two maintenance workers found the children in a bedroom of an apartment shared by Eckhart and Higdon. The couple also had two other children living in the apartment. The autistic children were Eckhart's from a previous relationship. One of the other children was Higdon's from a previous relationship, and the couple had an 11-month-old child together.

The autistic children are in state foster care, pending a custody hearing. The biological mother, Jona Bronson, of Tillamook, Ore., is seeking long-term placement. The other two children are with family.

A trial has been set for Sept. 26 in Vancouver.

The room itself was described by the maintenance workers to a police officer as being locked by a door constructed of metal shelves and locked by a karabiner. Inside was a single mattress in a "race car"-like bed. The room smelled of urine, and the boys had picked holes in the walls that were covered by sheets of plywood.

The couple's other two children are staying with family.

"The bottom line," McMullen said, "is that what a parent of a child without autism does is very different from what a parent would do to protect a child from himself."

McMullen said autistic children are more likely to injure themselves, and said he would bring in experts to testify about it at trial.

Brian Walker, Higdon's attorney, said the facts issued by the police are preliminary and inconclusive.

"The facts that have been released barely scratch the surface," Walker said. "There's a lot to be revealed in time."

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