Erica Parsons lived a stark life of punishment and terror at the hands of her adoptive parents and siblings before vanishing in 2011, according to testimony Wednesday during a sentencing hearing for Sandy and Casey Parsons.
Both Parsonses have been convicted of tax fraud and appeared in federal court in Winston-Salem to be sentenced.
But the hearing quickly turned into a shocking catalog – and the most detailed public account to date of what investigators know – of abuse Erica suffered. It poured out hour after sickening hour when Assistant U.S. Attorney Anand Ramaswamy sought to increase the penalties the couple faced by introducing evidence of other wrongdoing – including, he said, failure to report a death.
Erica was not reported missing until nearly two years after she last was seen in the Parsonses’ Rowan County home, and her fate is unknown. James “Jamie” Parsons reported his adoptive sibling missing in 2013, and his testimony on Wednesday gave a horrifying picture of life in the family’s home.
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James Parsons, now 21, said he and the other children in the family routinely abused the girl, who was 13 when she disappeared. He once broke her arm, he said.
“I would hit her, physically abuse her, fists, belts,” James Parsons said under oath Wednesday.
He said he abused the girl from the time he was age 5 and stopped when he was 16.
“I didn’t want to hit her no more – I couldn’t stand it,” he said.
He said his mother Casey Parsons encouraged the other children to abuse Erica, and he saw his mother often beat her.
“She would beat her with a belt if she didn’t listen,” James Parsons said. “Mama would bend her fingers back.”
Once, Casey Parsons put Erica’s hand in a cast because her fingers had broken, he said. The child was never taken to the hospital, he said.
“Dad would hit her with his fist on top of her head,” James Parsons said of his father, Sandy Parsons. At one point, the girl developed a bald spot because of scabbing, he said.
Food was often withheld from her as punishment, he said. If she’d steal a cookie or something else to eat, she’d be fed canned dog food by her adoptive mother. This happened up to once or twice a month, he said.
Erica was often locked in a closet in the various homes the family lived in, James Parsons said. Sometimes she would be beaten for relieving herself in the closet, he said.
FBI agent testifies
Tara Cataldo, the FBI case agent on the girl’s disappearance, said that investigators, armed with a search warrant, inspected the Parsonses’ home in August 2013. They noticed holes in the wall beside a bedroom closet that seemed to be from an old eye-hook lock typically used to hold screen doors closed.
Carpet and wall board from the closet were sent to the FBI laboratory, and traces of Erica’s blood and other DNA – believed to be from saliva or urine – were detected, she said.
Five photos of Erica were also recovered from a computer in the home, she testified – all of Erica standing in a corner on different days.
‘Like a zombie’
James Parsons told the court that the last time he saw Erica was in 2011, when she was standing in a corner as punishment.
“She didn’t look too good – she looked like a zombie,” he testified. “She said she did not feel good. She said she could not breathe too good.”
James Parsons said Erica was gone the next morning, and he never saw her again. His parents had left early that day, which was unusual – and came back that morning to the house after 9 a.m.
He was told that Erica had gone to live with her biological grandmother, but something didn’t seem right, he said.
“Mama looked normal. Daddy looked sick, like he was about to throw up,” James Parsons testified. “Mama went on her recliner with the computer. Daddy, it was a blank stare.”
Asked why he waited nearly two years to call police to report Erica missing, James Parsons said he didn’t know if anybody would believe him. “I just got enough guts to go to the police,” he said.
James Parsons’ missing person report in 2013 led to an investigation and search that gained national attention. Erica has not been found. Investigators have said the “grandmother” who the Parsons said took in Erica did not exist.
Amy Miller of Grand Blanc, Mich., testified that she paid Casey Parsons $10,000 to be a surrogate mother, to carry an implanted embryo.
Miller said that a few weeks after Casey Parsons began carrying the embryo, she called to say she had lost the baby. But Miller said she did not believe her, and learned later that Casey Parsons was still pregnant. Their relationship turned upside down.
“She went from a kind, loving woman to a vicious person,” said Miller.
Miller said she spent the next six months in agony because she knew her son was not dead. On March 17, 2002, she received an email from Casey Parsons’ sister, Robin Ashley, confirming that Parsons was still pregnant.
Eventually, Parsons agreed to give up the child, and the Millers took him home to Michigan the day he was born.
Sister took in child
Robin Ashley testified that her sister Casey did not bond with Erica, who was born the daughter of Carolyn Parsons, once married to Sandy Parsons’ brother. “She couldn’t stand to look at her face because she reminded her of Carolyn Parsons,” Ashley said.
Erica came to live with Ashley twice over the years. One of those times, in the summer of 2004 when Erica was about 6, Ashley said she noticed that the girl was bruised on the backside. Casey Parsons had sent her away because she didn’t want to hurt her anymore, Ashley said.
“She did not want to abuse Erica, so that’s why she came to me,” Ashley said. “She told me she didn’t want to kill her. She lost control. She didn’t want to end up killing Erica.”
Ashley also said that Erica was treated like “a little slave.” Erica was made to stand in the corner for long periods as punishment, and Ashley noticed that the girl’s fingers were crooked.
“In my opinion, I thought they were broken and didn’t grow back right,” Ashley said.
She said Erica wasn’t allowed to play with other children because she was often being disciplined.
Ashley also said that after telling Miller she’d had a miscarriage, Casey Parsons offered to sell Ashley the unborn baby for $10,000. Ashley said no.
During Ashley’s testimony, Casey Parsons – dressed in a dark striped blouse, dark slacks and bright white tennis shoes – stared at her sister and whispered to her attorney.
‘A little Cinderella’
Janet Parsons, Sandy’s stepmother and Casey’s mother-in-law, also testified Wednesday. She said that for a time in 2011, they all lived together in her China Grove home. Janet Parsons and her husband currently have custody of the family’s two youngest children.
“Erica wasn’t treated as kindly as the others,” she said. “She had to do more chores. She was kind of like a little Cinderella – she had to do the chores.”
Janet Parsons said that Casey Parsons and the rest of her family once went to the beach for a short visit, and Erica was left in the house alone. Her grandfather found her hiding, and she said she was told not to be seen while the others were at the beach.
“We had no knowledge she was there, which is scary if you think about it,” Janet Parsons testified. “She was hidden.”
James Parsons said in later testimony that he was supposed to look after Erica – who was then about 13 – while the family was gone, but he had just started a job as a bagger at Food Lion, and had left her alone to go to work.
Judge Thomas Schroeder continued the sentencing until March 27. The couple face the possibility of decades in prison and steep fines.