TRACY, Calif. - City officials and child-abuse experts don't understand how the abduction and torture of a teenage boy could have gone undetected for more than a year in this middle-class community once dubbed the second-safest in Northern California.
"Unless this child was chained in the basement for the duration, it's just not possible that somebody could not have seen something," said Lindy Turner-Hardin, executive director of the nonprofit Child Abuse Prevention Council of San Joaquin County.
But neighbors of a Tracy couple didn't notice much, except that the 16-year-old boy looked very skinny when he was spotted taking out the trash recently. And he was seldom seen outside even though he was of school age.
Authorities said the couple and the boy's former guardian repeatedly used a baseball bat, a knife and a belt to abuse the teen, often keeping him in chains. The emaciated boy stumbled into a gym behind the family's home Monday with a chain padlocked to his ankle, pleading for safety and shelter.
Michael Schumacher, 34, and his wife Kelly Layne Lau, 30, are accused of more than a dozen charges, including torture, kidnapping and child abuse. The boy's former guardian, Caren Ramirez, 43, was charged with similar offenses.
All three, who have yet to enter pleas, are expected to appear in court Monday. They could face life in prison if convicted.
Authorities said the boy, who had escaped from a group foster home, was abused in the two-story Tudor-style house separated by a fence from the gym where he was discovered. A contractor and a Girl Scout leader were raising four young children there in what the wife's MySpace page depicted as a happy household devoted to dance recitals and Oakland Raiders football.
"This has been kind of a shock for us to gain attention this way," said Suzanne Tucker, mayor pro tem of Tracy. "We're a family-oriented community with a small-town feel where neighbors know each other."
Until this case made national headlines, an increase in gang violence was the highest-profile crime problem in Tracy, which was rated the second-safest city in Northern California by a recent survey.
But Turner-Hardin said that San Joaquin county, where Tracy is located, had lately seen an increase in requests for child abuse services. At the same time, the city just east of San Francisco has had one of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation.
"With the housing market and unemployment rates really going through the roof, kids sometimes get the bad end of that," she said.
The boy had been under the care of Sacramento County's child welfare system after Ramirez was charged with beating him. He went missing from a group home in May 2007.
Authorities said he returned to Ramirez two months later, this time living in the couple's Tracy home.
After the boy escaped from the group home, officers filed a missing persons report, said Sacramento police spokesman Sgt. Norm Leong. Noting that police respond to about five runaway calls a day, Leong said the boy was never located.
Dr. Victor Carrion, who studies the effects of trauma on children at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital in Palo Alto, said it wasn't surprising that the boy returned to the person who beat him. Abused children almost certainly develop post-traumatic stress disorder and begin to believe they deserve the mistreatment, he said.
It's more surprising when a child manages to flee rather than stay and endure more abuse.
"How strong of him ... to be able to still think there's the possibility of escape and to know where to go," he said.