The roots of child abuse

A Dundalk mother awaits sentencing for her son's death, but her lawyer says her troubled upbringing should be taken into account


When Denise Marie Lechner is sentenced today for the child abuse that led to the death of her toddler son, prosecutors will ask for a prison term long enough to prevent the 26-year-old Dundalk woman from having any more children.

Her lawyer, however, intends to ask the judge to consider the woman's own childhood - which, according to records obtained by The Sun, included years of being raped by her father.

Court documents from Lechner's native Ohio show that the developmentally disabled girl grew so accustomed to the sexual assaults that, at age 12, she bluntly described them to a hospital worker who interviewed her. Asked whether anything like it had ever happened in the past, she "rolled her eyes and said, `Lots of times,'" the worker wrote in a hospital report.

"I'm basically going to be asking the judge to consider how ill-equipped Denise Lechner was as a mother," defense attorney Larry Polen said. "She's not an intentional abuser - I just don't think she's capable of operating sufficiently as a mother. It has a lot to do with what her life was like up until the time she became a mother."

In a telephone interview from jail - her first since her arrest in March 2005 - Lechner declined to discuss the sexual abuse. She said she feels "really bad" about the deaths of her toddler, Roy Jr., and his baby brother, who died less than four months earlier - children whom, she said, she had longed to have.

"You can ask my husband. I told him, `I want a baby, I want a baby,'" she said. "I wanted someone to care for, someone that I knew I could take care of and wouldn't have any problems with."

Prosecutors say they have good reason to ask that Lechner receive the maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.

"I'd like her to be in prison until she is no longer able to reproduce," said Susan H. Hazlett, an assistant Baltimore County state's attorney. "If she gets out of jail while she's still fertile, I think there's a good chance she would have another child, and I would fear for that child's life."

On the day Roy Jr. died in March 2005, Lechner told police that her son was being noisy and she swatted his bottom, causing him to tumble down the basement stairs. To at least one neighbor, the thumps and cries from the rowhouse sounded like someone throwing the boy, repeatedly, down those steps.

The toddler's death followed more than 150 visits from Baltimore County social workers and the November 2004 death of 6-month-old Donald Lechner, who died of sudden unexplained death in infancy. The medical examiner could not determine whether the baby's death was due to natural causes, an accident or a homicide, and police last year briefly reopened their investigation into his death.

Lechner pleaded guilty in October to child abuse resulting in a death, she said, "because it seemed easier than having to go through a murder trial." And she said she admitted kicking Roy Jr. down the stairs the day he died only because detectives told her she could see her husband if she signed a statement saying so.

"I wish they were still alive," she said of her boys. "I miss them." Asked what she misses, Lechner responded, "Their lives."

Born and raised in Barberton, Ohio, a town of 28,000 southwest of Akron, Denise Lechner endured a tumultuous childhood, court records show.

Her father, Mancel Sims, a cab driver and truck driver, deserted her mother less than a year after Denise was born only to reappear before her second birthday. The couple married when Denise was 2 and divorced when she was 5, after Leota Sims discovered that her husband was "running around with a 16-year-old girl," according to court records.

Mancel Sims later married that young woman, had three children with her, and lived for a time with his new family, his ex-wife and the two children he had with her, Denise and her younger brother, records show.

When Denise was 12, she confided to her grandmother that her father had sexually abused her, according to court records. The Sun does not identify victims of sexual assault without their permission. Through her lawyer, Denise Lechner provided such consent.

At an Akron hospital, Denise told an interviewer that her father had told her to remove her clothes, blindfolded her with a red cloth and raped her, according to court records. "She told the story matter-of-factly," the hospital worker wrote in a report. "She said she did not like this, but seemed to accept it as an every-day fact of life."

Mancel Sims pleaded guilty in May 1992 to rape and was sentenced to seven to 25 years in prison. Now 60, he was released on probation in February, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. Attempts to reach him for this article were unsuccessful.

In 1998, at an Ohio truck stop, Denise, 19, met Roy Lechner, a long-haul trucker 35 years her senior and a year older than her own father. The couple had a baby in March 2001 - a son named for his father and whom Roy Sr. nicknamed "Buddy."

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