PERRY, Iowa — A 16-year-old girl found dead last week in her Perry home weighed just 56 pounds and was severely malnourished, investigators said Thursday.
Perry Police Chief Eric Vaughn said at a news conference that Sabrina Ray was found around 6:30 p.m. Friday inside a residence in the 1700 block of First Street. The home is listed as Rays of Sunshine Daycare, a state-licensed day care run by Misty Ray, 40, and her husband, Marc Ray, 41, who authorities say are Sabrina Ray’s adoptive parents.
The couple have been arrested and booked into the Dallas County Jail in lieu of $1 million cash-only bail. Each is to be represented by the state Public Defender's Office, but online court records did not reveal the name of their attorneys Thursday.
Vaughn said the Rays were out of state when their daughter died. A sign posted on their house said the day care was closed when officials discovered the body, but the police chief declined to divulge where they had been, saying investigators have not been able to verify that information.
According to court documents, two other children were inside the home when police arrived. It indicates Sabrina Ray showed signs of suffering “unreasonable force, torture and cruelty.”
Both parents were arrested and each charged with child endangerment resulting in death and seven other child endangerment and negligence counts.
“Once those autopsy reports are received, it will be up to the county and the Dallas County Attorney’s Office to see if other additional charges are warranted or if this charge will stand as is,” said Mitch Mortvedt, assistant director of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation.
Vaughn said Misty and Marc Ray operated the in-home day care but also served as foster parents, and police are pursuing investigative leads related to other children.
Authorities had previously revealed that Sabrina Ray was homeschooled and that she and her siblings had been monitored by the Iowa Department of Human Services following complaints about inadequate nutrition and the use of corporal punishment.
A former foster child at the home told KCCI in an exclusive interview that he witnessed abuse firsthand. Marco Mendez, 19, said he was placed in the Rays’ foster home four years ago and that he watched them terrorize Sabrina Ray for months. The two spent eight months together in the Perry home in 2013, he said.
“She was really sweet,” Mendez said as he fought back tears. “Sabrina was the main one who got beat the most.”
She endured intense physical abuse at the hands of her adoptive parents and she would be kept from eating, Mendez said.
“Sabrina would take the trash out,” Mendez said. “She would be so hungry that she would eat out of the garbage. Like old food. Trash (that) has probably been there like a week.”
He also gave a glimpse into the lives of the three other children -- including two girls, ages 10 and 12, who were adopted and now under a doctor’s care -- living in the home, saying: “They would stash hot dogs in their diaper (and) Pop Tarts. Mind you, without the wrappers because if the wrapper made a noise and they got caught they'd get spanked or beaten or disciplined with no food for the next few days.”
Police would not reveal their medical conditions or why they were being treated by a doctor. The third child is a boy. Police did not reveal his age, but noted the Rays don't currently face charges concerning him.
Mendez said he was allowed to eat in the home, but he reported Sabrina Ray's abuse to DHS.
“They would always make sure they were eating at the time when the DHS worker was showing up there, but they never had a spot at the table or anything,” Mendez said.
“(Sabrina) could have been something,” he added. “Now she's gone. Kids don't deserve that.”
Amanda Howard used to take her 3-year-old son to the day care until a few months ago when she stopped working to stay home, saying she had no complaints about the Rays and that she considers them family friends.
“It was fine; I never noticed anything that was bad about it,” Howard said, adding that Sabrina Ray was shy and quiet. “If I had been in that house, if I would have known, I would have done something. It breaks my heart.”
Howard said she struggles with guilt for not picking up any signs the 16-year-old was being abused.
“I am mad at myself. I am angry,” she said. “I’ve replayed it in my head, ‘Did I miss something? Did I not catch something?’ If I would have somehow been like, ‘Hey, follow me out to the car or something,’ to get her to talk to me, maybe it would have made a difference.”
Perry Mayor Jay P. Pattee said the death could have happened in any city and that Iowans should not be afraid to make a call to report any suspicious activity.
“I think it’s time we all just be a little more vigilant and maybe be more neighbors than what we are,” Pattee said. “I think we need to know our neighborhood and know our people who live nearby and keep an eye out for the welfare especially of children.”
Pattee said his heart goes out not only to the family but also to the first responders, many of whom are parents themselves.
Vaughn said initial autopsy reports showed Sabrina Ray was severely malnourished. He declined to comment on whether the autopsy concluded that malnutrition caused her death, saying he was waiting for the final autopsy results.
Sabrina Ray's death has drawn comparisons the October starvation death of 16-year-old Natalie Finn, of West Des Moines. Like Sabrina, Natalie Finn went through the state's foster care and adoption system. Her parents, Nicole Finn and Joseph Finn II, are charged in her death and the suspected abuse of two of Natalie's siblings. Both have pleaded not guilty.
On Thursday, some Iowa lawmakers called for legislative oversight of Iowa's DHS in the wake of Sabrina Ray's death. At least one, Rep. Abby Finkenauer, called for the immediate resignation of DHS Director Chuck Palmer.
Rep. Bobby Kaufmann and Sen. Mike Breitbach, co-chairmen of the Joint Government Oversight Committee, said in a written release that the girl's death "confirms the need for legislative oversight into the management of the DHS as it appears that the Finn case was not an isolated incident. The process overseeing children placed in the state system must be examined and reforms need to be considered.”
“My gut just dropped and I said "My God. Another kid has fallen through the cracks,’” said Sen. Matt McCoy said, who is calling on the Iowa DHS to release more information.
The Iowa DHS said it does not comment on child abuse investigations but released a statement, saying in part, "We are taking a comprehensive review of our child welfare system and want to assure the public of our commitment to protecting vulnerable children."
The Rays made their initial court appearance Friday.
The Perry community is remembering Sabrina Ray at a candlelight vigil in Pattee Park inside the band shelter. The vigil starts at 8 p.m. Friday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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