WHITE OAK, Pa. (KDKA) – Police say finding children handcuffed in the back of a vehicle in White Oak was just the start of uncovering horrific child abuse.
Police say the couple kept their kids in tiny rooms, sometimes for days. One place was called “the hole,” an old coal cellar with a concrete floor and no lights. Another place was called “the cell,” a basement room with a bucket and a toilet seat.
Allegheny County Police say it started when a disturbance call brought White Oak officers to the Francis McClure Elementary School on Wednesday.
Police say an 11-year-old boy was refusing to get in his dad’s car after he was dismissed from school, saying he didn’t want to be handcuffed again.
When school officials looked inside the car, police say they found a woman in the passenger seat and two children, ages 7 and 10, handcuffed in the backseat.
Police say the three children were forensically interviewed and said they were physically abused by 37-year-old Richard Hayes of Mt. Oliver and his girlfriend, 26-year-old Natosha Bell of Rankin.
According to police, Hayes repeatedly locked his 11-year-old son, 10-year-old son and a 7-year-old boy in the basement for days.
Gruesome details of abuse are laid out in the criminal complaint as the three children described spending days in a room in the basement without lights, blankets or running water.
“This is perhaps one of the most serious incidents of child abuse I’ve seen in my career,” said Allegheny County Police Inspector Michael Peairs.
County police say there were signs of physical abuse on all three kids and they even described a situation where Bell held the 7-year-old’s legs as Hayes submerged him underwater in the bathtub.
“If it weren’t for the 11-year-old refusing to enter the vehicle and the school officials and police officers — if they hadn’t noticed what was going on and the red flags and indicators, the abuse could have continued,” said Peairs.
Hayes and Bell are facing multiple charges, including aggravated assault and false imprisonment. Police say Hayes also had a loaded handgun with him.
As part of county police’s response, an emergency referral was made to the Allegheny County CYF.
McKeesport Area School District Superintendent Dr. Mark Holtzman issued a statement on the alleged abuse:
“Yesterday, we were made aware of a situation that occurred during dismissal, at Francis McClure Elementary School. Thanks to the swift action of our Administrators and School Police Officers, we were able to notify the White Oak Police and set in motion the investigation into the alleged abuse and ensure these children’s safety.
“Schools are vitally important as it pertains to child welfare. Since the beginning of the school year, we have had students in our buildings open, five days a week. By keeping our doors open, it enabled us to better follow our mandatory reporting obligations and create a safe space for students to report what they might be experiencing outside of our buildings.
“We will continue to work collaboratively with the investigating agencies throughout this process as the safety of our students is our top priority.”