Nobody knew the secrets hidden inside the dilapidated house on Blanco Street in Austin, Texas. Overgrown bushes practically hid the front door, and the stench of raw sewage kept strangers at bay. For years, wails and shrieks pierced the night, confounding neighbors on the quiet block near Austin's capitol building.
Jerrel Gustafson grew up in the neighborhood and recalls the rotting porch, the caved-in roof and the broken windows. "Basically, what I remembered about it is the shades being closed all the time. … The fact that they would never let me in the house was very interesting to me at the time," he said.
Hidden behind the bushes and the debris were Charles and Edna Barr. By the late 1980s, the mysterious couple still lived on Blanco Street with their two adult children, Clyde and Diana.
When Gustafson was in town to visit his parents, he would occasionally run into his childhood neighbor. "I saw Diana pregnant," he said. "And I was quite surprised at that. Because I just never knew her to date anybody." Diana was learning-disabled and typically stayed close to home.
As the years progressed, Gustafson saw no outward signs that anything was wrong with the Barr family, other than their increasingly deteriorating home.
Other neighbors, though, noticed something strange and haunting at the house: a girl's face in a window and, once, a girl on the porch. Moaning noises and groans emanated from the lot, leading some to view the house on Blanco as haunted. Other neighbors, suspecting a more practical explanation, called the authorities.
In late 1994, and again in January 1995, phone calls were made to the Austin division of Child Protective Services. A young CPS worker responded to the complaints and spoke to the Barrs at their house. The worker left without giving a report to his seniors or outlining a safety plan. But in October 1995, a third report of "unlivable" conditions at the house was made to CPS.
According to a neighbor, rats were "living in a nest on the front porch" and "climbing up the screen door." Those eerie moaning noises that echoed through the streets were still being heard several times a week.
CPS dispatched a second worker to follow up. After making an initial visit, the worker documented concerns about the safety conditions in the home and wrote a brief safety plan for the Barrs. After the worker said that CPS would follow up and make additional home visits, the worker left. For the next two years, the Barrs remained in the home, undisturbed by CPS and their neighbors.
In October of 1997, a fourth call complaining about the living conditions at the house was placed to CPS, and a worker once again responded. And a child who few knew existed was finally removed from the home. This "wild child" had never gone to school, or played outdoors. The girl was a 9-year-old named Victoria.
Richard LaVallo, a court-appointed lawyer for the young girl, was shocked when he first met her.
"She wouldn't walk through doorways. She didn't wear clothes. She was in a shelter, just sitting on a mattress," he said. For the first time, he saw the house. "It was dank and dirty and the one thing I did notice were the rats. I mean, rats were running between my legs and running on my sides. They live there. Everyone lived among the rats. And [the family] didn't make up excuses or apologies for it."