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Neighbors unaware of man's family, trailer's squalor

  • Story Highlights
  • Neighbors say they saw Daniel Thurmond on occasion but never his wife, kids
  • Investigator says wife, children fled after Thurmond said he had a mistress
  • Lavonia a small town where police chief directs school traffic, patrols town on foot
  • Thurmond charged with rape, cruelty to children, false imprisonment
  • Next Article in Crime »
By Eliott C. McLaughlin
CNN
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LAVONIA, Georgia (CNN) -- Sonya Savage's back door opens to a cozy wooden porch that serves as a shelter for her 9-year-old son's bicycles and spare parts.

After a week of cleaning, a stench still lingered in the home when Alma Medina gave CNN a tour Wednesday.

Residents of Beaver Creek in Lavonia, Georgia, say they had no idea a neighbor was holding his family captive.

A 30-foot tract of red clay and splotchy crab grass separates her mobile home from the home of Raymond Daniel Thurmond, a residence so rank and squalid that it forced a seasoned police investigator to vomit upon entering. Another officer donned a gas mask just to walk inside.

Savage and her neighbors say they had no clue that Thurmond, 36, had a wife, let alone four kids; they were also oblivious that Thurmond may have held the five hostage in the three-bedroom mobile home for three years.

"My son, he's a little bicycle mechanic. He's always in the backyard, and he don't recall ever seeing nobody over here," said Savage, 29, who also has a 4-year-old daughter. "Usually I've got a yard full of kids, but I've never seen any of those kids come out and play."

Savage recalls speaking to Thurmond once, after someone stole one of her son's bike tires. Thurmond kindly told Savage he hadn't seen anything suspicious.

"He was nice, polite, seemed like a normal guy," she said. Video Watch a walk-through of the filth »

Alma Medina, the property manager for the 100-unit Beaver Creek mobile home park, lives three doors from what is now a crime scene. She remembers Thurmond was a polite fellow. He always called her "Miss Alma" when he dropped by the office to explain that his rent was late, a routine occurrence that eventually led Medina's maintenance man to a foul discovery.

She occasionally saw Thurmond mingling with other tenants, but she never saw his family. The only indication that one existed, Medina said, was that he and his wife both signed a lease August 22, 2005, and noted on their application that they had three sons and a daughter.

"I never saw them outside, never," she said. See what the trailer looked like »

Lavonia, a city of about 2,000 on Interstate 85, about five miles from South Carolina and the sprawling Lake Hartwell, is not the best place to keep secrets. The locals know each other, if only by face, and the police chief personally directs school traffic and walks the entire town daily to check on local businesses. The self-professed "big-time small town" has its share of crime, but hasn't seen a murder in six years.

Case Background

Raymond Daniel Thurmond was arrested without incident Tuesday at his workplace, a poultry processing plant in Stephens County, Georgia.

Thurmond, 36, is alleged to have held his family hostage in a squalid, insect-infested mobile home in Lavonia, Georgia, about a mile from Interstate 85.

He has been charged with rape, four counts of first-degree child cruelty and five counts of false imprisonment.

Authorities are still investigating the case and more charges may come. As of Thursday, Thurmond had not been appointed an attorney and no bail had been set. He was being held at the Franklin County Jail.

Lt. Missy Collins, the investigator who had Thurmond arrested Tuesday after a two-week investigation, said her husband used to work with Thurmond at a pump-manufacturing facility in nearby Toccoa.

Chief Bruce Carlisle remembers seeing the burly 6-foot-4 Thurmond around town, at hardware and grocery stores. He generally wore shorts, work boots and a tank top or sleeveless shirt. Carlisle and Thurmond weren't acquainted, but the chief heard he was always cordial.

"You never saw anybody with him," the chief said.

Authorities never had a problem with Thurmond until August 4, when Collins received a call from a women's shelter.

"They said they had a mother and four kids, and apparently they'd been kept at home, and there was some abuse allegations and the dad wouldn't let them leave," Collins said.

Collins interviewed the women and children, who all gave the same story: Thurmond had forced the wife, three sons (9, 13 and 14 years old) and his 12-year-old daughter to remain inside.

Police are still investigating how. Medina on Wednesday provided CNN a tour of the trailer that revealed a hasp, used to secure a door with a padlock, that had been fastened to the mobile home's back door. Holes on the inside of the front door and on one of the children's bedroom doors indicate hasps had been placed there as well, Medina said.

Collins said police are not sure if padlocks were the only way Thurmond imprisoned his family. There is no indication Thurmond had any accomplices, but he was prone to bouts of rage. Collins said Thurmond had once allegedly raped his wife with the children in the next room. Video Watch Collins explain how Thurmond instilled fear »

"The entire family lived in fear of this man," the investigator said. "Just his presence alone was enough for them to comply."

They had never left the trailer except for a few hours in April, when Thurmond allowed them to visit his in-laws in North Carolina. Collins said the wife's parents had been sending the family money and threatened to cease sending cash if their daughter and grandchildren didn't visit.

The wife's mother answered the phone Wednesday, but said she had been told not to speak to the media. It is unclear by whom. Her parents' names are being withheld to protect the woman's identity.

Collins said she is not certain exactly what emboldened the family to flee the filthy trailer, but the mother told police that Thurmond had said he was leaving her for another woman. He'd be back in a few days, he told her, and he'd left some food for them, Collins said.

The food was insufficient, Collins said, but she is not sure if it was hunger or ire over the mistress that provided the impetus to leave -- "only the mother could really tell you why."

When Collins interviewed the family, all but one of the children were pale and thin, she said. Only one, the 14-year-old, had ever attended school, and though the mother said the other children were home-schooled, the children told Collins that Thurmond wouldn't buy them school supplies.

When Collins visited the home, the only educational implement she found was an old dictionary, she said.

After interviewing the family, Collins launched a manhunt that ended without incident Tuesday at Thurmond's workplace, a poultry processing plant in neighboring Stephens County.

About the time Collins kicked off her hunt for Thurmond, Medina was growing frustrated that he hadn't paid his rent. On August 6, after Thurmond hadn't responded to a notice on his door threatening eviction, Medina sent her maintenance man to the mobile home.

He returned disturbed and told Medina he hadn't entered the home, she said.

"I want you to see this with your own eyes," she recalled the maintenance worker telling her. "You better wear some shoes and gloves or something."

The kitchen floor was rotted. Heavy, brown stains covered both toilets. There were anthills under a mattress in the master bedroom. Roaches freely roamed the inside of the refrigerator, and maggots owned the stove.

There were several piles of trash, including one reaching the laundry room ceiling and a mound of Diet Mountain Dew bottles between a recliner and the living room couch. Tufts of human hair were scattered on the kitchen floor among bags of fetid trash. Video Watch how the home remained squalid after a week of cleaning »

Collins said she went behind an adjacent mobile home and vomited when she and another officer first opened the door. This was after the windows had been opened to air out the residence.

Collins said she had never experienced such a stench -- this from a police investigator who as recently as last week rode in an ambulance with a corpse that had been pulled from a burning building.

When Collins went in the bathroom and pulled back the once-clear-but-now-chocolate-brown shower curtain, it revealed so many roaches that the bathtub floor appeared to be moving.

On Wednesday, after a week of cleaning that has already yielded two Dumpsters of trash, dozens of roaches still scurried across the floor and walls. A stench still lingered, and a film of bug feces covered the kitchen counters.

Medina said she has to gut the entire trailer and replace the floor, walls and ceiling before she can rent it again. Collins said rebuilding the family may take more work.

As of Thursday morning, Thurmond still didn't have an attorney and no bail hearing had been set, Collins said.

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In an interrogation after his arrest, Thurmond seemed "even-tempered" and didn't behave like someone being charged with rape and a host of other felonies, Collins said. Though he was not forthcoming and admitted nothing during the interview, Collins said, one aspect of his behavior stoked her suspicion.

"If I had been arrested and hadn't done anything, my first reaction would be, 'Where's my wife and kids?' " Collins said. "He didn't even ask until he was behind bars."

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