CHESTER COUNTY, Pa — A Pennsylvania couple went car shopping, bought pizza and engaged in sexual activity as the woman’s unresponsive 3-year-old son lay dying after weeks of escalating abuse that ended in three days of systematic torture, authorities said Thursday.
Jillian Tait, 31, and Gary Lee Fellenbaum, 23, were charged Thursday with murder in the death of Tait’s son, Scott McMillan, and aggravated assault in the beating of his older brother.
They are accused of laughing as Scott was hung upside down and whipped, striking him repeatedly with a frying pan, and eventually beating him to death.
Chester County District Attorney Thomas Hogan called the case “an American horror story.”
“It was an unspeakable act of depravity,” he said.
The couple met working at Wal-Mart and last month moved in together, along with Fellenbaum’s estranged wife and three children – Tait’s 6- and 3-year-old sons and the Fellenbaums’ 11-month-old daughter. The six lived in a mobile home park outside the city of Coatesville, about 35 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
The prosecutor said what started as spankings morphed into “concentrated, repeated, escalating abuse.” Then, “over three days he was systematically tortured and beaten to death,” Hogan said.
The three adults told authorities “that Scott McMillan had been punched and beaten with blunt and sharp objects, whipped, taped to a chair with electrical tape and beaten, hung up by his feet and beaten, and suffered other acts of violence,” police said in affidavits released Thursday.
“During one incident,” the affidavits say, “Gary hung Scott and (his older brother) up by their feet one at a time and beat the boys while they were hanging upside down. Jillian stated that she and Gary were laughing during the incident.”
Hogan said the older brother apparently knew that if he struggled while being hung from the back of a door, it would only get worse. But his younger brother squirmed and struggled, he said.
“They thought that was funny,” he said.
Fellenbaum’s 21-year-old estranged wife, Amber Fellenbaum, was charged with child endangerment for allegedly failing to help the child. She ultimately called 911 Tuesday night, authorities said. By then, Scott had been unresponsive for hours and had been put in a shower for more than 30 minutes by his mother and her boyfriend, investigators said.
When the boy failed to awaken, they placed him on an uninflated air mattress and went shopping, authorities said. The couple returned with a pizza and, after eating, took a nap and engaged in sexual activity, according to Tait’s statement to police. Tait said she then checked on Scott and yelled for someone to call 911 because he wasn’t breathing.
Noting that investigators found no evidence that drugs or alcohol had been involved, Hogan said: “This is just evilness.”
The prosecutor said late Thursday he had not yet been notified of the couple having obtained lawyers.
Gary Fellenbaum severely beat the boy for refusing to eat toast both Monday and Tuesday morning, authorities said. The “discipline” included throwing him against a wall, knocking him off a chair with a punch and then taping him to the chair to keep him upright for more beatings, police said.
Tait said Fellenbaum had thrown the boy against the wall so hard, it “caused a hole in the wall,” according to the statement she gave police.
She told police that she took part in the abuse and saw the scars on her younger son, court documents said.
Police said her older son also showed signs of abuse.
“It is going to take us years to put him back together again physically and mentally,” Hogan said.
There was no evidence the infant was harmed, authorities said. She and the 6-year-old were placed in the custody of relatives, the prosecutor said.
Tait and Fellenbaum were being held without bail after their arraignments Thursday. They are scheduled for a preliminary hearing Nov. 14.
Amber Fellenbaum was being held on $500,000 bail. No attorney was listed in court records.
Associated Press writer Larry Rosenthal contributed to this report.
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