Even veteran prosecutors were stunned by the case outlined in court Tuesday: A South Side couple were accused of flogging their 12- year-old daughter to death with a 5-foot stretch of electrical cable after she was tied down.
Larry and Constance Slack, described by neighbors as devoutly religious, delivered 160 blows to their daughter Laree, according to the charges, stuffing a towel in her mouth at one point to silence her screams.
"This is the absolute worst I've seen," Assistant State's Atty. Robert Hovey whispered as the Slacks, both 41, were led into the courtroom. The pair were ordered held without bond on first-degree murder charges in the fatal weekend beating of their daughter as well as charges of aggravated battery of a child for the beating of their 8-year-old son.
In a slow, steady voice, Assistant State's Atty. Beth Pfeiffer stood before the judge and began to read the accusations against the Slacks, described by authorities and neighbors as Jehovah's Witnesses who were so strict with their six children that they were not even allowed to play with other kids from the neighborhood.
According to Pfeiffer, the couple had been planning to go out for dinner Saturday night but had been unable to locate a jacket that had Constance Slack's wallet and credit cards in the pocket. So Larry Slack ordered the children, who range in age from 8 to 17, to search for it.
When the children did not seem to be looking hard enough for the jacket, Pfeiffer said, Larry Slack grabbed an electric cable that was about three-quarters of an inch thick and lashed the couple's 8-year- old son, Lester, four to five times in the legs and buttocks.
Larry Slack, a Chicago Transit Authority machinist for the past 22 years, soon grew even angrier because dirty laundry was scattered about the house, impeding the search, the prosecutor said. Laree had been in charge of washing and putting away laundry in the home, Pfeiffer said.
"Larry Slack then ordered Laree to `assume the position,'" the prosecutor said, which meant that the 12-year-old was to stand ready to be whipped.
Larry Slack lashed Laree four or five times with the same cord he had used on her brother, according to the prosecutor, but he grew angrier still when the girl attempted to squirm away. The father ordered his two teenage sons to tie Laree face down to a metal futon frame and then administered 39 lashes to the girl's back, Pfeiffer said. Constance Slack then took the cord and whipped the girl 20 more times, the prosecutor alleged.
The first-floor Cook County courtroom, usually abuzz with lawyers talking about their upcoming cases or milling about distributing paperwork, grew silent as the prosecutor spoke. The details she told the judge next seemed to shock everyone even more.
Girl began to scream
According to Pfeiffer, when Laree began to scream, Larry Slack ordered his sons to fetch a towel to stuff in her mouth. He then tied a scarf over the towel and used a stick to wind the scarf like a tourniquet into place.
He then cut off his daughter's shirt, ordered the other children to pull off her pants and whipped her 39 more times, the prosecutor said. Constance followed with 20 more lashes, Pfeiffer said.
As Laree writhed from what would total more than 160 blows, the girl's back began to bleed. So, according to Pfeiffer, Larry Slack untied her, turned her over and beat her 39 more times on her stomach and chest.
"It was an awful one," Pfeiffer said after court, shaking her head. "And to think they involved the other children, that's what gets me."
The case of Laree Slack, who was pronounced dead at South Shore Hospital just hours after her beating, has rattled even seasoned child abuse experts.
"Do you know how hard it is to kill a 12-year-old?" said Demetra Soter, a physician who is coordinator of pediatric trauma at Cook County Hospital.
According to Soter, children as old as Laree Slack require "massive amounts of force to die like this." Soter said she had only heard of two comparable cases in recent years, one a DuPage County teenager whose father is accused of fatally beating him for stealing a car.
John Goad, the associate deputy director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, concurred. He said the vast majority of homicides involving children are in cases where the child is under the age of 3. Those children, Goad said, often are on the receiving end of their caregiver's rage because they have soiled their pants or cried uncontrollably.
In addition, Goad said, Laree's death comes at a time when child abuse cases are hitting new lows in Cook County. He cited a 22.7 percent decrease in reported abuse cases in Cook County the last five years.
Goad said part of the reason for the drop is that social service agencies are getting better at counseling families who are reported as having abused or neglected their children.
DCFS officials said Tuesday that the Slack family, who live in the 7900 block of South Brandon Avenue, has had at least one contact with the department in the past.
In 1995, DCFS received a report that the youngest of the family's children had been found walking on the street alone, according to DCFS director Jess McDonald. Investigators later learned that a plumber had been doing work at the family's house and left a fence open, allowing the child to walk out.
Although the circumstances of that case do not indicate that DCFS failed to protect the Slack children, McDonald said the department is grief-stricken over Laree's death.
"Any time a child dies, and you've had any involvement in the case at any time, people literally get sick," McDonald said. "It really does eat at you. I think when there's a chance that the system was involved, obviously we want to find out, did we miss anything at any point in time?"
Death penalty may be asked
In court Tuesday, Pfeiffer, the assistant state's attorney, argued to Judge Neil Linehan that the two were not eligible for bond because the state may seek the death penalty and because Laree Slack's death was especially "heinous" and "the result of torture." According to a spokesman in the Cook County medical examiner's office, the girl died of multiple blunt force traumas.
The Slacks, neither of whom have any previous criminal history, both have made videotaped admissions about the beating, the prosecutor said. According to Pfeiffer and police who were there when the Slacks were being questioned, Larry Slack attempted to kill himself while in custody.
Pfeiffer said Larry Slack, who weighs more than 350 pounds, had sneaked a 6-inch kitchen knife into the Calumet Area police station by hiding it in the folds of his skin. He stabbed himself in the chest and was transported to Christ Hospital and Medical Center in Oak Lawn, where he was treated for minor injuries before being returned to police custody.
Calumet Area detectives who were familiar with the case said Tuesday that Larry Slack had told them that he strongly believed in corporal punishment. They also said that they knew him to be deeply religious, but they added it was unclear whether Slack was abiding by some religious mandate.
But Leon Slack, an uncle of Laree's, said religion had nothing to do with what happened. "Our family loved Laree dearly," read a statement the family released Tuesday.
In a brief telephone interview, the uncle went further.
"What happened was a tragedy," he said. "It was not in line with religion. Something obviously went wrong, and we just want to grieve as a family."
Neighbors of the Slacks' said the family was quiet and kept to themselves. There was a tall fence around their yard, but the children were sometimes seen building a tree house on the side lawn.
"The only time I saw them all together was one Saturday when they were going to church. They looked really nice, cheerful and happy," said Noel Chapa, a next door neighbor.
See: Biblical beating kills girl: cops, November 13, 2001
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