Imprisoned couple explains why they abused kids
Parole hearing: Both admit they were cruel to the siblings.

By Nate Carlisle, The Salt Lake Tribune, August 25, 2009

Draper, Utah — A boyfriend and girlfriend told a packed parole hearing they had the best of intentions when they beat, scalded and left home alone a naked 9-year-old girl and 8-year-old boy in Eagle Mountain.

In separate hearings, Mary Heath and Sekoa Aiono expressed remorse and admitted they were cruel to the siblings. The children demonstrated behavioral problems, including "acting out sexually" with each other, Aiono said, claiming their inexperience as parents and frustration led to abuse.

"It wasn't a punishment," Heath said. "I was trying to help them."

In her last day with the children, Oct. 14, Heath left the siblings naked and locked in bathrooms while she went to have her car serviced and pondered whether to seek help for her and the children.

The girl jumped 12 feet from the bathroom window and a neighbor saw her in the yard holding newspapers around herself to stay warm. The girl weighed 38 pounds, the boy 43 pounds.

Heath and Aiono both pleaded guilty to four felony counts of child abuse and received sentences of up to 20 years in prison.

Heath, 33, is the children's aunt and took custody of them in 2007 when they were removed from a previous home because of abuse. Heath said she took in the children to help them but later realized they had behavioral problems.

Heath tried reading parenting books, she said, but they did not provide enough help.

She started spanking the children on the hands, but the spanking escalated. On Tuesday, she told a parole hearing officer she spanked the children all over the body "with whatever was around."

The couple began locking the kids in separate bathrooms to keep them from acting out or hurting one another, Heath said. She also said she "scalded" the boy's fingers -- but she denied she burned them -- to keep him from using his fingers inappropriately.

"I didn't know what else to do," said Heath when explaining her final day with the children. "Then, finally, I realized I was inadequate."

On that final day while she got her car serviced, Heath said, she considered seeking professional assistance but instead decided to wait until Sunday when she could talk to her bishop.

When Heath's hearing finished, Corrections officers led out a sobbing Heath and brought in an already-crying Aiono. Like Heath, he claimed the abuse was meant to correct inappropriate behavior.

He admitted to hitting the children with a belt and locking them in the bathrooms. Aiono, 38, said he did not know why they were malnourished and that he always provided them with food.

Aiono said he was at work when police found the children, but he knew Heath planned to leave them alone. He said embarrassment prevented him and Heath from seeking help from family.

"I know no type of therapy will probably ever restore what we've done to [the children]," Aiono said. "That's something I'm going to live with for the rest of my life."

About 50 supporters of Heath and Aiono crowded the hearing room at the Utah State Prison. The hearing officer, Jim Hatch, said he also had received letters supporting their parole.

The parole board will issue a ruling in a few weeks. For either case, the board could issue a parole date, schedule another hearing to reconsider their cases or declare they will spend the entire 20 years in prison.

Hatch said the board's guidelines call for Heath and Aiono to spend 49 months in prison. During Heath's hearing, Hatch said it was unlikely she would be released sooner than that. Hatch did not address Aiono's chances of early release.

Prosecutors in February said the two children were doing well, living with a foster family and their birth mother was trying to regain custody.

Return to:
The Newsroom