BENNETTSVILLE, S.C. – Three-year-old Edna Hunt lived in a real-life house of horrors.
It began in July 2011 soon after her mother Atelia Hunt moved she and her 7-year-old sister Shania to Bennettsville to live with Alexander "Mike" Huckabee in his Pershing Street home.
Hunt and Huckabee had met online two years before on a website called My Yearbook.com. Hunt was married to the girls' father at the time but she and Huckabee continued to chat online on and off. Eventually, Hunt decided to leave her husband and she and Huckabee decided to meet in person.
Within weeks of that meeting, Hunt and her girls moved into Huckabee's house. And within weeks of moving in, Hunt said she began to see suspicious bruises and wounds on young Edna. She said she asked Huckabee about the wounds but he always had an explanation for them.
"I asked him about the injuries and he always came up with excuse that she fell or ran into a table. He'd say they was playing too hard and that she'd hit the table or she fell."" Hunt testified Wednesday in Huckabee's trial on charges of homicide by child abuse, criminal sexual conduct -- first degree, unlawful conduct toward a child and inflicting great bodily injury to a child.
Hunt pleaded guilty in March to homicide by child abuse and unlawful conduct toward a child. She is serving 20 years in prison for her crimes.
In mid-August of that year, Hunt found areas behind her daughter's ears that were rubbed so raw her hair was sticking to them and becoming matted. When she asked Huckabee about those wounds, he admitted he often used his forefinger and thumbs to rub Edna behind the ears, that the child liked it when he did that.
A few weeks later, Hunt's parents picked Edna up for visit to their home in North Carolina. Hunt said she told them about the wounds and asked them to treat them.
"Before my dad had left with Edna, I told my dad she had a bruise on her back and told him that behind her ears was raw and that I didn’t have nothing to put on it," Hunt testified. "Daddy said he’d take care of it right time he got home."
When Edna arrived at her grandparents, her grandmother was shocked by the bruises on her granddaughter -- so shocked she reported the injuries and her suspicions to the Department of Social Services in North Carolina. DSS opened an investigation and Edna stayed on at her grandparents. Life appeared to be looking up for the young child. But only briefly. By September, Hunt was at her parents' door, ready to take Edna back to Bennettsville. And that's exactly what she did, despite her child's resistance.
"It’s like she didn’t want to go. She did not want to leave," Hunt testified. "I had to force her in the car to bring her back."
Back to the nightmare
Hunt said Huckabee appeared thrilled to have Edna back and showered her with attention.
"While Edna was gone to North Carolina, his attitude towards me was different. He didn’t want to be around, he didn’t want to have nothing to do with me," Hunt said. "Whenever Edna came back, it’s like he was relieved she was there. When she came, it’s like his world had revolved around Edna."
But life quickly deteriorated for the young girl in Huckabee's home.
Hunt testified that within a week, Edna was covered in bruises -- on her back, on her chest, on her legs, on her head, her neck, everywhere. She said Huckabee continued to make excuses but she witnessed him get rough with Edna a few times.
"He’ll go and grab her by the ankles and around the wrists," Hunt said on the witness stand. "He’d be separating her legs, trying to make her do a split. It’s like she couldn’t move, she was terrified."
Within a week and a half of Edna's turn, the 3-year-old was missing two teeth. Hunt said Huckabee claimed they were loose and pulled them himself -- roots and all.
Then he shaved her head.
"He said she had sores on her head and he wanted to see how deep the sores were and the bruises," Hunt said.
Hunt claims all of this happened in her absence -- when she was away from the home taking Huckabee's mother to the doctor or running errands.
But Hunt said a week or so before Edna's death, she'd begun to notice some things. For instance, she caught Huckabee sitting on the toilet, using the bathroom, with Edna standing in front of him naked. She noticed cigarette burns on her child's genitals and buttocks. Computer records show she even searched the Internet to find home remedies for cigarette burns. Yet, she still called no one and even began to hide Edna away from friends and family members.
"Mikey (Huckabee) didn't want DSS to get involved," she said.
Her final hours
On the night of Oct. 6, 2011, Edna was taken to the emergency room at Marlboro Park Hospital. She was lifeless and not breathing.
Physicians and nurses worked frantically to resuscitate the little girl but to no avail. Edna was pronounced dead at 10:20 p.m.
Hunt said she was aware her daughter had not been well. She'd appeared lethargic for several days and was having trouble even getting up.
"She was walking with a limp. She was having trouble putting weight on the right side," Hunt testified. "Anytime she’d go to stand up, she’d lean to the side. The more she would lean, Mikey would jerk her up so she’d be standing straight. She was mainly to a point where all she did was lie around."
But Hunt said she wasn't aware how serious Edna's condition was by Oct. 6. That morning, she said she got up and got the older children, Shania and Alex, to the bus stop, as was her routine. She said when she returned to the house, Huckabee and Edna were in bed asleep.
"I came back to the house, gave Mikey a kiss, gave Edna a kiss and told them I was going to Mikey's momma’s house," Hunt said. "I took Mikey's momma to Laurinburg for her eye surgery and got back to Bennettsville later that afternoon."
Hunt said she returned home after running a few errands then took Huckabee's son to a Cub Scouts meeting at 5:20 p.m. The meeting lasted about two hours and Hunt said she and Alex went home as soon as it was over. Hunt said when she and Alex walked in their house, 7-year-old Shania was sitting in the front room watching television.
"I asked her why she was in the front room by herself, and she said Mikey didn't want her in the bedroom where him and Edna were," Hunt said.
When Hunt walked in the bedroom, Edna was lying on "her bed" -- two cushions on the floor beside the bed Hunt and Huckabee shared. The television was on, and Edna lay on the cushions in only her panties, with covers pulled up to her waist. Hunt said she went on with her nightly routine but returned to the bedroom periodically to check on the youngster. She said Huckabee remained in the room with Edna all night. At some point, Hunt said she went to check on her daughter and found her on her cushions, lying on her side directly in front of the air conditioner. Her head was cocked back away from the television and she appeared to be dazed.
"It was like she was having trouble catching her breath," Hunt said. "I told Mikey something wasn’t right. He got up and touched her on the stomach and she grunted. I told Mikey something wasn’t right, that we needed to take her on to the hospital."
But they didn't take her to the hospital at that point. Instead, Huckabee told Hunt to draw a bath for the child. Hunt said she went to a neighbor's to ask her to keep the other children while she took Edna to the hospital. She said when she returned, Huckabee had Edna wrapped in a towel, sitting on the loveseat in the front room.
"Edna had stopped breathing," Hunt testified, tearing up at times. "She fell off the loveseat and she had laid there for about 5 seconds. Mikey picked her up, laid her across his lap, put his arms across her back. He looked up at me, that’s when she had released herself on herself (urinated on herself)."
Edna was pronounced dead soon after she arrived at the emergency room. Hunt said she called her mother and father to let them know and also called Huckabee. She said he didn't react to the news emotionally.
"The onlly thing he wanted to know was DSS getting involved and had I talked to any law enforcement," Hunt testified. "Then he said, 'Well, she didn’t make it to the 25th.'"
"And what was the significance of the 25th?" 4th Circuit Assistant Solicitor Mary Johnson-Lee asked.
"That's when I had her an appointment scheduled at the doctor for a checkup," Hunt replied.
'These things just don't happen'
An autopsy later revealed the youngster's death was the result of an untreated urinary tract infection.
“In Edna Hunt, what I found was that she had a massive infection that started as a urinary tract infection,” Dr. Cynthia Schandl, a pathologist at the Medical University of South Carolina, testified earlier this week. “The bacteria climbed up the urethra, then to bladder and kidneys. The kidneys were full of bacterial infection. What happened to Edna, as a result of this infection, she ended up with a blood infection and from that, she died.”
Schandl said although trauma was not the official cause of death, the autopsy showed signs of severe and habitual abuse.
“I immediately saw that she had a number of injuries to her body, seven or eight to the head and neck area, bruising to the inner legs and vagina, small round burns in her skin … several that were very fresh and others that were scarring over. She also had some blood inside of her head, which is indicative of head trauma,” she said. “There’s no scenario I could think of that would come from a simple fall or trip. I was not expecting it to be an infectious cause, but trauma and infection go hand in hand.”
Edna also had bruising to her inner thighs, a prominent sign of sexual abuse, and even had cigarette burns to her vagina and buttocks – one about a centimeter inside the vagina that had been inflicted within 48 hours of her death.
State Law Enforcement Lt. Kathy Bass, an investigator on the case, testified earlier Wednesday and said her agency questioned both Hunt and Huckabee extensively about the injuries. Neither ever had a reasonable explanation.
"Both of their stories changed so much," Bass testified. "Both said they asked each other about the marks, but the other always had an excuse. Neither one of them, up until the end when Ms. Hunt talked about the burns, no one pointed the finger at the other. But the bruises had to come from somewhere. These things just don't happen."
Bass said she didn't have autopsy results at the time she questioned Hunt and Huckabee so she did not know about the urinary tract infection. But she said she knew enough to know that had she not developed the infection, the abuse would have eventually killed her.
"I knew she had hemorrhaging in her vagina, hemorrhaging on the brain. I knew that her life prior to her dying was miserable," Bass said. "If they’d have kept doing what they were doing to her, her quality of life – she’d have never survived."