A kindergartner abducted from her school was missing for six hours before her family learned she was gone, witnesses testified Monday as a young woman's kidnapping and sexual assault trial opened.
Former child care worker Christina Regusters, 21, is the lone person charged in the brazen attack, although the defense has said others must be involved. The little girl herself believes she was attacked by a man, because that's what she was told when blindfolded, a prosecutor said.
"This is the man your mommy sold you to," the girl was told earlier as she was shown a cellphone photo, according to Assistant District Attorney Erin O'Brien.
The woman who signed the girl out of her classroom had donned a Muslim veil and floor-length khamir to pose as the child's mother at Bryant Elementary School on Jan. 14, 2013.
The substitute teacher testified that the pair seemed to enter the classroom together as the class ate breakfast. He later asked her to sign the girl out at the office, but the woman said she had already done so, substitute teacher Reginald Littlejohn testified.
The woman apparently was never asked for identification at the front door, a violation of school security rules. The girl's family has a lawsuit pending against the school district, which did not realize the girl was gone until a worker for her after-school program came to pick her up at the end of the day.
"She is an outstanding, wonderful little youngster, who has sustained just the most terrible, lifelong, devastating injuries, both physical and emotional," family lawyer Thomas Kline said Monday.
The girl was stuffed into a laundry bag as she was carried into a west Philadelphia home, where she heard a talking bird, one of several clues that led police to Regusters, O'Brien said. She was sexually assaulted with an unknown object, and later abandoned the next morning on a playground, wearing only a T-shirt, the prosecutor said.
"I've been stolen," she told a man who found her crying under a slide.
As the girl was held captive overnight, her mother "was living every parent's worst nightmare," O'Brien said. "Why? Why would a 19-year-old female do this?"
Regusters had been suspended from her job at an off-site program the child attended after school, and had earlier molested a young female relative, O'Brien said.
Defense lawyer W. Fred Harrison Jr. said his client had been physically assaulted by her father as a girl, and raped by an unknown assailant in 2012.
However, he asked the jury not to "let sympathy come in and cloud your judgment" for either the victim or his client. And he noted that witnesses at the school described the intruder as 5-foot-10 and pregnant, while the victim initially said she had dark skin. That description later changed to a lighter complexion — which his client has — during a second police interview, he said, suggesting undue influence.
Jurors will hear allegations that Regusters had searched online for information about destroying DNA evidence — her DNA was found on the girl's T-shirt — and buying Muslim clothing.
They also will hear from the now 7-year-old victim.
"She has told her story many times," Kline said. "I have no doubt she will rise to the occasion when she is called to testify."