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Jewish World Review Sept. 5, 2001 / 16 Elul, 5761

Bob Greene

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'He made the boy
touch the dead body' -- "HE broke down," Lincoln County, Neb., sheriff's investigator Chuck Nichols said. "He's a very nice 7-year-old boy, and he did his best to keep his composure when we first started talking with him. But when he got to some of the details . . . he just broke down. It's hard to blame him."

Something terrible is going on. Our coverage these last weeks has concerned criminal cruelty against children in Nebraska; we have tried to emphasize that these things occur all over the United States -- and that the purpose of reporting on the crimes in largely rural, sparsely populated Nebraska is that if you can find the torture of children this easily in the quiet middle of the country, you can find it anywhere.

But something terrible is going on, and the details of what we are reporting about the children of Nebraska keep getting more troubling. If the citizens don't look it right in the face, and try to figure out what has gone so wrong, and how to stop it, the ramifications are almost too dark to fully absorb.

Sheriff's investigator Nichols was telling us the facts of a case now in court concerning a 7-year-old boy from Hershey, Neb., who, as punishment this summer, was left in a van in a Wal-Mart parking lot in a nearby town while the rest of his family shopped inside the store.

"He was scared and upset to be left alone," Nichols said. "So he got out of the van and started walking, trying to find his grandmother's house. That little boy walked three miles through traffic, past railroad tracks, into busy intersections, by himself."

He reached his grandmother's house, Nichols said -- and the boy's father, Sean Von Eric Marshall, 41, soon found him.

According to Nichols and to Lincoln County prosecutors, the father tied a rope to the boy and tied the other end to himself. He then took the boy to a local funeral home, where a body was on display.

"He pulled the boy by the rope up to the open casket," Nichols said. "And to punish this scared child, he made him touch the dead body. He forced him to put his hands on the body."

Then, according to Nichols, Marshall pulled his son by the rope down a gravel road to a grave in a cemetery, where the child's cousin was buried. "The father ran down the road, dragging the boy along the gravel behind him," Nichols said.

After that, according to prosecutors, the boy was taken back to his home in Hershey, where he was tied by his hands and feet to a chair. This allegedly went on for two weeks; the boy was untied only to go to the bathroom.

The boy at one point was able to chew through the ropes, Nichols said. When Marshall found that the child had tried to escape, the boy's mouth was sealed shut with tape so he could not bite through the ropes again.

"He was the one child in the family singled out to be treated like this," Nichols said. "There are four children -- and even before this new punishment began, the rule was that the rest of the family got to sit and eat their meals at the table, but this little boy always had to stand and eat his meals."

After Lincoln County sheriff's officers investigated the case, and arrested Sean Von Eric Marshall, they learned that he had been arrested before for abusing this child -- when the boy was 4, and a physician had alerted authorities. Investigators are trying to determine how and why the boy was returned to Marshall.

"The little boy was pretty strong telling us about some of the things," Nichols said. "But when he had to tell us what it was like during those weeks when he was tied to the chair, and his mouth was taped shut . . .

"It was pretty tough. On him, and on us."

In court, Sean Von Eric Marshall requested that he be freed without any bail requirements. Nebraska residents have become aware that this is what happened in Hall County, to the people accused of torturing children with an electrified cattle prod, and of burning a child with lighted cigarettes. In that county, the alleged torturers were set free without having to post a penny in bail. Marshall asked for the same.

But there are at least small signs that, with the attention now being paid to these cases, things may be changing. Tomorrow, we will report what happened in court.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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