Witnesses say girl starved while her family ate

By Jonathan D. Silver, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
9 November 2000

Treated like an unwanted step-child by her mother, Tausha Lee Lanham lived a miserable and hungry existence, barricaded behind furniture for long periods and so desperate for nourishment that she drank from the toilet and pawed through garbage for scraps of food.

That was life in Michelle Tharp's household, according to testimony yesterday by her former live-in boyfriend, Douglas Bittinger Sr., during the third day of Tharp's murder trial in Washington County.

Both Tharp, 31, and Bittinger, 28, stand accused of starving Tausha, 7, to death in their Burgettstown home, leaving her emaciated body atop a bush along the back roads of West Virginia in April 1998, and then concocting a story that quickly fell apart under police scrutiny about how Tausha disappeared during a family outing to a mall.

Bittinger, a short man with dark black hair and a mustache, took the stand wearing unlaced sneakers and the orange uniform of the Washington County Jail. He wrung his hands and kept his eyes off Tharp, the woman with whom he lived for two years and who bore his child, Douglas Jr.

"She ate out of the dog's bowl," Bittinger testified. "She would drink water out of the commode."

Bittinger's statements afforded jurors their most intimate glimpse yet of Tausha's existence under the thumb of a woman he described as a spiteful, domineering mother who took pains to keep food away from her daughter. After spending two days slowly building his case, Washington County District Attorney John C. Pettit let the hammer fall yesterday by offering pointed testimony from people with firsthand knowledge of the goings-on under Tharp's roof.

It didn't stop there. Pettit trotted out a parade of witnesses - Tharp's jailhouse acquaintances, relatives of Tausha and a high school chum of Tharp - who portrayed the accused as an unfit mother who didn't love her child and grew angry at those adults who tried to help.

"On one occasion, she made a statement that she was more or less glad that the baby was dead and the baby was a little retard, and 'I'm glad the little retard baby is dead,'" testified one of Tharp's former jailhouse confidantes, Renee Vogel Sims of Moon, who said she is now in a drug rehabilitation facility.

Dena Chandler, another woman whom Tharp met behind bars, testified that after Tharp sought her advice in jail on legal matters, she queried how Tharp could treat Tausha so poorly.

"How could you do that?" Chandler said.

"She looked at me and said, 'Easily. I never loved her. She interfered with my life,' " Chandler said. "She showed no remorse when she told me. It was like she said it was raining outside."

Chandler said she is currently serving time for multiple retail theft and drug convictions.

Audrey Bittinger, who is married to Bittinger's brother and used to live above Tharp in Burgettstown, said she was no stranger to Tausha's poor living conditions. She could see the little girl being disciplined by peering through a hole under her kitchen sink that gave her a vantage of Tharp's living room.

"A lot of times, food was withheld from Tausha," Audrey Bittinger testified.

She was so concerned that she said she contacted the county's Children and Youth Services, as did others who disapproved of how Tharp treated Tausha. All those contacts with the agency came to naught, however. Despite several attempts to meet with Tausha, caseworkers never did.

Audrey Bittinger said she is undergoing chemotherapy for terminal breast cancer, but voluntarily made the journey to the courtroom from her Kentucky home to testify.

"I think Tausha's story should be told," she said.

From the beginning of his relationship with Tharp in the summer of 1996, Bittinger testified, he could plainly see a difference in how his girlfriend treated Tausha compared with her daughters Ashley and Tonya, observations that were echoed by other witnesses. Tharp paid more attention to the other girls. She took them to the doctor when they were ill, but not Tausha. And she showed them the affection that she withheld entirely from her middle daughter, Bittinger said.

Like everyone else who came into contact with her, Bittinger was struck by the fact that Tausha was unusually small for her size: 31 inches tall and less than 12 pounds.

Under questioning by Pettit, Bittinger described how Tausha was often kept from eating meals with the rest of the family, even as they ate in her presence.

In a heartbreaking series of exchanges with Pettit, Bittinger testified that Tharp would force the little girl to stand in the corner behind the couch or in the space behind a stereo that stood cater-cornered against a wall. If she wasn't confined to those spaces, she would be blockaded in the pantry by an oak table that prevented her from exiting, even as the aroma of the meals Tharp cooked on the nearby stove wafted around her.

Sometimes, Tausha would be allowed to eat with the family. But on those occasions, she was given smaller portions of food and never allowed seconds. At times, Tausha would be given only a bologna sandwich for the entire day. Snacks were mostly off limits. And occasionally, she was not given any food for up to three days at a time, Bittinger said.

Dr. James Frost, West Virginia's deputy chief medical examiner, has testified that Tausha, who died of starvation, had not eaten for several days when she died.

Desperate for food, Tausha would get up in the middle of the night. Once she took a box of dry cake mix from a cupboard and ate it, Bittinger said. Another time she took dog food from the pet's bowl. She ate from the garbage at both her house and her aunt's.

As punishment for her nocturnal foraging, Tharp would tie Tausha's bedroom door shut with a shoestring running from the doorknob to a nail outside the bathroom.

Bittinger said Tharp told him not to feed Tausha, that the girl had eaten enough. If he tried to reason with her, an argument would ensue, sometimes so raucous that the police would be called.

Defense attorney Glenn Alterio laid into Bittinger, whose trial date has not yet been set. Alterio wondered in a disbelieving tone why Bittinger did not take some initiative to get help before Tausha died, why he listened when Tharp told him not to feed her, why he didn't take his and Tharp's infant son and leave. Bittinger said Tharp threatened to prevent him from ever seeing his son again if he left her.

Why, Alterio asked, did Bittinger not insist on taking Tausha to the hospital after Tharp found her cold and stiff in her bed, white foam coming from her mouth. Why did he put Tausha's body in a sheet and stuff it into three garbage bags. And why did he toss her body onto a bush and then lie with Tharp about Tausha disappearing from a mall in Steubenville, Ohio?

Bittinger could muster no answer other than that Tharp told him what to do and he blindly obeyed. In so doing, he portrayed himself as little more than a spineless thrall of his onetime girlfriend.

"Didn't you feel any obligation whatsoever to help raise these children?" Alterio asked.

Bittinger replied that he did help.

How? Alterio wanted to know. There was a long pause.

"You don't have an answer to that question?"


After calling 32 witnesses and spending yesterday tearing down Michelle Tharp's character, Pettit rested his case. Today, jurors will hear from the first of an expected 15 to 20 witnesses who will be called by Alterio, including a medical expert who will attempt to refute the prosecution's argument that Tharp starved her daughter to death.

Asked to assess the damage done to Tharp by yesterday's proceedings, Alterio fell back on his opening statement to jurors, in which he acknowledged that Tharp was not the best of parents but maintained, nonetheless, that she did not kill her daughter.

"I think the most the commonwealth has done is painted Michelle, maybe, as an unfit mother," Alterio said. "I don't think they presented any evidence, truly, that she committed murder."

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