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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, July 19, 2007

Relatives tried to help starving Hawaii girl

StoryChat: Comment on this story

By Peter Boylan
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

A malnourished 12-year-old girl who weighed just 50 pounds was found in January by emergency medical personnel in a unit of this apartment complex at 809 Kina'u Street.

JEFF WIDENER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Denise Wright

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Melvin Wright

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Melvin and Denise Wright were arraigned this month in Circuit Court via remote camera.

Advertiser library photo

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Relatives of a 12-year-old girl allegedly starved by her parents tried to provide food for the girl and pleaded with her parents to feed her for almost a year before she was removed from the home, the girl's uncle said.

Dennis L. Wright, 39, said he did not alert police or the state Department of Human Services because the extended family "more than has the means to help and provide for the child."

Dennis Wright tried to convince the girl's parents to seek assistance after he and his wife saw the girl emaciated and hungry in May 2006. Emergency medical personnel went to the home in January of this year and found her malnourished.

The girl who weighed only 50 pounds was placed with a foster family. Her parents, Melvin Wright Jr. and Denise M. Wright, were indicted July 3 on a charge of attempted second-degree murder.

Dennis Wright and his wife tried repeatedly for more than a year to contact the girl's parents, but were rebuffed or ignored, he said yesterday in an interview. The girl's parents said the girl was "sleeping" or "not feeling well" whenever Dennis Wright and his wife asked to visit, he said.

Dennis Wright, a Navy veteran who now works for the U.S. Postal Service, finally confronted his brother, an ex-Marine, in May 2006 by showing up unannounced at Melvin Wright's Kina'u Street apartment.

There, Dennis Wright said, he saw his niece propped up in bed, emaciated and barely lucid, with a bowl of chips in her lap that she could hardly hold.

"My wife was the first person to see her and she came out of that room and said, 'You need to come in here right now.' I was completely shocked. That's when I said, 'What the heck is going on here?' No one said, 'We are in dire straits here and we need help,' so we have no idea why this happened," said Dennis Wright.

"To me, it is unfathomable that you would do this to a child. My child will eat before I eat. They obviously had enough money to pay the rent and it doesn't look like they starved themselves. Normal people don't do this and a psychiatrist is going to have to figure this out. We tried to help them and obviously it didn't help anybody."

Dennis Wright and his wife repeatedly pleaded with both Melvin Wright and Denise M. Wright to get help for themselves and the child or at least accept donations from family members, including the girl's grandparents.

"They (Melvin and Denise M. Wright) just gave us excuses as to why they hadn't gotten help already," Dennis Wright said. "It pretty much boiled down to, 'We don't have time.' They wanted to do it on their own time not on the timetable it needed to be done. I'm sick to my stomach every day thinking about it. We'd have to badger them to get them to give her food, and every time we questioned them they would drop out of sight. You can only offer the help; you can't shove it down their throats."

After seeing the child in May 2006, Dennis Wright said he drove to a military commissary and bought food for the girl while his wife tried to persuade Denise M. Wright to apply for state and federal welfare aid.

GRANDMA TRIED, TOO

Over the next seven months, Dennis Wright and his wife bought food for his niece and her parents on at least four other occasions before the girl's parents stopped returning phone calls or responding to knocks on the door.

Denise M. Wright's mother also was sending food to the girl from the Mainland, Dennis Wright said. He said he continually called his brother and his wife to ask if they needed food.

The next time Dennis Wright heard about the girl was when he saw a television news report about paramedics pulling her from the Kina'u Street apartment.

Deputy public defender Debra Loy, who is representing Denise M. Wright, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

PARENTS ARRESTED IN '00

The family first came to the attention of authorities in January 2000, when Melvin and Denise M. Wright were arrested on a charge of second-degree endangering the welfare of a minor. Neighbors called police and told them the girl then 5 was locked in a room for 12 hours a day without food, water and bathroom access.

Neighbors, who saw the girl in 2000, described her as emaciated and malnourished.

The girl was returned to the Wrights a month after she was taken into custody and before a final judgment was reached in the case. The Wrights received one year of probation and were ordered to attend parenting classes, which they successfully completed.

Authorities who responded to the apartment this year found the girl weighed less than 50 pounds. A typical 12-year-old girl weighs 80 to 85 pounds.

The girl's parents were indicted July 3 on charges of attempted second-degree murder. Both pleaded not guilty, and a trial is set for Sept. 10. Child Welfare Services has had foster custody of the child since January.

UNCLE WANTS ANSWERS

Dennis Wright said the girl's grandparents, Melvin J. Wright and Alice E. Wright of Charleston, S.C., are trying to adopt her. When reached by telephone, Alice Wright declined comment.

Dennis Wright said he and his wife were unaware of the 2000 abuse case.

Since his brother's arrest this month, Dennis Wright has made statements to a Honolulu police detective, the city prosecutor's office and has testified before an O'ahu grand jury about the case, he said.

Dennis Wright said he saw his brother and his niece about three times between 1995 and 2001. Each time, she appeared malnourished and sickly, he said. He lost all touch with his niece and brother after he was stationed in Washington with the Navy in 2001.

Dennis Wright said his parents asked him to find out what happened to their granddaughter, whom they had not heard about in years. Dennis Wright, his wife and three daughters moved back to Honolulu in 2005.

Before May 2006, the last time Dennis Wright or the girl's grandparents saw the child was 2001 when she was 7 years old and still wearing diapers during Dennis Wright's wedding and a family trip to the Polynesian Cultural Center.

"Everybody was asking, 'What's going on?' but no answers were forthcoming and it would always feel like pulling teeth to get it," he said. "I'd like to have some answers, but I know there are no answers coming."

KEY EVENTS IN WRIGHT CASE

Following is the sequence of events in the case of the starving 12-year-old:

FIRST INCIDENT

Jan. 22, 2000: Melvin Wright Jr. and Denise M. Wright arrested after allegedly bolting their then 5-year-old daughter in a room without food, water and bathroom access for up to 12 hours a day, five days a week.

Jan. 23, 2000: A nurse at Wai'anae Coast Comprehensive Health Center determines the child was not abused.

Feb. 23, 2000: 5-year-old Wright girl returned to custody of parents.

May 25, 2000: Denise Wright pleads no contest to misdemeanor charge of endangering welfare of a minor, receives a year's probation and is ordered to attend parenting classes. Melvin Wright pleads not guilty.

June 26, 2000: Melvin Wright changes his plea to no contest and receives the same sentence as his wife.

BETWEEN INCIDENTS

Prior to June 2001: Girl, then 7, is seen emaciated and wearing diapers at wedding of uncle and on family trip to Polynesian Cultural Center, according to the girl's uncle, Dennis L. Wright.

May 2006: Dennis L. Wright shows up unannounced at his brother's Kina'u Street apartment. The girl, then 11, is found emaciated and bedridden.

Over next several months: Dennis Wright starts the first of a half-dozen food trips for the girl.

CURRENT INCIDENT

Jan. 7, 2007: Paramedics called to the Kina'u Street apartment after one of the parents calls 911 and said their daughter would not eat. The 12-year-old Wright girl is found malnourished and unresponsive, weighing less than 50 pounds.

July 3: An O'ahu grand jury indicts Denise M. Wright and Melvin Wright Jr. on a single charge of second-degree attempted murder.

July 6: Denise M. Wright arrested at her Mo'ili'ili apartment. Bail is set at $100,000.

July 9: Melvin Wright Jr. arrested on a warrant at 11:38 a.m. at his Waipahu residence. Bail is set at $100,000.

July 12: Melvin Wright Jr. and Denise M. Wright plead not guilty and are at the O'ahu Community Correctional Center awaiting a Sept. 10 trial date.

Reach Peter Boylan at pboylan@honoluluadvertiser.com.