BENNINGTON, Vt. (AP) - For years, a man regularly confined his adolescent stepson to a bedroom rigged with an alarm, molested him several times a week and often denied him food, water and access to a bathroom, authorities said.
The 17-year-old boy, who lived with his stepfather for nearly six years, told police Robert J. Pratt would smash his head into a wall when he resisted his advances and sent him to school in long-sleeved shirts and pants so no one would see his bruises and scars.
Pratt was being held without bail on sex assault charges, accusations that surprised acquaintances who know him as a quiet, helpful neighbor.
The boy came forward after Pratt, 37, of Bennington, kicked him out of the apartment they shared and he moved in with his mother, who lived in the same apartment complex.
Once there, he told her and a counselor about his life with Pratt. He had moved in with him when he was 10 or 11, when Pratt and the mother split up. He said the abuse started about a year later and he never told anyone of it because Pratt threatened him, sometimes with a loaded gun.
Investigators, trying to verify the boy's claims, had the boy wear a wire to record a conversation with Pratt. In that conversation, the victim asked Pratt why he sexually abused him.
"I have tried to block that out," Pratt replied.
Questioned by police, Pratt didn't deny the sexual activity but attributed it to the victim's "desires," according to an affidavit filed by Vermont State Police Trooper Tyler Burgess.
"When this was brought to the attention of law enforcement, we all were taken aback at the pervasive and lengthy abuse that was going on, and had been going on for years," prosecutor Erica Marthage said Wednesday. "It was concerning to all of us that this was something we potentially missed for this long. It just makes you wonder."
Pratt, who has no prior criminal record, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to six charges including aggravated sexual assault, lewd and lascivious conduct with a child and unlawful restraint.
He was ordered held without bail. His lawyer, public defender Marie Wood, didn't respond to two messages left by The Associated Press on her voicemail. There was no answer to a knock at his apartment door at the Applegate Apartments, where the abuse allegedly occurred.
The boy's mother no longer lives in the complex; she could not be located for comment Wednesday.
Neighbors and acquaintances interviewed Wednesday were surprised by the charges against Pratt, who goes by R.J. They described him as a quiet, slightly built man who was into camping, hunting and fishing.
"He's not that type. ... I don't think he's got a mean bone in his body," said Mary Hunt, who said she's known Pratt since they were children.
Another neighbor, Stanley Brookins, said Pratt was always quick to help others, especially if it involved fixing a car.
"I've never seen him argue with anyone, never heard a cross word," Brookins said.
That's not the picture painted by police and prosecutors.
They say Pratt sometimes threatened the boy with a loaded rifle, threatened to kill him or grabbed his genitals, asking "Whose is this?" as he pulled.
"I'd have to reply 'yours' or he'd pull harder," the boy told investigators.
The boy was confined to an apartment bedroom with no toilet, sometimes for so long that he had to relieve himself into a wall-mounted telephone jack.
The homemade alarm system consisted of a magnet that stuck to a metal strip on the floor so that when the door opened, it signaled, according to the affidavit.
At Christmas, Pratt would let the boy open gifts, then put them in a box, duct tape it and store it in the basement.
"There are days I cried myself to sleep and wanted to die," he said.
Pratt's decision to part ways with the victim coincided with the boy's maturation, according to Marthage, the prosecutor. He's now 6 feet tall and has put on about 100 pounds since moving in with his mother.
"It all fits. He got too big. Once the kid gets to be bigger than the defendant, then both control and persuasion are affected," Marthage said.