Stepfather Guilty In 'Worst Case Of Child Abuse'

Posted: April 23, 1988

Ten-year-old Rodney Gladney used to peek out a window of his Southwest Philadelphia rowhouse and watch neighborhood children play games in the street.

The neighborhood children, having caught a glimpse of Rodney at the window, used to call him "the elephant boy." They assumed his misshapen face was the result of a congenital defect.

His left ear was missing. His right ear was a swollen mass more commonly seen on longtime boxers. His lips were hideously split, and his eyes were scarred and bulging.

Those injuries and more - the boy suffered 23 fractures in his short life - were clearly visible in autopsy photographs entered into evidence in Common Pleas Court this week. Rodney and a 3-year-old stepbrother died of smoke inhalation in a January 1985 fire at their home in the 1500 block of South Lindenwood Street in the Kingsessing section.

Yesterday, Richard P. Oliver, 33, Rodney's stepfather, was convicted of having beaten the boy continually throughout a five-year period. The jury deliberated for an hour after hearing a week of testimony that Rodney Gladney had suffered "the worst case of child abuse" some of the expert witnesses had ever seen.

Oliver was convicted of criminal conspiracy, aggravated assault, kidnapping and endangering the welfare of a child after a fractious trial in which he served as his own attorney most of the time. He could be sentenced to 26 to 52 years in prison.

"What you did to this boy was worse than murder," Judge Angelo A. Guarino told Oliver after the verdict. "That child lived in agony."

When Oliver protested that "I didn't do it," Guarino responded, "You did do it. I know you did it."

Mimi Rose, chief of the District Attorney's Office unit that specializes in child-abuse cases, said she had been haunted by the Rodney Gladney case since seeing Medical Examiner's Office photographs taken of the body.

"This was systematic torture of a little boy from the age of 5 years until he was 10," Rose said after the verdict.

Rodney Gladney was a happy-looking little boy when his mother, Judith Gladney, met and married Oliver in 1979. Pictures entered into evidence show him as a toddler wearing a white sailor suit, red knee socks and a red baseball cap and playing with a toy telephone. In another picture, he has a wide, engaging smile.

That smile was not possible for the child Rodney had become just before he died. Punched continually in the mouth by Oliver, according to a statement

Judith Gladney gave to police, the boy had just a few teeth left. The left side of his mouth was a swollen mass, and his lower lip was split in so many places that it appeared to be serrated.

Once, according to Judith Gladney's statement, Oliver sewed her son's lips back into place to reduce the swelling.

Judith Gladney told police that her husband had boxed Rodney's ears so often that they "fell off." Twice he broke one of the boy's arms and then would not let her take her son to a doctor. Instead, Oliver wrapped the injuries himself in an elastic bandage. As a result, the boy's right arm dangled from his shoulder at an odd angle.

In his own statement to police when he was arrested late last year, Oliver said Rodney was injured when a rival of Oliver's attacked both Oliver and Rodney while they were shopping in 1982. Oliver said the rival hit Rodney with a car.

But Dr. Stephen Ludwig, chief of emergency medicine at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, testified that the injuries were suffered through a period of years. Ludwig found evidence of 14 fractured ribs, repeated fractures of the left shoulder, breaks in both arms - including the right elbow, which was ''destroyed" - and a brain injury. The boy's face was an example of ''scarring upon scarring."

Oliver insisted on acting as his own attorney in the case, a decision the judge, the prosecutor and a backup defense attorney all said was more damaging than helpful.

"Basically, he was captain of his own ship," said Methuselah Bradley, Oliver's court-appointed attorney. "If it went down, it went down because of what he did."

During the trial, Oliver wrangled repeatedly with Guarino, who finally told him Thursday to sit down and "shut up!" When Oliver continued to protest, Guarino threatened to have him gagged.

Judith Gladney had been called by Oliver to testify that she had "a brain fever" when she gave statements to police and that at the time she did not know what she was saying. From that testimony by Judith Gladney, the prosecution later introduced statements in which she outlined the abuse Oliver had inflicted on her son.

Judith Gladney has been charged with assaulting Rodney. She is to stand trial next month. She and Oliver fled to New Jersey with their two other children after the 1985 fire in which Rodney was killed. They were arrested late last year and were returned to Philadelphia.

The fire was of suspicious origin, Rose said, but no arson charges have been filed.

No motive was offered for Oliver's abuse of his stepson. He had, according to Bradley, been charged in 1979 with beating the children of another woman with whom he had lived. Judith Gladney told police that he often had beaten her.

In some ways, Rose said, Oliver seemed to have a strange affinity for the boy he had beaten repeatedly. Rodney Gladney was born 20 years to the day - Sept. 16, 1974 - after the man who would eventually assault him. Sometimes, according to testimony, Richard Oliver would identify himself to others as Rodney Gladney.

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