Imagine what it would be like to be locked inside a closet 2 by 2 feet wide, your body wrapped in a wire fence and bound by chains like an animal for hours—even days—at a time. You aren't given any food. You're 6 years old, and your parents have done this to you.
It's the heinous child abuse case The Oprah Show first told in 2000. Back then, the show couldn't say his name or show his face. Now, that little boy, Clayton, is 19 years old and coming forward in hopes that his story will help save another child from abuse.
While living in a small Indiana town, 6-year-old Clayton was terrorized by the very people who were supposed to protect and care for him—his father, Joseph, and stepmother, Carmen.
For months, Clayton was locked inside an airless, dark bathroom closet, often for 24 hours at a time. Inside the closet, Clayton was bound in wire fencing and chains. He stood for hours on end, even while sleeping. His tiny neck and chest bore scars from the wire and chains cutting into his bare skin.
When Clayton could no longer hold his bodily functions, he was forced to go to the bathroom on himself. His stepmother punished him by rubbing his own feces in his face. Then his father would urinate on him.
Now 19 years old, Clayton says he doesn't remember the first time he was put in the closet. Police believe he was locked in there for three to six months. "I remember being in there and just wondering, 'When am I going to get out'" he says. "It seemed like forever, an eternity, that I was in there."
Before his father met his stepmother, Clayton says he had a good relationship with his dad. "We were great [as father and son], just like any other normal dad and son," he says.
Clayton says his biological mother wasn't—and still isn't—in the picture. "She dropped me off, told me she'd be back," he says. "She never did. ... Never really was a mother."
While living with his father and stepmother, Clayton says he was never allowed to play with other children. "I was in [the closet] quite a bit," he says. "Very seldom was I let out. When I was, I was locked in my bedroom."
Clayton says he knew other kids weren't treated like he was and used to ask himself why he was locked away. "I wondered why I couldn't be a normal child. Why I had to be confined and what I did wrong," he says. "They never specifically explained it to me. They just punished me."
When Clayton yelled for help, he says Joseph and Carmen punished him by pouring dish soap in his mouth. "They put dish soap in my mouth and just left it. They wouldn't rinse it out. I just had to endure that taste," he says. "I got a really bad rash on my neck from the dish soap. It'd run out of my mouth and they'd just leave it there while I was in the closet."
To this day, Clayton can't stand the smell of dish soap. Oldies music also triggers bad memories. "When I was screaming to get out of the closet, they'd blare it so they just drowned out my voice," he says. "They didn't want to hear me."
Clayton also remembers going hungry. "I'd tear pieces of the paper bags off the floor and try to eat them," he says.
When he was fed, Clayton says Joseph and Carmen made it as unappetizing as possible. "Anything from hot dogs to hot sauce," he says. "As much they could feed me that would be painful."
The only kindness Clayton received was from his 14-year-old stepsister. On the occasions that Joseph and Carmen left the house, Clayton's stepsister let him out, fed him cereal and rubbed lotion on his skin.
Though his stepsister was spared the abuse, she was still desperate to escape the trailer the family lived in. She ran away to Kentucky and was picked up by police. She begged them not to take her back home and eventually confessed her family's horrifying secret.
Deputy (now Sheriff) Todd Pate heard the stepsister's story and alerted Indiana authorities. After a brief investigation and visit to the home, a case worker saw no reason to take Clayton away. In his gut, Sheriff Pate knew something was wrong. "The details that the stepsister had given me—the chains around him, the dog pen fence, knowing where the key to the padlock was, how she would get him out of the closet and put lotion on him at times—I felt that I couldn't let it go."
Because he was an officer in Kentucky, Sheriff Pate had no jurisdiction in Indiana. In an attempt to see the boy for himself, Sheriff Pate says he came up with a plan. He told Joseph and Carmen they both had to come to Kentucky before he could release their daughter, betting they would bring Clayton along.
Joseph and Carmen arrived with Clayton in the backseat of the car. Sheriff Pate wrote in his initial report that the boy showed obvious signs of severe abuse and neglect. "Everything I saw initially, his visual appearance, was just as [the stepsister] had told me it was," he says. "He was a very tired, sick-looking little boy. A little boy that looked beat down."
Sheriff Pate says Joseph bristled when he said he was going to interview Clayton. "He said, 'The social workers have already been here. They've already spoken to him,'" Sheriff Pate says. "I basically told him I didn't care if they had been there. I did not talk to his son, and I was conducting an investigation also. And that's when I took Clayton to the police station, and [he] sat in my lap and we ate peanut butter and crackers. And [he] ate a lot of peanut butter and crackers."
Once away from his parents, Sheriff Pate says Clayton wasn't forthcoming initially. "He loved his father even though he was being treated the way that he was," he says. "And probably felt somewhat responsible for being treated the way that he was. Kids blame themselves."
Sheriff Pate tried a new approach. "I said, 'Your father wants you to tell me exactly what has happened.' And he said, 'He does?' I'll never forget that," Sheriff Pate says. "That wasn't necessarily the truth. But it worked."
Carmen and Joseph pled guilty to neglect, criminal confinement and battery, but each blamed the other for initiating the crime. An Indiana judge gave them the maximum sentence under the law—four and a half years—but said he knew both deserved more.
Carmen served only two years and three months. Joseph was released from prison after 21 months.
When Clayton's story became national news, Sheriff Pate received letters from all over the country calling him a hero. At the time, he told a reporter, "I don't know if I'll ever accomplish anything else in my life. But even if I don't, I will always know I accomplished this."
To this day, Sheriff Pate still has the note little Clayton wrote to him over 10 years ago when he was rescued. He shows it to Clayton when they are reunited for the first time on Oprah's stage. "A few days after you were rescued, I got this in the mail," he says. "Inside is a Post-it Note that says, 'Dear Todd: You are nice. From Clayton.'"
Clayton says he never forgot the officer who saved his life. "He was a big example for me and a big role model for me when I was young," he says. "My dream is to become a police officer to help people just like me. People who can't defend themselves. Todd Pate, he had a big impact on my life."
Months after Clayton was rescued, he was adopted by his biological mother's aunt, Patti. Patti says she had no idea any of the abuse was happening. Before Clayton moved in with his dad, Patti says she babysat for him a lot. "But I had gotten married, and my husband and I had moved out of the county," she says. "The next thing I knew he was missing, and I lost all contact with my niece."
Then, Patti says she got a phone call saying Clayton had been found and he had been abused. "I dropped to my knees because it's not right," she says. "I felt so guilty because I felt if I wouldn't have left that complex (where Clayton’s mother lived), that he would have had somebody that he could have been with. She would have dropped him off at my house instead of his [dad's] house."
At first, Patti says the adjustment was difficult for Clayton. "Especially at night, he would hallucinate at times. He would be so bad that when my husband would come from another room, he would be afraid," she says. "In turn, that hurt my husband because Clayton didn't know any better. He was having an experience, and it was hard to see a child go through that."
Patti says she did everything she could to help Clayton heal. "Holding him, loving him. Getting him through the rough nights that he couldn't sleep," she says. "I just kept him close. I didn't want any harm. No more harm. I wanted him to be a boy."
Clayton says he remembers when he first moved in with Patti. "I was waiting for my mom, mostly," he says. "I was having fun playing with the other children that I never got to do. And after foster care, that kind of helped me develop to be a normal child and then just waiting to actually be settled in somewhere."
As much as she tried to protect him, Patti knew one day Clayton would need to know the truth. She put away photos and articles for him when he was ready. "We didn't bring up the subject too much with Clayton," she says. "We have tried to shield him from his past."
Patti says she worried Clayton would turn to drugs and alcohol. "This is where I give Clayton all the credit because he could have went to drugs. He could have went to alcohol. He could have really messed himself up," she says. "But he chose to gain strength from what he had gone through. And move on instead of digging himself a hole."
When asked to describe Clayton, Patti has one word: ”awesome.” "He's perfect in every way," she says. "Smart. Intelligent. He can do anything with his hands. He is just excellent."
Clayton says he hasn't seen Carmen or Joseph since he was rescued—and doesn't want to. "I don't consider [Joseph] my father," he says. "I have way better parents now."
Still, he says he'd like to someday ask his father why. "They should have spent forever in jail as far as I'm concerned. My dad got half his time knocked off and then another six months for getting his GED," he says. "I don't think that's fair to get a free education and then get time taken off of your sentence."
Clayton says he never got an apology from Carmen or Joseph. The last time Clayton saw him was when he was taken away in handcuffs. "He said, 'Look what you did to me. I hope you're happy,'" he says. "He blamed it on me. I was six and I was a little boy. He was supposed to be my father."
Because of Joseph and Carmen, Clayton says he lost his innocence. "I was adopted, and I kind of got a little bit of a childhood afterwards," he says. "But that chunk of my life, it just seems like from when I was born all the way up to being 6 there was no childhood for me."
Clayton says he's determined to not let his past affect his future. "I kind of put it in a chest. When I want to access it, I can. I'm very good at holding it, not thinking about it unless I want to," he says. "You can't let it define you to be a bad person. You have to grow from it and learn from it and be a better person."
Clayton says his abuse has impacted the way he treats others for the better. "I treat everybody with the utmost respect, even if they don't give it to me," he says. "If I can make one person smile a day, my goal's been made. I just want to be better than what he couldn't be, what she couldn't be. I just want to be the best—the best at being a great person."
Clayton says he hopes his story can help other children who may be being abused. "I just wanted to let everybody know to keep an eye out," he says. "People had seen that I had been there at one time and then all of a sudden I just was nowhere to be found, and they didn't think anything of it."