Ex-foster kids: Abuse was routine in dismembered teen’s home

Sara Packer, center, handcuffed, the adoptive mother of Grace Packer, was led out of District Court in Newtown, Pa., Sunday, Jan. 8, 2017, by Pennsylvania Constables and taken into custody. Packer, whose teenage daughter's dismembered remains were found in the woods last fall, has been charged along with her boyfriend Jacob Sullivan with killing the girl in a "rape-murder fantasy" the couple shared, a prosecutor said Sunday. (Michael Bryant/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)

(AP) — Before her torturous death, Grace Packer grew up in a hotbed of emotional, physical and sexual abuse, according to three children fostered by the adoptive mother who now stands charged, along with her boyfriend, of killing and dismembering the 14-year-old girl as part of a barbaric rape-murder fantasy.

Murder suspects Sara Packer and Jacob Sullivan. Jail booking photos.
Murder suspects Sara Packer and Jacob Sullivan. Jail booking photos.

Police say Sara Packer, a former county adoptions supervisor, watched as her boyfriend, Jacob Sullivan, beat and raped Grace, who was then bound, gagged and left to die in a sweltering attic. Returning the next day and finding Grace still alive, Sullivan strangled her, court documents say. They stored her body in cat litter for months, then hacked it up and dumped it in a remote area where hunters found it in October, police said.

In separate interviews with The Associated Press, the now-grown former foster daughters, all of whom lived with Sara Packer several years before Grace’s rape and murder, said Sara abused her adopted daughter and clearly favored Grace’s biological brother, who was also adopted.

“Her favorite child, and you could see it plain as day, had always been Gracie’s brother,” said Jade Tenezaca, now 27. “She was more demanding on Gracie to be normal. But Gracie is not normal. Gracie had a learning disability.”

Tenezaca recounted an episode that, in hindsight, seems chilling. Sara was watching the TV crime drama “CSI” once and casually mentioned that if she ever killed someone, she’d dismember the body and burn the pieces to ash, Tenezaca said.

“It kind of freaked me out,” she said.

Sara and her husband at the time, David Packer, fostered dozens of children before David was arrested in 2010 and sent to prison for sexually assaulting Grace and a 15-year-old foster daughter at their home in Allentown, about an hour north of Philadelphia.

Sara Packer lost her job as an adoptions supervisor for nearby Northampton County in April 2010, and she was barred from taking in any more foster children. But she wasn’t charged with a crime related to her husband’s abuse, and Grace and her brother continued to live in the home.

Pennsylvania’s child-welfare agency is investigating the circumstances around Grace’s death.

The abused foster daughter, now 25, told the AP that the sexual abuse by David Packer began when she was 15, shortly after she moved into the home, and went on for years. The AP is withholding the name of the woman because she is a victim of sexual abuse.

David moved the woman to a third-floor bedroom near the one he shared with Sara, she said. He would tie her to the bedpost and leave her there all night, she said. He would tie her to a chair and gag her. He dressed her in revealing outfits and made her go on a diet. He sexually abused her.

She said she felt she had nowhere to turn.

“After a while, I just gave up, mentally and physically. What was I supposed to do?” said the woman, adding she twice tried killing herself while living in the home and was hospitalized.

Sara Packer, the woman said, had to know about the abuse. Prosecutors say Sara was aware of her husband’s sexual contact with the foster daughter at least by the time the girl became an adult.

The now-grown foster daughter said she was unaware at the time that David Packer was also abusing Grace. But, she said, she did see Sara treat Grace horribly.

“Some parts of (Grace’s) brain didn’t work like ours, and you’d have to tell her more than a few times to do things. And Sara didn’t like that. She yelled, she screamed. She hit her. She was just a big bully to her,” the woman said.

Sara Packer’s lawyer said he has not yet seen police or child-welfare files from the 2010 investigation of David Packer, and does not have evidence that his client was involved in wrongdoing. He noted she maintained custody of Grace and her brother after David went to prison.

“It’s a good sign they investigated the family and didn’t pull the kids,” said the lawyer, John Fioravanti Jr. “That suggests they didn’t think she was involved.”

The defense team has only just begun to investigate Sara’s life and the criminal charges, Fioravanti said. Her work history in Northampton County — rising from case worker to supervisor over seven years before she was fired amid her husband’s criminal investigation — suggests she was a dedicated child-care worker, he said.

Given those accomplishments, he said, “it’s just beyond belief that all of a sudden you have this monster.”

Sara and David Packer divorced last year.

Crystal Rodack, a third former foster daughter, spent only a few months in the Packer home. But in January 2010, she said, she looked at David Packer’s phone and found photos and videos showing him sexually abusing the other foster daughter. She alerted relatives, who immediately called police.

Rodack said she always felt uncomfortable in the home. And, like the other former foster children, she said Grace took a back seat to her brother.

“They were really mean to Gracie in the home. She was always in trouble,” Rodack said. “They would hit her, they would ground her and take stuff from her and keep her in her room. I felt bad for her.”

Yet the girl remained upbeat, Tenezaca said.

“Gracie was never in a bad mood. Gracie was always happy and fun, and she always wanted to be with the girls,” she said. “She was warm. She would open her heart to anyone and everyone. If you gave her the chance, she would be your best friend.”

Tenezaca said she gave birth while still in the Packers’ care. Sara Packer urged her to place the child for adoption, Tenezaca said, with Sara as the adoptive parent. Tenezaca agreed but changed her mind and kept the child.

“I wanted to do it,” she said, “but something in me said, ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it, you’re going to regret it.’ And I’m thanking God I never did it.”

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