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Ex-wives of accused killer’s father say Baby Grace case familiar

    HOUSTON — When Rita Grofer heard that Royce Clyde Zeigler II was accused of beating his 2-year-old stepdaughter to death because the toddler failed to say ‘‘please,’’ and ‘‘yes, sir,’’ her blood chilled.
    About 30 years ago, she had been married to Zeigler’s father, who she said imposed the same disciplinary rules on their baby daughter and became violently enraged when she tried to intervene, once grabbing her by the throat and smashing her head into a kitchen cabinet.
    ‘‘What (the younger Zeigler) did with that child was exactly what I saw, but mine never got killed,’’ Grofer said.
    Grofer and another of Zeigler’s four ex-wives are pleading for mercy for Zeigler II, 24, and his 19-year-old wife, Kimberly Trenor, saying they were caught in the same cycle of violence that threatened their lives decades ago.
    Trenor and the younger Zeigler are accused of killing Riley Ann Sawyers, storing her body in a shed for two months, then dumping her in Galveston Bay, where she washed ashore in October.
    A grand jury will decide Wednesday whether Trenor and Zeigler II, should be charged with capital murder, a charge eligible for the death penalty.
    Riley was known as ‘‘Baby Grace’’ for weeks after her tiny body washed ashore in a plastic box in Galveston Bay. Her identity remained a mystery until a police sketch caught the attention of her paternal grandmother in Mentor, Ohio.
    That led authorities to the young couple, who married in June after meeting through an online game. They were living in Spring, a suburb north of Houston.
    Trenor’s attorney, Tommy Stickler Jr., said Grofer and another of the elder Zeigler’s four ex-wives, along with a close relative the lawyer wouldn’t identify, contacted him.
    All of them blame the elder Zeigler and said the son was likely mirroring his father’s behavior.
    The elder Zeigler did not return several telephone messages left at his home by The Associated Press seeking comment. No one answered the door at his stately brick house in prosperous suburb about five miles from where his son and daughter-in-law lived with Riley.
    Neither Royce Zeigler has a criminal record in Texas. Police were called to the family’s old home in the Houston suburb of Tomball for a family disturbance in 1996, but additional information was not immediately available.
    Neal Davis III, the younger Zeigler’s attorney, said he was shocked by the ex-wives’ allegations.
    Davis said he believes the elder Zeigler has been with his client’s mother since the 1980s, although marriage records indicate they wed in 2004. The other marriages occurred between the late 1960s and 1980.
    ‘‘As far as we know, everything was just kind of normal,’’ Davis said of his client’s childhood. ‘‘Royce and Hiram (his younger brother) both have said ’No, my mom and dad when we got in trouble we would get kind of a time out, go to your room or occasionally a spanking.’’’
    But Grofer said her ex-husband called their daughter, April, a few years ago at her urging because the young woman was critically ill with a seizure disorder.
    He screamed through the phone that he hated her and she sickened him, said Grofer, who listened to the call. Afterward, she spent three hours holding her sobbing daughter, worried about another seizure.
    The other ex-wife who contacted Stickler declined to speak to the AP out of fear of the elder Zeigler.
    A third ex-wife, who also did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation, said Trenor’s claim that her husband wouldn’t let her work outside the home or put her name on their bank account, ‘‘was just like listening to my life.’’
    ‘‘When I saw the news, I said out loud to myself, ’What did you do to your child to make him such a monster,’’ the woman said.
    The Associated Press could not locate the elder Zeigler’s other ex-wife, Deborah, but documents from her 1981 divorce petition said that after she filed for divorce, he tied an unidentified object around her left hand and tightened it until the bones snapped.
    Trenor told Galveston authorities that she and the younger Zeigler beat Riley with leather belts, held her head underwater in a bathtub and threw her across a room, her head slamming into a tile floor.
    An autopsy revealed that Riley suffered three skull fractures, but the cause of her death has not been determined.
    Stickler said the fatal beating happened after the younger Zeigler stayed home from work to enforce the disciplinary plan he’d established for Riley.
    He wanted Trenor to spank Riley with a belt when she failed to say things like ‘‘please’’ and ‘‘yes sir’’ or ‘‘no sir,’’ but didn’t believe Trenor was complying because the 2-year-old’s behavior wasn’t changing, Stickler said.
    Davis has declined to comment on the ex-wives’ stories or Trenor’s account, but has said Trenor’s credibility will become a big issue after all the evidence is examined.
    People who experience or witness abuse as children are 10 times more likely to become abusers than people who don’t, said Richard Gelles, dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania.
    Davis said he’d just begun researching his client’s background and planned to closely examine his father’s past and any influence it may have had on his son’s behavior.
    ------------
    AP News Researcher Judy Ausuebel contributed to this report from New York.

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