KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Starving, battered and handcuffed together to a kitchen cabinet, the two teenage brothers listened for signs their attackers had fallen asleep as they plotted their escape.
"We had both come to the conclusion this had been enough, and we were going to run away," Austin McIntosh told jurors in Knox County Criminal Court on Monday. "We just didn't know how to do it."
For five months in 2013, Austin McIntosh, then 16, and his brother, Justin McIntosh, then 14, had been subjected to all manner of torturous abuse, from beatings to ice baths to handcuffing to starvation, inside a tiny trailer just off Canton Hollow Road at the hands — they say — of their father and stepmother.
They were, by now, "accustomed to it," the boys would later tell Knox County Sheriff's Office Deputy John Sharp, but stepmother Jessica Cox's anger had reached a level that Austin McIntosh said left him and his brother with certain escape, though dangerous, as their only option.
"I was very, very afraid," he said. "Jessica was very angry."
Cox is standing trial on charges including aggravated child abuse for what prosecutors Ashley McDermott and Leland Price said was a campaign of terror against her stepsons that was always directed by her but sometimes carried out by the boy's father, Michael McIntosh. An ex-cop, Michael McIntosh initially backed Cox but, after winding up charged himself, has since struck a deal to testify against her. Defense attorney Rhonda Lee contends her husband was the abuser, and she, too, was terrified of him.
Jurors in Criminal Court Judge Bob McGee's courtroom listened Monday as Austin McIntosh, now 20 and an aspiring pilot, told a tale of what he said was Cox's final show of fury in May 2013 in the hours before the teenagers found a hero in a Farragut High School janitor.
Cox and McIntosh had gone to visit a friend in Gatlinburg. Austin McIntosh was being punished with handcuffing, his arms behind his back and the cuffs looped through a cabinet divider, and starvation, and his younger brother had been warned not to interfere. But Justin McIntosh had freed his brother anyway, and though Austin McIntosh said he tried to "go back into my position," he couldn't quite get the handcuffs and his arms — sore from earlier abuse — in the exact manner in which he had been left when Cox returned home sooner than expected.
It didn't take Cox long, he said, to figure out Austin McIntosh had been temporarily freed.
"She had gotten a rolling pin and started hitting my feet with it," he said. "It was probably the worst pain I've ever felt in my life."
She also hit him with a can opener and ordered her husband to cuff the boys together and configure the cuffs so that the boys were connected to a divider in the cabinet, he said. They stayed that way for hours until first their father and, later, Cox fell asleep. Justin McIntosh managed to free them from the cabinet, but they remained handcuffed to each other, the elder brother said. Quietly, they moved through the trailer, raised a window and slipped outside to freedom.
Still cuffed, they grabbed a solar-powered light from a neighbor's yard and eventually made their way to Farragut High School, where Austin McIntosh was a student. It was just after 6 a.m., and custodian Richard Huff was enjoying some music in his van as he awaited entry into the building to do some summer cleaning. School was out for the summer. He saw the two boys and recognized Austin McIntosh. He did not see the handcuffs — at first.
"Austin and his little brother held their arms up," Huff testified Monday. "I was like, what's going on? Both of their hands were swollen probably twice the size of what's normal. ... Austin's feet were swelled really bad. I can't even give a description it was so bad. I've never seen anything like that. I'm still dumbfounded about it."
Huff said the boys begged him not to tell anyone for fear Cox and their father would discover their escape. They were smelly and hungry and their bodies bruised, he said, so he bought them some Pop-Tarts and phoned authorities.
"They don't want to go home," Huff told a dispatcher. "They want to be somewhere safe. That's why they came here."
It's not clear yet why the boys were targeted for abuse. Cox's own children were not abused, including a teenage son of hers who also lived in the trailer.
The trial continues Tuesday.
Follow Jamie Satterfield on Twitter: @jamiescoop