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'Hot sauce mom' abuse trial heads into opening arguments

Casey Grove

Opening statements are expected today in the trial of an Anchorage mother accused of abusing her adopted Russian son by putting hot sauce in his mouth as punishment for bad behavior.

Municipal prosecutors charged Jessica Beagley, 36, in January with one count of misdemeanor child abuse after her unorthodox punishments were featured on national television for a November 2010 segment of the "Dr. Phil" show called "Mommy Confessions."

Beagley and her husband Gary, an Anchorage police officer, have a total of six children, including 7-year-old twin boys adopted from Russia when they were 5. According to transcripts from the show, Beagley sought help from Phil McGraw, a nationally televised licensed therapist, in dealing with one of the boys' repeated behavioral problems.

Online clips of the segment show Beagley disciplining the boy by putting hot sauce in his mouth and forcing him, crying, into a cold shower. Beagley told McGraw that past punishments -- including timeouts, spankings, forced exercise and pulling his ear -- had failed to improve the boy's behavior.

Video from the show circulated on the Internet and drew the ire of thousands of people in the United States and in Russia, where the twin boys still retain citizenship until their 18th birthday.

Multiple people reported the alleged abuse to Anchorage police. A detective watched the show before forwarding his report to prosecutors, according to documents filed in court.

On Tuesday, at least 40 potential jurors were put through a standard screening process to determine who would sit on the panel for Beagley's trial. Only six jurors, plus one or two alternates, are necessary for a misdemeanor municipal case.

District Court Judge David Wallace warned that the courtroom would be crowded when the potential jurors arrived and were seated in the gallery, where about a dozen people already sat. The onlookers included a local TV news crew and two reporter-photographer teams working for Russian media.

Wallace also asked those present for the trial not to talk about details of the case in the courtroom hallways, elevators or stairwell, so as not to taint the pool of jurors.

"Please, really limit your contact with the people involved in this case," Wallace said.

Andrey Cherkasov, a Washington, D.C.-based reporter who works for Channel One Russia, explained the intense interest in Russia.

There have been several cases of Russian children adopted to the U.S. and abused by their new American parents, Cherkasov said. Because the kids keep their Russian citizenship, the government in Russia is responsible for their well-being, he said.

Compared to some of the cases, the accusations against Beagley are not as serious, he said.

Still, there is a great deal of interest in Russia, especially in the Far East region of Magadan, where the boys lived before they were adopted in Alaska.

"So every case, we try to follow, and this is just one of them," Cherkasov said.

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4589.


By CASEY GROVE
casey.grove@adn.com