SPLENDORA, Texas (AP) — The abandoned school bus had no engine and no front wheels. But there were crude curtains in the windows, an air conditioner and even bunk beds inside.
So when a postal worker repeatedly ran across two unkempt children at the scene, she grew concerned and this week contacted authorities to report that the pair had apparently been living there for months.
Now child welfare agents are trying to unravel the story of the siblings, a 5-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl, whose parents are in prison and whose home was a dilapidated vehicle at the end of a muddy, one-lane road.
The postal carrier saw the kids Wednesday near Houston, and the two were swiftly placed in foster care while authorities investigate.
"The little girl's hair was just matted, like a stray dog's," Vanessa Picazo said.
The father of the pair said he never intended for the bus to be a permanent home. He said the family had planned to build a house at the site, which was now strewn with reeking trash.
"The house is normally clean. If me or my wife were there, it would not be in that shape, I assure you," Mark Shorten said. "Our house would be completed or almost completed."
Randal McCann, a Louisiana attorney who represented the children's mother prior to her imprisonment, said the aunt had been taking care of the kids since the case against the parents was launched more than a year ago. The kids were not enrolled in school.
"It was believed by everybody involved in this case that (the aunt) was properly tending to those children. What I saw in the newspaper this morning was shocking," McCann said, referring to a report in the Houston Chronicle.
McCann said the aunt would often contact him but only to discuss the criminal case and not the children.
"But there was no indication that the living conditions were as bad as those photographs," McCann said.
It was not clear how long the children had been living in the bus and whether the aunt lived with them or simply made visits.
A spokesman for Child Protective Services said authorities were less concerned about the bus itself than with children's overall well-being.
"It's not the bus. It's the condition and supervision issues," spokesman Gwen Carter said, explaining that the agency understands that poor families often must resort to dire living arrangements.
Shorten and his wife, Sherrie, were convicted of embezzling money from victims of Hurricane Ike, which struck in 2008. The mother was arrested in December 2010, the father in March 2011.
In a phone interview with The Associated Press from an Oklahoma City federal prison, Mark Shorten said he had not slept since his children were taken Wednesday.
Shorten said an aunt who was asked to watch the kids couldn't keep up, and he blamed the garbage blanketing his property on neighbors dumping their trash there.
Sherrie Shorten is scheduled to be released next month.
"I'm coming home in 30 days to be able to take care of my kids," she said from a separate federal prison in Lake Charles, La.
An AP reporter visited the site Thursday. The bus appeared to have electricity, and outside there was a small propane tank and homemade grill.
A woman who was in the bus declined to identify herself and told the reporter to leave.
The Shortens said the bus also has hot and cold running water, including a shower and flush toilets, as well as heat and closets.
Picazo said her latest visit to the bus was not the first time she was worried about the children. Once when she needed a signature for a package, the 11-year-old girl volunteered. But when Picazo handed her the signature slip, the girl confessed she didn't know how to sign her name.
That was a "red flag that she wasn't being schooled. But she was a bright child," Picazo said.
Mark Shorten said his children were being home schooled through a Texas Tech University program. He said his daughter was highly intelligent and "can even do tax returns."
He said the family was originally from Louisiana but that the hurricane left their home under more than 8 feet of water. They brought the bus to Texas and only planned to live in it "maybe nine months" while he built a new home on the property.
Neighbors told the Houston Chronicle that the children typically looked unkempt and could often be spotted running around at night.
"They always had dirty clothes on (and) no shoes, even in the winter," said Gayla Payne.
A woman on the property told welfare agents that she worked 12-hour shifts Monday through Friday but that she stayed with the children at night.
"The aunt said that she does provide meals for them during the day," Montgomery County Constable Rowdy Hayden told Houston television station KTRK.
Looking around the bus, "we didn't see a lot of food readily available," Hayden said. "One of the neighbors had told us earlier that from time to time she will bring food over for the children."