HARRIS COUNTY, Texas -- It's the most heartbreaking, horrifying crime scene veterans with the Harris County, Texas Sheriff's Office said they ever saw after three abandoned boys were found trapped inside a Houston-area apartment with their 8-year-old brother's skeletal remains inside for a full year.
It all started with a frantic 911 call on Oct. 24, 2021, when a 15-year-old boy on the other line told dispatchers his mother left him and his younger brothers alone for months, with their 8-year-old brother, who had been dead for a year in a bedroom.
Deputy Corey Castro, with the Harris County Sheriff's Office Homicide Unit, conducted the scene investigation inside the second-floor apartment.
"It was a very distinct smell," Castro said. "There was no furniture, there was no lights, electricity. There were roaches everywhere. These children had no beds to sleep on. They barely had anything to cover up with."
The brothers, ages 15, 10 and 7, told investigators little 8-year-old Kendrick Lee was beaten to death by their mother's boyfriend, Brian Coulter, a year prior, around November 2020.
"The main thing that got me was the position the child died in," Castro said. "Without going into too much positioning, I would say laying down in a certain position, and we have to be careful because of the integrity of this case."
Two of the boys have autism, but investigators said they are extremely aware and verbal. In court, it was revealed one of the brothers was inside the room, while Coulter allegedly beat Kendrick to death, kicking and punching him repeatedly.
Deputy John Craig, also with the Harris County Sheriff's Office Homicide Unit, is the lead investigator.
"Being a father myself, it's difficult children can be treated like this -- that they are put in such humiliating circumstances. They have to fend for themselves," Craig said. "There is no one to help them if one of them gets hurt. It's heartbreaking someone can do this to a child. The child is the most innocent victim."
Investigators said the boys told them their mother, Gloria Williams, moved out with her boyfriend and abandoned them.
Later, investigators found the couple was living in a separate apartment 25 minutes away. The boys said Williams and Coulter would go back every few weeks to drop off some food, but that during those trips, Coulter would come back to beat them, then leave.
Their injuries were so bad and left untreated that one of the boys needed to have surgery on his jaw.
"You could tell he had some injuries to his face," Castro said.
The boys were forbidden from leaving their apartment. Neighbors told ABC Houston affiliate KTRK back in October, the oldest brother would leave the apartment occasionally to ask them for food. But, neighbors said he would not say much, and they had no idea that food was also feeding two other boys inside the apartment.
"You know what happens, you are being abused," Craig said. "You see your brother, what happened to him. He was murdered. So, being at that age, if you are told not to go outside, you are not going to because you know what's going to happen if you do."
Investigators said when the boys saw them, they were relieved.
"They had the fear in their eyes. They didn't know what was coming next," Craig said. "They're happy. They want to talk to you and hug you and express how glad we are here. But you still see in their eyes, they have fear."
Craig, who interviewed the boys, said they did in fact hug him.
"It's heart-wrenching. You hug them back," Craig said. "You have a job to do, but you don't want to let them go."
Williams and Coulter were arrested outside of a library, two days after the boys were found. KTRK obtained surveillance footage from inside the library, moments before the arrest, where sources said they were looking up news articles of themselves.
At the time, the sheriff's office received criticism for not making an arrest that day and even received phone calls from outraged community members.
"We don't rush it, and we put it all together," Craig said. "We make sure everything is in line. At that point, once we have got our evidence, hear back from the medical examiner, interview, we put it all together and then a warrant is issued through the district attorney's office. Then we give the warrant to our warrant's unit and they pick them up."
Coulter has been charged with capital murder. Williams has been charged with injury to a child, injury to a child by omission and tampering with evidence (corpse).
Investigators want to know how the alleged abuse went unnoticed for so long. Craig blames COVID-19 because students were virtual. The children had no classroom to go to and no teacher to see what was happening.
"No one was looking at that child that had bruises the next day at school or the kid with the busted lip," Craig said.
A spokesperson for Alief, Texas Independent School District told KTRK that the district filed truancy papers against the mother after the children stopped going to school. They even visited the home in September of 2020, but there was no answer or follow up.
"How easy is it to say, 'My kids are going to get homeschooled,' and that's where it stays because you don't have the manpower to follow up on everything," Deputy Craig said.
The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services said the family was in the state's system for years. Reports of abuse date back to 2015.
Neighbors told KTRK they felt something was off, but never called police.
"As a community, if you see something and it looks awkward to you, say something," Castro said. "That's the biggest takeaway. If you feel something is wrong, say something."
The boys were neglected and failed by the system that was set up to protect them. In an update, Child Protective Services said the brothers remain together in foster care, where they have access to therapy and counseling.
A jury indicted both Williams and Coulter, who are currently behind bars. Now, the case goes to trial.
"It makes you more determined to do your job," Castro said. "It makes you want to do it well because we speak for the victim. It makes you want to get to the bottom of it."
"At the end, in my opinion, is justice for the children, for Kendrick, and the children who have been abused who are still with us," Craig said. "I just want justice to prevail."