DENVER (AP) - Even before a police officer opened the door, he could sense the strong odor of what smelled like a decomposing animal coming from the apartment.
Once inside, he found a thick layer of cat feces on the floor, and flies seemed to cover every surface. But most troubling of all were the occupants of the home: three boys ranging in age from 4 to 6.
A Denver couple accused of keeping their four malnourished young sons in the filthy dwelling made their first court appearance Tuesday on felony child-abuse charges.
When police found them last month, two of the children were wearing only diapers, and none could speak. Instead, they communicated with one another using "infant-like noises," authorities said.
A fourth sibling, a 2-year-old boy who was being treated at the hospital at the time, was also unable to speak, according to an arrest affidavit.
Their father, Wayne Sperling, and his wife, Linda Bailey, told police that the children have their own language and grunt at each other. But the couple insisted the children were able to speak to them.
In the courtroom, Sperling appeared calm and nodded at the judge alongside a public defender. His long gray hair was pulled into a ponytail, and he wore a long gray beard and yellow jail uniform.
Bailey, who is free on bond, appeared without an attorney and was stoic, answering "yes" to a question from the judge. She left the courtroom after the hearing, saying she had no comment but also yelling at reporters outside the courthouse.
The children were placed in protective custody. Hospital exams showed they were malnourished, not toilet-trained and were considered "nonverbal."
It's not the first time Sperling and Bailey have been accused of mistreating children.
Both pleaded guilty in 2007 to a single misdemeanor count of child abuse by neglect for an incident in 2006, according to court records. That was before their 6-year-old son was born, indicating that they once had other children in their home. They were placed on probation for two years and ordered to take parenting classes. Sperling was ordered to undergo a mental-health evaluation. The records do not say whether they fulfilled the requirements.
The details of the alleged abuse are not listed in the records, but it occurred in October 2006, when the family lived in the same apartment where police found the squalid conditions last month.
Police were also called to the home on April 12, 2012, after children were reported hanging out of a first-floor window.
At the time, officers said the children appeared well-fed and there was food in the home, but they described the apartment as "messy and crowded," according to a police report.
Sperling was cited for allowing the children to hang out the windows. Bailey told police then that she had lost parental rights to three of her children in 2009 but she was able to get one back. There was nothing immediately available in the court records to confirm that.
Lawyer David Littman, who has an office across the street from the apartment building, said he called to report the children hanging out of the window in 2012. He said the boys were dressed in diapers, throwing toys outside and seemed angry and defiant. After that, the boys seemed to be confined to the house.
"If there's a regret that I have, it is perhaps that was a cry for help. And while we made a report, we didn't go beyond making that report," he said.
Since then, neighbors said, they have called Denver Human Services with concerns.
A spokeswoman for Denver Human Services, Jamie Bradly, said confidentiality laws prevented her from confirming any reports about the four boys.
The latest charges came after an investigation that began Sept. 29, when Bailey took her youngest son to St. Joseph's Children's Hospital for a cut on his forehead that she said happened after a fall.
An emergency room doctor informed authorities that the 2-year-old was unwashed and smelled like cigarette smoke, prompting a welfare check by a Denver Human Services caseworker. Bruising behind the child's right ear appeared consistent with pinching, the doctor said.
Denver police officer N. Rocco-McKeel accompanied the caseworker to the apartment in a brick building near downtown.
The officer noted that flies covered every surface in one room and that he couldn't determine any age or developmental differences between the three children at home. He saw a single mattress and a bunk bed set, but none had any sheets or pillows. He said he couldn't find the source of the decaying smell but believed it came from a room at the back of the apartment.
The mother said she did not think the apartment was unsafe and denied the boys had any developmental delays. She said she had been living alone in a separate unit of the building for the past two months, but still saw the children every day except Saturday and Sunday, when she worked. Officials confirmed that she worked as a parking lot attendant at a nearby event hall.
Sperling told investigators he was unemployed and has been the boys' primary guardian. He said he mopped frequently but that it's hard to keep a house with four boys clean. He also said he intended to begin home-schooling the 6-year-old.
The affidavit said there was up to 2 inches of cat feces under the bunk bed where the boys slept, and the floor was soaked with cat urine.
Neighbor Jaime Scott said Sperling managed the building and sometimes answered the door naked.