Sacramento woman who kept teen girl in closet will spend rest of her life in custody

Lillian Manning-Horvath hides her face behind her attorney, Ken Rosenfeld, at her sentencing. Her consecutive life terms will begin at a mental facility.
Lillian Manning-Horvath hides her face behind her attorney, Ken Rosenfeld, at her sentencing. Her consecutive life terms will begin at a mental facility.

A young woman beaten and tortured as a child thanked her abusive, adoptive mom in court Friday and said that because of the ordeal, "I'm stronger than ever."

"I'm not scared anymore," Lillian Manning, 19, said to her convicted tormentor, Lillian Manning-Horvath, at the defendant's sentencing in Sacramento Superior Court. "You thought you won the war. But no, you didn't. I did. It took a while, but I did it. Me. Lillian Kate Manning, a.k.a. Rachel Cornist."

Manning-Horvath, 72, ducked into the corner of the holding cell in front of Judge Lawrence C. Brown and hid behind her lawyer, Ken Rosenfeld, to avoid a newspaper photographer. But she couldn't hide from her sentence – consecutive life terms with no chance of parole for her no-contest pleas to charges of torture and mayhem. Under the terms of a plea deal, she will first serve up to six years in a mental facility before beginning her state prison terms.

"Frankly, no sentence is adequate to right the wrong done to Lillian" and her older sister, Briana, Brown said.

The judge added another 32 years and eight months to Manning-Horvath's sentence for additional convictions on charges such as assault, child endangerment and false imprisonment.

Manning-Horvath's husband, Joseph Horvath, 54, was convicted by a jury in September 2009 and sentenced to consecutive life terms.

Friday's hearing was the dramatic culmination of a case that broke open on Halloween day 2007, when young Lilly – then 15 – escaped from a 20-by-26-inch closet in the Horvaths' south Sacramento home. The girl had been routinely beaten and stuffed in the closet for days and weeks at a time.

Her escape, and the discovery of more than 100 scars and injuries on her small body, led to the arrests of Manning-Horvath and her husband, 18 years her junior.

The hearing also marked a milestone in the personal journey of the young woman, who was named after her tormentor. She contacted The Bee to help her tell her story, and to piece together the many blank spots of her past.

Details of Lilly's story were published in Sunday's Bee, eliciting numerous offers of help from readers. A fund has been set up in her name through Bank of America.

Lilly and her siblings were placed in the custody of Lillian Manning-Horvath, their great-aunt, in the 1990s. According to Manning-Horvath's probation report, she married Joseph Horvath in 2001 and the abuse of young Lilly began.

Besides being shut in the closet, she was burned with boiling water, kicked in the mouth with a steel-toe boot, punched in the head with a pink high heel and body-slammed to the ground, breaking her arm, the probation report said. Pliers were used to pull and squeeze her fingers and toes, the report said.

Court records indicate that while all the siblings were abused in the home, they also make clear that Lilly took the brunt.

"These defendants tried to break the spirit of these children and to extinguish their life. And in that attempt, they have utterly failed," said Deputy District Attorney Thienvu Ho, who has handled the case from the beginning.

The prosecutor said after the hearing he was relieved that Lillian Manning-Horvath will be "locked up forever – which she deserves."

Ho said he insisted on keeping the case even after he was transferred to another unit in the District Attorney's Office.

"To go through what she went through – and to survive and thrive – is amazing," he said of Lilly.

Joseph Horvath was tried and sentenced in 2009. The case against his wife was delayed by legal questions about Manning-Horvath's mental competency. Rosenfeld asked that she be sent to Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk, where she has been treated before. The judge said he could not make the decision as to where she'll be sent.

Outside the courtroom, Rosenfeld made a broader observation:

"I just think it's somewhat shocking that the state of California would allow somebody with a significant and acute history of mental illness with more than a dozen trips in a mental hospital to take care of kids . We certainly should have a better system of checking people out before we allow them to be in their care and custody."

The extent of the family's involvement with Sacramento's Child Protective Services is not clear in the criminal court files. Records show the children tried to get help – at school, or by calling 911 and CPS. "We just gave up," Lilly said.

Lilly's older sister, Briana Manning, now 20, also read a statement in court Friday.

"I don't know what you deserve because it's not my place to tell you what you deserve," she said. "All I can say is what goes around comes back around."

Since Sunday's story was published, offers of financial support, college tuition money – even opera tickets, dance lessons and massage therapy – have been pouring in for Lilly and her siblings.

"I think it's awesome so many people want to help," Lilly said. "I didn't think anybody really cared."

In phone calls, emails and comments on The Bee's website, readers said they did care. "The extent of her abuse was horrific and her resiliency is inspiring," wrote one reader, asking to contribute to Lilly's education.

Briana, who was disabled at birth, is attending Sacramento City College, studying criminal justice and psychology.

Lilly said she also wants an education and has taken courses at Sacramento City College.

The formal sentencing of Manning-Horvath gives her some measure of peace, Lilly said.

"I feel like I don't have to look over my shoulder anymore," she said.

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