Smiling with a bottle in his hands, the toddler sits in his diaper locked in a dog cage among blankets and toys.
Little did he know that this eerie photograph, taken in jest eight years ago when he was just one, was a dark premonition for the brutal childhood that lay ahead.
On October 19, the child was found locked in a freezing dog kennel outside his family’s home in Lexington, North Carolina. Cast outside since April and shoeless, he confessed to police that he’d been sent outside to sleep on straw because there was no room for him in the 1,400 square ft house where his father, stepmother, her aunt and his four siblings slept.
Today, his father Jonathan Starr, 32, is behind bars on child abuse charges along with his stepmother, Sarah Lynette Starr, 40, and her aunt, Shelley Lucille Barnes, 56.
While the motive for the abuse remains unknown, the abhorrence of the conditions in which the boy had been forced to live are clear.
DailyMail.com is choosing not to name or picture the boy or any of the other children found in the house. All five are now in the care of social services. They range in aged from eight months to seven.
We can however reveal that just a year ago, he enjoyed what looked like a happy life in a blended family.
In this eerie photograph that foreshadows his future, the North Carolina boy found locked in a dog kennel last month is shown as a toddler, locked in a similar cage to the one he was found. It was taken in jest at a time when he appeared to enjoy the love and care of his father
The boy – who DailyMail.com is choosing not to name – appeared happy as a young baby and toddler. After moving from California to North Carolina to live with his father, his new wife and their kids, his fate changed
This is believed to the dog kennel lot where the boy was found on October 19 after a worried neighbor called 911. It was only 28 degrees – unseasonably cold – and the boy had spent the night without shoes or a bed, sleeping on a pile of straw, in damp clothes
The boy told police he’d been there since April, sent to ‘live outside’ because there wasn’t enough room for him in the house
The boy’s father, stepmother and his stepmother’s aunt are facing a total of 19 indictments in relation to the child’s captivity
The Starr family home shown here in Lexington, North Carolina, surrounded by children’s toys and a gate that reads: ‘Private Property No Trespassing’ sign
A bird feeder and an array of wind chimes can be seen outside of the Starr family home on November 11
The family’s other children are now in the care of the Department of Social Services and are said to be in good health
A bizarre sign reading: ‘Remember the toes you step on today may be attached to the ass you will have to kiss tomorrow’ adorns the family’s gate
The rebel flag of the Confederate Army on a novelty license plate is nailed to the Starr family home
The most recent photograph of the nine-year-old boy. When he was found on October 19, he was so cold after spending the night in subzero temperatures that he was shivering and unable to speak
His father had married Sarah, already a mother-of-two, in 2017.
She had two little girls from a previous relationship, both of whom were younger than the boy in question.
The family grew in 2017 with the birth of the boy’s first half-brother.
In February of this year, a second half-brother was born.
The family lived in Paradise, California, near Huntington Beach, where both Sarah’s family is from.
In 2018, their home was destroyed by the devastating wildfire that ripped through the town.
It seem they moved to North Carolina soon afterwards to live with Shelley, Sarah’s doting aunt.
Shelley, 56, is a convicted felon with a lengthy rap sheet of 34 different arrests in both North Carolina and California.
The majority of the offenses are not specified in public records but they include charges of identity fraud and health and safety violations.
Her house is scattered with confederate flags and in old social media photos, her relatives and friends are seen dressing up in KKK robes toting rifles.
She too is from Huntington Beach, and fundraised for the family when they lost their home to the Paradise wildfire of 2018.
Shortly after the arrival of the fifth child in February, the boy found in the cage vanished from his stepmother’s social media accounts. In some photos, he was even cropped out.
His sudden disappearance prompted concern among her friends.
On photographs of the other four kids, the friends asked where her stepson was.
In her biography, Sarah described herself as a mother of four – not five.
The nine-year-old boy, shown (far left) aged seven in 2020 with three of his siblings, seemed very much part of the family until recently
A trampoline is one of the many children’s toys scattered around the home
The Starr family’s children’s bikes close to a tree on the family property
A child’s Hot Wheels car resting on the family lawn days after it was confirmed that Jonathan and Sarah Starr’s bonds were increased to $1 million
A metal shipping container with unknown contents tucked away on the Starr’s property close to another Private Property No Trespassing sign
April 2021, the announcement of a new baby in the family. This is the last time the boy, left, was shown on his stepmother’s social media accounts
A new baby, and then he was gone: In February this year, Sarah gave birth to her second son. The oldest child disappears from her social media pages at this point
Stepmother Sarah with her four biological children on an October 3 outing, just two weeks before she was arrested for abusing the oldest boy, who wasn’t included in photos from that day
Erased: Sarah’s Facebook biography describes her as a ‘mom of four’, with no mention of the nine-year-old stepson forced to sleep outside
Friends became so concerned with the child’s sudden disappearance on his parents’ social media pages that they peppered his stepmother with questions
The boy was not included in family outings to rodeos or trips to the lake, and he isn’t included in the happy announcement of his youngest half-brother’s birth.
DailyMail.com contacted the boy’s biological mother, who lives in California, but received no response. Neither of his paternal grandparents responded to inquiries.
Sheriff Richie Simmons of Davidson County in North Carolina told reporters that the abuse was unlike anything ‘he had ever seen’.
‘I’ve been in law enforcement 36 years. This is the first time I’ve seen something quite this significant to be honest with you.
‘There was some clothes that was there, just bits and pieces, a little bit of food was inside, but not enough to sustain warmth for this child,’ he said at a press conference last week.
Officers were called to the house early in the morning by a concerned neighbor who’d stolen a glance of the boy locked in a dog cage on the grounds of the house.
The neighbor’s wife later told police that he had once taken food to the child.
Jonathan Starr appeared to be a doting and loving father to the boy until recently. They lived in California, near to where Jonathan grew up
The child with his paternal grandfather, Scott Starr. Mr. Starr lives in California and did not respond to inquiries. The boy’s biological mother with his father
Police arrived at the home shortly before 7.30am and found the boy in the locked dog lot. It was 28 degrees at the time – unseasonably cold for North Carolina – and he was sparsely dressed.
‘There were some clothes but not enough to sustain warmth for this child,’ Sheriff Simmons said.
The boy was so cold when police arrived that he was shivering and could not speak until he was warmed up by EMS teams.
The officers were so concerned when they arrived at the property that they breached a fence and broke the padlock keeping him captive.
Sarah Starr and Jonathan Starr married in 2017. She already had two daughters from a previous marriage and seemed excited, at first, to become a stepmother to her new husband’s only child. The following year, the family’s home in Paradise, California, was torched in the wildfire that destroyed the entire area
Aunt Shelley, 56, is a convicted felon who proudly displays confederate flags and photos of friends dressed in Klansmen hoods on her social media pages
Inside the home was Starr, his wife and Barnes.
A four-year-old boy was found hiding under a bed and Starr was looking after her eight-month-old son.
The older girls – aged seven and five – were in a nearby school.
All of the other children were healthy and properly cared for, according to the police. They are now all however in the care of protective services.
It remains unclear whether social services had been alerted to the family in the past.
All three suspects remain in custody. Jonathan and Sarah are being held on $100,000 bonds each, charged with an array of child abuse offenses.
Barnes is being held on a $300,000 bond.
Officers received an anonymous call from someone who reported that a child had been locked in an outdoor dog kennel on Cress Road in Lexington and that they believed the child had been there overnight.