UNION COUNTY, N.C. — It was a case that received national attention in 2013 when an 11-year-old boy was found handcuffed to his porch with a dead chicken around his neck. The boy was rescued by a Union County sheriff's deputy.
WSOC cameras captured the moment the young boy was reunited with the Union County deputy who rescued him from an abusive home. It was the first time they had seen each other since that day.
When Deputy Robert Rucker walked into the room, the boy smiled from ear to ear. He shook the hand of his hero then gave him a big hug.
"You doing alright? You're doing a lot better now this time, aren't you?" Rucker asked.
Channel 9 is protecting the boy’s identity, because he was a victim in the Union County child abuse case that made national headlines.
Rucker found the boy handcuffed to a porch with that dead chicken around his neck three years ago.
The boy is now 14 years old and earning A's and B's in school.
"Thank you for saving my life. I really appreciate it. I don't know where I would have been if you didn't come up there," the boy told the deputy during the reunion.
"You never have to say that. I'm glad to have been there for you. I just wish I could have been there sooner," Rucker said.
The boy was saved from a house of horrors.
Former Union County Department of Social Services supervisor Wanda Sue Larson and her boyfriend, Dorian Lee Harper, both pleaded guilty to multiple child abuse charges.
They were caring for the boy in their foster home with four other children.
Harper admitted to cutting the boy's face with a knife, burning him with an electrical wire and handcuffing him to the porch with a dead chicken around his neck.
Rucker was responding to an unrelated call when he spotted the boy and ultimately rescued him.
The boy's biological mother eventually regained custody of her son and asked Channel 9 reporter Paul Boyd to arrange the reunion.
She said her son wanted the reunion to happen for a long time.
Union County Sheriff’s Deputy Pauline Lucore took care of the boy in the hours after his rescue and received the longest hug of the reunion.
"I really miss you," the boy said, as he embraced her.
Lucore gave the boy a gift bag she put together for him.
"Thank you so much. That is so cool," the boy said, as he opened his gifts.
He received a flashlight and hat along with other items from the Sheriff's Office.
The boy’s eyes went wide as he discovered a Carolina Panthers jersey in the bag of his favorite player, Cam Newton.
The deputies couldn’t get over how he's grown in three years, and the boy can't stop showing his appreciation to those who rescued him.
"I'm really thankful, and I’m glad I get to see everybody who helped me that day. And I just don't know where I’d be if none of you came. I'm just really thankful," the boy said.
But Channel 9's day with the special boy wasn't over. He asked his mom to return to the home where the abuse happened.
Part 2: The moment the boy was rescued
It's a long walk up the gravel driveway to the house where the boy was rescued on Nov. 15, 2013.
He returned to the home for the first time since that day and his mother allowed Channel 9 to follow their journey.
The boy told his mother he wanted to go to the house simply to see it all again.
He's 14 now, but he was a terrified 11-year-old the day a sheriff's deputy found him.
"It was morning. I was up in the stairs right there. He saw me handcuffed," the boy said.
The boy showed investigative reporter Paul Boyd where he was handcuffed to his porch and explained how a dead chicken was placed around his neck as punishment.
Click Play to watch Part 2 of Paul Boyd's report.
The deputy quickly took action that day.
"He says, ‘Where's the adult that's in here?’ And I said, ‘He's inside.’ All the stuff went on and then he got arrested," the boy said.
The deputy arrested Harper, who lived in the home with Larson, a Union County social services supervisor at the time. She was arrested later in the day.
They were foster parents with five kids in their home. Both pleaded guilty to multiple child abuse charges.
As the boy walked around the property of his old house he recalled memories as he approached a shed.
"I remember this place. I use to come in here and close the door and try to hide," the boy said. "So they wouldn't hurt me.”
The reunion with his rescuers "meant everything to me, (because) I thought I'd never see them again, and I just really wanted to thank everybody for coming out and helping me get to a better place," the boy said.
The boy was eventually reunited with his biological mother in 2015. She said she wrongfully lost custody of him years earlier.
"You really honestly saved his life. If you wouldn't have decided to walk up there, I don't know where he would be. Thank you so much," the boy’s mother said to Rucker.
Back at the old house, it's clear this is no longer the same boy who was rescued that day in 2013. Counseling and a stable home have given him new life.
"I didn't want to be there anymore. I was just grateful and thankful for it," the boy said.
Harper remains in prison and won't be eligible for parole until 2021. Larson was release on probation in 2015.
The young boy at the center of this story was not content just seeing the outside of the home. He wanted to go inside.
Part 3: The moment the boy went inside the home
The boy begged his mother to let him return to the house where it all happened.
"I just wanted to see how it is, see how the old house is doing. If it's better now," the boy said.
It's almost as if the boy at the center of Union County's infamous child abuse case is transported back in time to when he was last here three years ago.
He sees some old toys in the garage. He climbs abandoned chicken pens without a care in the world.
The new owner of the home allowed the boy and his mother inside. The house is being fully renovated.
If only it was that easy to erase the boy's dark memories of what happened at that house in 2013.
"This is also where they locked the door," the boy told Channel 9 while looking around the house.
The boy said the abuse was at its worst inside.
His face was cut with a knife, his arm was cut with a needle, and salt was poured in the wound. He was burnt with an electrical wire, and he was handcuffed or chained to objects, like railroad ties, in the house.
Most notably, he was found with a dead chicken tied around his neck.
Both Harper and Larson pleaded guilty to multiple child abuse charges while caring for the boy and four other children in their foster home.
The boy told Boyd that “Wanda Sue" was more abusive towards him and that he wants her to go back to jail.
But on this day, his biological mom focused on helping her son find some closure.
"You look at this room, and you see this is the past and know you're never going to be in this again," the mom explained to her son while comforting him.
His mother said a long road to recovery remains, but life gets a little better every day.
Boyd went on WBT Radio Thursday morning to talk about how this emotional story came together. Listen to the interview here.
Watch a behind-the-scenes look at the radio appearance below:
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