FILE - In this Nov. 15, 2013 file photo, Wayne Sperling, left, accused of neglecting his four sons and keeping them in a filthy Denver apartment, arrives at court with his public defender, at the Denver Justice Center, in Denver. A court hearing is scheduled Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014, for Sperling, who was charged with child abuse after authorities found the boys in an apartment filled with cat feces and flies in October 2013. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)
DENVER — A father whose four young sons could communicate only in grunts when authorities rescued them from a filthy Denver apartment could spend up to seven years in prison after pleading guilty Thursday to felony child abuse.
Prosecutors agreed to drop all other charges against Wayne Sperling, 67, in exchange for his guilty plea. He will be sentenced on Dec. 30.
The boys were aged 2 to 6 when they were removed from their home last October. An emergency room doctor suspected abuse when the youngest was taken to the hospital for a cut on his forehead. The doctor noticed that the boy was unwashed, reeked of cigarette smoke and had bruises consistent with pinching.
Authorities then discovered Sperling, his wife and the boys living in an apartment filled with cat feces and flies.
Prosecutors called it one of the most horrific cases they had ever seen, but the state's child abuse laws kept them from pursuing harsher penalties because the children did not suffer serious physical injuries.
Prosecutors said the boys are improving while living together in the care of their foster mother. They have never asked about their parents.
"Considering what they've gone through, they're doing remarkably well," Denver District Attorney spokeswoman Lynn Kimbrough said Thursday. That the boys are living together has "helped them in their ability to try to recover from the horrifying neglect they were living in."
Sperling's wife, Lorinda Bailey, was sentenced last week to 90 days in jail and five years of probation after pleading guilty to child abuse.
Detective Teresa Gessler testified in Bailey's case that all the surfaces in the family's apartment were covered with dead or living flies and that about an inch of solidified cat feces covered with urine lay beneath one of the children's beds.
After they were rescued and given bagged lunches to eat, the boys acted as if they hadn't seen normal food before, Gessler testified. They patted the sandwiches and played with the apples. After an adult mimed eating an apple to encourage them to eat, they licked the fruit, she said.
When the boys were placed with the foster mother, prosecutor Bonnie Benedetti said, they did not know how to dress themselves.
Benedetti said they are still not all toilet-trained and their snack cupboard has to be kept locked to prevent them from hoarding food.
The latest case involving Bailey and Sperling warranted felony charges because it was a repeat child-abuse offense. The couple lost custody of other children amid similar allegations in October 2006, after passers-by reported two young children playing in the street. The children mostly grunted and pointed to communicate, and officers found a home full of trash and rotten food.
Bailey and Sperling pleaded guilty in June 2007 to misdemeanor child abuse.