FILE PHOTO: Representational image: Picture Micaela de Freitas

Jen Betz wondered where the neighbours’ children were during the summers.

She knew several young girls lived with her middle-aged neighbor Lee Kaplan, who they assumed was their father. But for years, she had felt uneasy.

The girls never came out to play in the yard, which was overgrown with weeds. On the rare occasions when Betz did see them, they all wore blue dresses. And there were so many of them.

What she didn’t know was that Kaplan was a cultlike figure who considered himself a prophet of God. She didn’t know either that he considered the girls his wives and that he spent years sexually abusing them while they lived in his basement without basic necessities.

All she knew was the children were “so sad and fearful every time I see them.”

On June 6, she finally called the police. As a result, a horrifying story of abuse, cruelty and inhumanity taking place in suburban Feasterville, Pa., came to light.

Worried they would lose their Pennsylvania farm, Daniel and Savilla Stoltzfus sought financial help from their wealthy acquaintance Lee Kaplan. In return, the married couple “gifted” their teenage and prepubescent daughters to him as “wives,” forcing them into “a life of sex slaves.”

Those were the words of Bucks County Judge Jeffrey L. Finley, who on Wednesday sentenced both Stoltzfuses to up to seven years in prison on child-endangerment counts after Savilla pleaded guilty and Daniel pleaded no contest, according to the Associated Press. He said he would have sentenced them to more time if that were legally possible.

The 52-year-old Kaplan will be sentenced in August, following his June 6 conviction on 17 counts of child sexual abuse and rape.

Finley didn’t hold back, calling the crime “just incomprehensible” and telling the couple, “You exchanged a certain level of comfort for the intellectual, emotional and sexual well-being of your children. You watched day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year as Mr. Kaplan took your daughters by the hand, led them into his bedroom, locked the door behind.”

He told Savilla she allowed her “daughters to believe it was appropriate for them to become betrothed at ages 10, 11, 12, 14″ to a middle-aged man “and to crawl into his bed,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

And he told Daniel, “You may have engaged in some odd relationship with Mr. Kaplan on some warped theory it may benefit your family. For whatever sick purpose, whether or not you fell under the power, in a trance-like state, of Kaplan, you knowingly allowed your family, your children, your daughters to move into this person’s home.”

“As a parent, I don’t know how you can do that to your child,” Bucks County Deputy District Attorney Kate Kohler said, according to CBS Philly, adding, “These children need time to heal and to learn in therapy about what’s supposed to be happening in the real world.”

The arrangement began about five years ago, Daniel told police, when the Stoltzfuses found themselves in danger of losing their farm in Lancaster, Pa., about 40 miles southeast of Harrisburg. They reached out to Kaplan, who they had met at an auction in 2012, for help, according to USA Today.

“In thanks for helping his family” out of financial ruin,” they “gifted” their oldest daughter, around 13 years old at the time, to Kaplan, court documents stated.

She moved into his in his Feasterville home, where Kaplan took her as his “wife” and quickly fathered two children with her – the first when she was 14 years old.

During the next few years, nine more of the daughters were sent to live with Kaplan, who told at least six of them that they were his wives. He proceeded to have a sexual relationship with all six, the youngest being around 10 when it began, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Eventually, Savilla herself came to live in the house, where she tolerated the rampant sexual abuse of her children.

With his flowing gray hair and long beard, Kaplan used his status as a “prophet” to persuade the family that “child rape was the norm,” prosecutors said, according to AP.

In his basement were several air mattresses, a model train track, a tank of catfish and several violins. Absent were toothbrushes, soap or actual beds. There Kaplan kept the girls, using fear to manipulate them into staying.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported:

“They grew most of their own food, and Kaplan kept stores of canned goods in the house, whose windows were all covered. Kaplan also told them that the outside world would ruin their lives and that they should never tell what they did with him in his bedroom.”

They believed him. One girl said, “I feel like I trust him well enough that if he told me to do something, it would be for the better.”

Kaplan was finally arrested in June 2016 when police visited the house on a tip from Jen Betz.

“My gut was telling me to confirm what I was thinking. I just knew. There was no reason why this older, significantly older man, any man, regardless of what they look like, would have this amount of children, all in blue dresses, never outside the house regularly, looking so scared,” Betz told CNN. “I knew that something wasn’t right.”

The Stoltzfuses were subsequently arrested. The married couple could be reunited with their own children, who are currently under state care, after they serve their sentences and undergo court-mandated therapy and mental health evaluations.

“There is harm to these children that we can’t begin to imagine and maybe we will never understand,” Finley said. “But one thing we do know is that victims of sexual trauma tend to sustain lifelong harm.”

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