Benito and Carol Gutierrez are facing child-abuse charges.

A Tucson couple is facing child-abuse charges after sheriff’s investigators said they kept their four children locked in their bedrooms for at least 12 hours at a time, with no access to food, water or a bathroom.

Benito Gutierrez, 69, and Carol Gutierrez, 64, are being held in the Pima County jail in connection with three counts each of felony child abuse. Their bonds are set at $25,000 each.

Carol Gutierrez told deputies that she locked the children in the room because they were "menaces, by stealing and eating all the food," according to a sheriff's detective's search warrant affidavit.

On Saturday, the couple’s 12-year-old son went into a Family Dollar store in the area of North Flowing Wells and West Prince roads and asked to use the phone to call his uncle, Pima County sheriff’s Detective Pat Willson told reporters Wednesday.

The store clerk noticed the boy looked disheveled and that when the boy told the clerk he was going to walk home from the store after using the phone, the clerk walked him home because it was dark outside and traffic was busy, according to the search warrant affidavit.

“We commend this citizen,” Willson said, adding that the situation would have likely gone unreported if the clerk hadn’t followed his instincts. “He wasn’t sure the situation was a crime, but he reported his concerns.”

When the child got to his home he did not want to go in through the front door. He told the clerk he would go to a friend's house next door, but there was nobody home, the affidavit states. The clerk became concerned and looked through a window and saw a lock on the bedroom door. The child told the clerk that the lock kept him from leaving his bedroom and that was why he used the window to exit and gain entrance to the house, the court document states.

The clerk called 911 and when deputies arrived at the home, located in the 4100 block of North Flowing Wells Road, they made contact with Carol Gutierrez at the front door. The home was found to be in relatively clean condition, with the exception of bedrooms that were padlocked from the outside and contained only mattresses, Willson said.

Three other children, ages 6, 10 and 11, were found in the home. Detectives learned the children, who were all adopted by the couple, went to school during the week and were locked in their bedrooms when they came home, for a minimum of 12 hours at a time, the detective said.

The bedrooms didn’t have lights and one of the rooms had the window boarded up, making it next to impossible for the children to tell if it was day or night, she said.

When the children needed to use the bathroom, they knocked on the door in the hopes that one of their parents would let them out of the bedroom. “Sometimes they’d be let out, sometimes not,” Willson said.

Inside one of the bedrooms, detectives found a bucket that one of the children used as a toilet.

Carol Gutierrez told deputies she "cannot handle the children, because, they are menaces, by stealing and eating all the food, so she locks them in their rooms," the detective's affidavit states.

The 12-year-old boy told deputies that he and his siblings were locked in their rooms from about 5 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily, the affidavit said. A neighbor said the children were usually seen outside the home at 6 a.m. each day.

School officials told detectives there were no reported issues and the children were excellent students and “generally good kids,” Willson said. School officials said they saw no signs that merited mandatory abuse reporting to the state.

The name of the school was not released.

Two of the children had previously complained to the school nurse about being hungry, but the incidents didn’t raise any red flags. The children all participated in their school’s breakfast and lunch programs, Willson said.

None of the children made any attempts to disclose their living conditions, which detectives believe was because they didn’t realize it wasn’t normal.

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The child who walked to the store wasn’t trying to escape the home, but slipped out just to use the phone, Willson said.

The Gutierrezes were first foster parents to the children before adopting them. The first of the four children came to live with them 10 years ago, before the youngest two children were born, Willson said.

While the children are all biological siblings, they are not related to the Gutierrezes.

Detectives have not found any evidence of physical abuse and the children have made no disclosures of sexual abuse, Willson said.

The Arizona Department of Child Safety is involved in the investigation, but told the Sheriff’s Department it had received no prior reports about the couple.

DCS spokesman Darren DaRonco confirmed the agency removed the children from the home Saturday. He said he could not comment further.

DaRonco said, generally speaking, once an adoption is approved by the courts, DCS is no longer involved with a family.

“These sorts of cases unfortunately have become the norm these days,” Willson said. The children — two boys and two girls — have been placed in foster homes , she said.

The Gutierrezes, who are retired, passed all the required DCS checks to become foster and adoptive parents, Willson said.

Contact reporter Caitlin Schmidt at cschmidt@tucson.com or 573-4191. Twitter: @caitlincschmidt

I'm a watchdog reporter covering local government, the University of Arizona and sports investigations.