LOS ANGELES — A California woman kept her 11-year-old son with special needs locked away in a closet for three years, a secret from his stepfather, until he wasted away to just 34 pounds and died of multiple drug intoxication, according to testimony in the mother’s preliminary hearing.
Veronica Aguilar, 41, is charged with first-degree murder with the special circumstance of alleged torture and child abuse causing death, according to the Los Angeles Times. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled Wednesday that there is "overwhelming" evidence for Aguilar to stand trial in the death of her son, Yonatan Daniel Aguilar.
Court records obtained by the Times in 2016 suggest that Yonatan may have been on the autism spectrum.
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Veronica Aguilar’s attorney, Summer McKeiver, argued that her client was not abusive, but a loving mother ill-equipped to handle her son’s special needs.
"This is a case of a woman who didn't speak the language, didn't know her rights," McKeivier said outside the courtroom, according to the Times. "She didn't know how to help and the help she sought failed."
Aguilar is being held in lieu of $2 million bond.
Warning: The following story, which contains graphic descriptions of a child’s death, may be disturbing to some readers.
Police officers were called on Aug. 22, 2016, to a suspicious death at the family's home in Echo Park, according to a news release from the Los Angeles Police Department.
LAPD officials said the boy’s stepfather, Jose Pinzon, had found Yonatan’s drugged, emaciated body wrapped in a blanket inside a closet after Aguilar told him the boy was dead. Pinzon testified this week that he immediately ran two blocks to a 7-Eleven store on Sunset Boulevard to call 911 because his cellphone wouldn’t work inside the house.
Paramedics pronounced Yonatan dead at the scene, authorities said.
"The investigation revealed that the victim suffered from signs of malnutrition and physical abuse and had been deceased for a few hours," police officials said at the time.
LAPD Detective Abel Munoz testified that Pinzon was "hysterical" and hyperventilating when he found him at the convenience store. NBC Los Angeles reported that, according to Pinzon's testimony, he had moved in with Aguilar and her oldest two children in 2005.
Yonatan and a sister arrived from Mexico in 2007 and 2008, Pinzon testified, according to the news station. Pinzon and Aguilar married in 2014.
Munoz testified that when he and other officers went to the family's home, they found Aguilar walking on the street, carrying a small dog, the NBC affiliate said.
“She was very calm and she had, like, a blank stare on her face,” Munoz testified.
Munoz said he initially thought the dead child was much younger after unwrapping the blanket found around his thin body.
"I saw a very gaunt, frail-looking child who, at that time, to me looked like a 5-, 6-, or 7-year-old boy," the detective said, according to ABC7.
The Times reported that court documents show the boy's body was covered in pressure sores from lying on the tile floor of the closet, which was so small he could not stretch his legs out. He had foam coming from his nose and medicine measuring cups containing traces of pink and red liquids were found near his body.
Yonatan was also going bald, the documents say.
The Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-County Coroner's Office found that the boy, who weighed less than half of what a typical 11-year-old weighs, ultimately died of the combined effects of multiple drugs. According to court records and testimony in this week's hearing, Aguilar was dosing Yonatan with alcohol-based cough medicine and sleeping aids to keep him quiet.
A doctor who specializes in pediatric child abuse testified that Yonatan was severely malnourished and chronically dehydrated over the span of several years and had grown just two inches since the age of about 7.
"He was deprived of food for a very long time," Dr. Janet Arnold-Clark said.
Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services records indicate that the day before Yonatan died, Pinzon went to a dollar store to buy school supplies for his wife's other three children. She asked him to buy purple jarabe, or "syrup" in Spanish, the Times reported.
"He said that any time he would go to the store, the mother would ask him to bring the syrup," DCFS records reviewed by the Times allege. "He would ask her why she was buying syrup if they did not have money."
Testimony further indicated that Aguilar and her other three children managed to keep Yonatan's presence in the closet a secret for the entire three years he was hidden away. Court documents obtained by the Times showed that the boy's siblings, two of whom slept on a bed just outside the closet where he was hidden, knew he was there, but were told by their mother to keep quiet.
The oldest child slept in a shed in the backyard of the one-bedroom house on Santa Ynez Street, court documents allege. Aguilar and Pinzon slept in the living room.
Yonatan's siblings were 14, 16 and 18 at the time of his death, according to the Times. Two of the children testified in court this week that they saw their brother in the days before he died, eating and looking healthy.
Superior Court Judge M.L. Villar, who presided over Aguilar's preliminary hearing, said the children's testimony was not credible, the newspaper reported.
Pinzon testified Aguilar told him three years before Yonatan died that she had sent the boy, the youngest of her children, to Mexico for treatment of his medical and behavioral issues, the Times reported.
Pinzon, who testified through interpreters, told the court that his wife spoke often of sending Yonatan to Mexico for treatment because working with U.S.-based psychologists had not helped his behavior. According to ABC7, Pinzon said his wife was an undocumented immigrant and felt helpless because her son's treatment was not working.
"She would cry a lot because she would say she didn't know what to do," Pinzon testified, according to the news station.
Pinzon said he never saw any sign of his stepson in the house. He testified he worked 18-hour days, from 5 a.m. to about 10 p.m., and slept on the floor separate from his wife and the other children, NBC Los Angeles reported.
The court records reviewed by the Times indicate Aguilar told Pinzon the boy was dead when he came home from work on Aug. 22, 2016. She also asked him to take care of her other children.
Pinzon thought she meant she would be going to Mexico to bury her son. Instead, the documents allege, she took him into a bedroom and opened the closet door to show him the boy’s body.
"I took care of the problem by ruining my life," Aguilar told him, according to the records.
Yonatan's oldest brother, then 18, told police the family had been at their Echo Park home for a short time before the boy's death. The Times reported that the teen said his mother was able to keep his brother hidden in a closet at their previous home, as well.
The older brother described Yonatan as a “troublemaker” who was “very smart” and “knew what he was doing.” He accused his deceased brother of acting out in school and pointed to a social worker in the interview.
"You guys know about it. He has done so many crazy things," the teen said, according to the Times.
DCFS records obtained by the newspaper following Yonatan's death show child welfare workers were called at least six times with reports of possible abuse and neglect in Aguilar's home, beginning in 2002, two years before Yonatan was born. According to ABC7, four of the incidents involved Yonatan.
Just prior to Yonatan’s final interaction with the agency in 2012, the boy showed up at school with a black eye.
Aguilar had told the boy’s therapist that she left him with her mother in Mexico from the time he was an infant to the age of 3, and that she was concerned his food hoarding was because he may have been denied food during that time.
She also tried to deflect blame for scratches found on her son's face in 2009 by telling police she had heard he was "locked in closets and just treated badly" while he was in Mexico as a toddler, the Times review found.
Villar said in court that Yonatan had apparently not seen a doctor in the four years prior to his death. The judge also said she found Aguilar’s claims to investigators that she planned to take the boy to the doctor prior to his death “self-serving.”
"The fact that she medicated him over a prolonged period of time was alarming," Villar said, according to the Times.
Pinzon never faced charges in Yonatan’s death. The documents obtained by the newspaper show detectives put Pinzon and his wife’s surviving children in a room together to gauge the man’s reaction when he saw them.
Pinzon immediately confronted the children about the deception.
"How can you do this to me?" Pinzon demanded to know, according to the records.
“You were always at work, so you didn’t know,” one of the children said.
Pinzon began crying, investigators said.
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