ALBUQUERQUE, NM – A child that died on Tuesday had not even seen their first birthday. The person who reported the death claimed the baby drowned, according to the Albuquerque Police Department.
They have not yet said how the baby died, but that the circumstances are suspicious.
The community is hurting — wanting to know exactly what happened or if someone is to blame. That will all come out in the investigation, according to APD.
As police continue to investigate, the community is coming together to say enough is enough.
“Burying a child is the worst nightmare anyone can go through and then at the hands of a parent, boyfriend, girlfriend, whatever the case may be, it’s a nightmare,” said Veronica Rael-Garcia, an advocate whose daughter was killed in a road rage shooting.
Rael-Garcia knows that hole left behind after a child dies. Her daughter, Lilly, was killed in a road rage shooting when she was just four. It was a case that shook the community.
“The community is upset, they’re scared, they want answers,” said Crystal Gutierrez-Baca, an advocate with New Mexicans Against Child Abuse. “So now more than ever we need the community to join us.”
Crystal Gutierrez-Baca is teaming up with Rael-Garcia to be the voice for those children. The goal is that other people and leaders from around our state start making a change.
“There should be programs out there in the city and the state so that if somebody feels overwhelmed they’re able to reach out,” said Rael-Garcia. “I wholeheartedly believe if we had tougher laws that may be something that does deter it. Who knows?”
Gutierrez-Baca and Rael-Garcia said the conversation needs to start now. In recognition of Child Abuse Awareness Month, they’re putting together the third annual March Against Child Abuse this Saturday. It will be at the Bataan Memorial Park from noon to 3 p.m.
Leiliana was beaten with a bamboo switch and belts and thrown against a wall. Her mother, 33-year-old Jeri Quezada, pleaded guilty to felony injury to a child as part of a plea agreement that will lock her behind bars for 50 years.
State District Judge Robert Burns told Phifer that life behind bars was insufficient for what Leiliana suffered.
“I think this is the worst case I’ve ever seen,” Burns told Phifer.
“Hanging a little girl in a locked closet was savage. You should die in a locked closet,” the judge said.
Jurors deliberated for about four hours before delivering the guilty verdict.
Many were visibly shaken during the three days of testimony, during which they were shown photos of Leiliana’s battered body.
The little girl was covered from head to toe in bruises and had at least 30 bruises on her back from where she was whipped.
Defense attorneys John Tatum and Stephen Miller argued that Quezada is a liar who was trying to save herself by blaming Phifer for her daughter’s death.
“She set Charles up because that was the only way to get out of this,” Miller said.
Leiliana’s death exposed a staffing crisis in Child Protective Services. The girl’s paternal grandparents reported possible abuse to the state agency months before she was killed.
Quezada was a known drug user and had run-ins with child protection authorities in Texas and Illinois, where she received probation for hitting her stepson.
Quezada had five children, including Leiliana, with three different men. The surviving four children are living with relatives.
“Charles Phifer does not have any motive to hurt or do anything to this child,” Miller said. “He’s living in a house rent free with no obligations. Why would he screw that up?”
“She’s the one who keeps having kids she doesn’t want,” he said.
A medical report presented by defense attorneys shows that Leiliana had bruises on her body at least a month before her death. Defense counsel argued that the prior abuse shows Quezada was responsible for her girl’s death.
During trial, Quezada admitted that she would sometimes hit her daughter. She said she used a switch made from bamboo to strike the little girl’s legs.
Prosecutors Eren Price and Travis Wiles argued that Quezada and Phifer were responsible for Leiliana’s death but that Phifer was the one who was alone with the child for hours the day of her deadly beating.
Price disputed the defense counsel’s accusation that Quezada was simply saving herself by pinning Leiliana’s death on Phifer.
“I’m not sure the next 50 years in prison can be considered saving your own skin,” Price argued.
The prosecutor said someone needed to shed light on what happened to Leiliana, and Quezada’s story was backed up by evidence.
A strand of the girl’s hair was found embedded in the wall where Quezada said Phifer threw the girl. Leiliana’s DNA was also found on gloves used by Phifer, a DNA expert testified during the trial.
Quezada said she saw her daughter vomit in the living room and then Phifer put on gloves, grab the girl by her cheeks, lift her from the ground and pour Pedialyte down the child’s throat.
The mother also said Phifer showed her where he had tied up Leiliana in a dark, tiny closet in the living room. Leiliana’s wrists were bound behind her body and she was “strung up” so she couldn’t sit.
“There’s nothing warm and fuzzy about this story,” Wiles said during closing arguments. “The last loving arms that reached out for Leiliana Wright were the strong, loving arms of a stranger.”
During the trial, a paramedic who tried to save Leiliana cried recounting how badly bruised the little girl was.
Wiles said Quezada’s story about the 48 hours or so before Leiliana’s death is corroborated by cellphone records.
Those records showed Quezada was away with her youngest child for much of the day. She testified she went with her family to eat at an Arlington steakhouse that night. Quezada’s mother confirmed.
Leiliana stayed with Phifer.
“This man was trusted not just with her care but her life, and he took it,” Wiles argued.
Quezada returned to the Grand Prairie home after 9 p.m. She said that when she got there, her first concern was using heroin with Phifer.
She later asked about Leiliana, and that’s when she discovered her daughter was in the closet.
“In life, Leiliana Wright deserved peace. In her death, she deserves justice,” Wiles said.
County child protection director out amid allegations of failed Child Abuse investigations
RIVERSIDE COUNTY, CA – Riverside County’s top child protection official, Susan von Zabern, left her job Monday as the county fights two civil cases alleging that severe child abuse continued after the department had finished their investigations.
“….these disturbing cases indicate department leadership is failing to effectively stop child abuse.”
The two civil cases were filed by attorney Roger Booth on behalf of the juvenile victims seeking damages for the trauma they suffered as a result of the botched investigations.
“Child protective services is supposed to be there for kids whose parents can’t and won’t protect them.” Booth said.
In one case, filed in November 2017, a thirteen-year-old girl suffered repeated sexual abuse, rape, and eventually was impregnated by her mother’s live-in boyfriend. In another, filed in March, a three-year-old suffered severe neglect and was found in a filthy home hugging her dead infant sibling.
The complaints in both cases show staff from the Riverside County Children’s Services Division of the Department of Public Social Services repeatedly visited the homes of the victims, but failed to stop the abuse, and closed the investigations prematurely.
The County Board of Supervisors held closed-door meetings in recent months regarding the allegations, and said they will fight the cases, the Press-Enterprise reported.
Ray Smith, a spokesperson for the county, said that von Zabern “separated” from the county on Monday, but could not provide further comment due to department policies on personnel matters and the open status of the civil cases.
“The county constantly works to improve processes and programs that protect residents who are at-risk,” Smith said. “The county will aggressively continue that work.”
Social services staff knew a juvenile victim suffered repeated sexual abuse by her mother’s boyfriend, according to the lawsuit, but the agency closed the investigation anyway.
The complaint alleges that the department failed to report that the victim’s mother was not capable of protecting her, that the sexual abuse would likely continue, and that they led the victim to believe the department was the only hope for her protection.
At one point the department even asked the suspect to sign a safety plan they drafted, designating him as one of her caregivers, according to the complaint.
About a year later, the victim, 13 at the time, gave birth to a baby and put it up for adoption. Blood tests confirmed that the suspect was the father.
The suspect is facing 22 counts of child sexual abuse and is due in court on Sept. 28.
Another case, filed in March, alleges that a young child was routinely neglected by her mother, who struggled with drug addiction and mental illness.
The mother later became pregnant and reported to the department that she was not receiving prenatal care and had stopped using her medication.
On several occasions, the department visited the home, but ultimately considered the case inconclusive and closed the investigation.
Days after one of the department’s final visits in April 2016, a neighbor flagged down a passing police car and reported a foul smell from the victim’s apartment.
Inside, police found a horrific scene, according to court documents: The three-year-old was laying on a mattress, hugging the decaying corpse of her infant sibling.
Both of the juvenile plaintiffs in the civil cases have been appointed a guardian by the courts.
The cases specifically name 10 staff in the Department of Public Social Services alleging they failed at their duties and violated the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act.
To Booth, these disturbing cases indicate department leadership is failing to effectively stop child abuse.
“Child protective services is supposed to be there for kids whose parents can’t and won’t protect them.” Booth said. “They just simply failed to do that in these cases.”
The cases seek compensation for the victims and for punitive damages against specific staff named in the complaint.
“What these kids went through is horrific,” Booth said. “They’re entitled to compensation commensurate with the harm that was done to them.”
What’s changed since Tramelle Sturgis’s
Child Abuse death?
ST. JOSEPH COUNTY, IN (WNDU) – After the 2011 child abuse death of Tramelle Sturgis, so many people in our community were committed to figuring out what could have been done differently. What, if anything, has changed since then?
Indiana’s child welfare system is under the microscope. Leadership changes, funding cuts and staggering abuse rates have made troubling headlines.
The last director resigned last December in a scathing letter to Governor Eric Holcomb. Mary Beth Bonaventura blasted the Holcomb administration for cuts and management changes that she said would “…all but ensure children will die.”
In February of this year, federal figures showed a spike in child abuse deaths in the Hoosier state.
Around here, the 2011 death of Tramelle Sturgis still haunts our community.
Warnings were there. Tips were received. But still a child died. Has anything changed?
Tricia Sloma learned what happened after the boy’s death in part two of her series “In Harm’s Way.“
Tramelle’s art teacher Sandy Voreis says his artwork stood out. As she admired his self-portrait, she pointed out some special features.
“He even has a sun out, if you notice, for sunshine,” said Voreis. “The colors are not dark. They’re bright, vivid colors.”
Tramelle’s choice of color and content never led on to what was happening at home.
“There is no sadness in that picture,” said Voreis. “I didn’t catch on what was going on by the picture.”
When the young artist was murdered by his father, Terry Sturgis, the difficult news was shared the next morning at school.
“It was such a shock. He didn’t let on,” said Voreis, shaking her head.
Tramelle may have never let on to her, but other teachers say they knew. A teacher and other school staff testified at the murder trial saying they had reported suspected abuse only to be threatened by the angry father.
“It was rough,” Voreis said as she broke down in tears.
While Tramelle’s pictures never revealed his pain, other pictures tell a much different story.
“That’s the image that sticks with me,” said former Metro Homicide Assistant Commander Dave Wells as he thumbed through evidence photos from the murder scene of a 10-year-old boy.
“(The photos) documenting fresh injuries, old injuries, lots of scarring. Just head-to-toe trauma,” observed Wells, who is now the commander of the St. Joseph County Drug Investigations Unit with the St. Joseph County Prosecutor’s Office.
He joined South Bend Police Detective Jim Taylor for an interview about the Sturgis case. Taylor used to work for Metro Homicide and investigated Tramelle’s death. He’s now with the Violent Crimes Division of the South Bend Police Department.
Tramelle’s death remains one of the worst child abuse fatality cases police have ever seen.
Wells and Taylor weren’t surprised that Tramelle and the other children hid their pain so well. It was part of the killer’s control and a grandmother’s neglect of care.
“(Terry Sturgis) knew those kids were going to school, so he dressed them appropriately so nothing would come back on him,” said Wells.
“And explained to those kids, ‘You better not say a thing to anybody or it’s going to be worse when you get home,’” added Taylor.
“The problem grandma (Dellia Castile) has is that she knew exactly what was going on in that house,” said Wells. “And it’s her responsibility, it’s all our responsibility to report any kind of abuse like that to children.”
But in the Sturgis case, people did report the abuse.
The Department of Child Services and police were called to the home, but in every instance, officials didn’t find a problem.
Wells says police had very little information to go on from a 911 call placed months before the murder.
“This is what the officers see when they investigate an anonymous tip,” said Wells, as he held up a picture of the Sturgis home from inside the front door. “That’s a pretty clean, nice looking house. And then there are four or five kids standing here and there are allegations of child abuse, and they’re looking at the kids going…(shrugs) I’m not seeing anything here.”
“You’re limited by how far you can go,” explained Wells. “Without good probable cause or a search warrant, you’re not going to get into that house any farther than the front doors.”
Remember, in Tramelle’s home, the torture happened in the basement, a sad discovery made only after Tramelle died.
“You walk in and you almost want to go, ‘Are you in the right house?’ And then you hit that basement,” said Taylor. “And it’s just like, wow!”
“There were certainly signs that were probably missed by all of us,” said Wells.
But most notably DCS. At one time, all 92 Indiana counties had their own child abuse hotline staffed by local people. To save money, the state moved to a centralized hotline in Indianapolis in 2010, the year before Tramelle died.
Former South Bend Tribune reporter Virginia Black discovered a call placed to the DCS hotline six months before the murder, with the anonymous caller begging officials to “….go there right now….” Instead, the Tribune reported, DCS responded the next day and didn’t make contact with the family for three more days. By then, all seemed fine.
So what’s changed?
“Well, we certainly made great progress on the hotline, and that is due to Tramelle,” said St. Joseph County Circuit Court Judge John Broden. Broden was a state senator at the time. He said the discovery of that call woke up the Indiana Legislature.
“There had been isolated concerns over parts of the state that calls were being dropped. Complaints weren’t getting through. It wasn’t until Tramelle’s death and the incident surrounding Tramelle’s death,” explained Broden. “That instantly brought it to the forefront.”
Today, there’s still one child abuse hotline number, but now calls are answered in five locations: Vanderburgh, Lawrence, Marion, Blackford and St. Joseph counties. It’s staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
“It was no longer just a South Bend, St. Joseph County issue. It was a statewide issue,” said Broden. “And Tramelle’s death did cause significant changes and improvements to the child welfare system.”
But there’s still a lot of work to be done at the state level.
While shrinking funds and leadership changes are debated downstate, officials on the front lines back home are working closer together to make sure another child like Tramelle doesn’t get missed.
Sloma asked St. Joseph County Prosecutor Ken Cotter if our area children are better off than they were seven years ago.
“Locally? Yes,” said Cotter. “I think we have a much better relationship with DCS now than before this occurred.”
Cotter noted the biggest change with local DCS officials.
“I think the biggest change is in communication between the information that they are gathering and passing it along to law enforcement so that we can act as well.”
But the most important partnership is the community, and everyone plays a role.
“When you think a child is being abused, gosh darn it, contact someone so we can find out so that we can do the best investigation that we can,” urged Cotter.
“I think a lot of people have learned from this as a community,” said Taylor. “Enough’s enough.”
Our community is forever changed by one little boy.
“It’s something we will never forget,” said Voreis. “What scares me is other children that are going through this, and not speaking up and not saying anything. We don’t want something like this to happen again.”
Governor Eric Holcomb ordered a full review of the Department of Child Services after the DCS director’s resignation. That report is expected in June.
The new DCS Director, Terry Stigdon, released this statement to WNDU on Friday afternoon:
“The children DCS serves aren’t just names in a system—each and every one of them has a story, and we find those stories are filled with pain. In my short time as director, I’ve been meeting with passionate DCS employees across the state who show up to work every day trying to make a difference in a child’s life. My job is to remove obstacles that are in the way of that child having a safe and stable home. I look forward to the results of the CWG assessment because the recommendations will act as a guide for how we can improve and identify our needs – which fulfills the ultimate goal of keeping our children safe.”
Remember, if you suspect child abuse, please report it.
In Indiana, the child abuse and neglect hotline is 1-800-800-5556.
In Michigan, the number is 1-855-444-3911.
We have incredible community resources for families who are broken by abuse:
Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) sjccasa.org 574-233-CASA
Casie Center casiecenter.org 574-282-1414
Youth Services Bureau ysbsjc.org
St. Joseph County Family Justice Center fjcsjc.wordpress.com 574-234-6900
Oaklawn oaklawn.org 574-533-1234
Family & Children’s Center, Healthy Families fccin.org/healthy-families.html
Child and Parent Services CAPS, Elkhart County capselkhart.org
For helpful information, just dial 2-1-1
Prevent Child Abuse St. Joseph County pcasjc.org
Healthy Families in St. Joseph County fccin.org/healthy-families.html 574-968-9660
Voluntary home visiting program providing new parents with support, parenting skills, information on child development and community resources.
NYAP – National Youth Advocate Program nyap.org
The Villages in Elkhart villages.org/venue/elkhart-the-villages-office Information about becoming a foster parent
White’s Residential & Family Services whiteskids.org Information about becoming a foster parent
South Bend Child Abuse survivor remembers cousin’s death
** WARNING:Graphic Material – Trigger Warning
SOUTH BEND, IN (WNDU) – Child abuse is a dark secret that seems to only come to light when a child is badly hurt, or worse, dies.
Federal figures showed a sharp rise in child abuse fatalities in the US with most of the increase happening in two states: Indiana and Texas.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, from 2015 to 2016, Indiana’s child abuse death toll more than doubled from 34 to 70.
There’s a lot of blame to go around, from the state’s opioid crisis to an overwhelmed child welfare system.
But ultimately, it’s what’s going on behind closed doors, the abuse and neglect that put children in harm’s way.
Around here, there’s one case that shook our community to its core: the death of 10-year-old Tramelle Sturgis. It’s been nearly 7 years since his murder in a South Bend home.
“At least once a day I drive by this house, but I never stop,” said Detective Jim Taylor. “This is the first time.”
Taylor may be a 20-year veteran officer with the South Bend Police Department, but what happened inside a house on West Washington still gets to him.
“It’s probably, if not the, worst case we’ve ever worked,” said Taylor. “Just to stand in front of this house brings back so much horrific terror.”
Ten-year-old Tramelle Sturgis lost his life during a night of torture in the basement.
Tramelle and his older brother suffered countless blows and burns from their father, Terry Sturgis.
Their grandmother, Dellia Castile, was upstairs, and while she knew about the ongoing abuse, she didn’t stop it.
Both are in prison.
“He fought for so long. Not just him, but his brothers and sisters. The rest of those kids in that house,” said Taylor.
Eight other kids lived in that house. They were siblings and cousins who faced a much different sentence as survivors of child abuse.
“Nobody knew what happened. People might say they did, but nobody knew what happened but the ones that lived in the home,” said Jon’Nae Copprue.
Jon’Nae is one of the children who lived in the home.
“I felt like one of us was going to die. I felt it and I always said it,” said Jon’Nae.
She was just 12 years old.
“I always felt like something was going to happen. Somebody was going to get hit too hard and go to the hospital or one of us was going to end up dead. I always felt like it was going to happen,” she said.
It did happen, to Tramelle.
“I’m not happy about him being dead, but I’m also like maybe this was our way of getting out.”
Jon’Nae is 18 now and lives in a foster home outside of the Michiana area. She’s pregnant with her third child and finishing up her GED.
“I’m slowly still trying to deal with it. I can say I’m dealing with it better than I used to, because I got kids and they are amazing,” Jon’Nae said.
Jon’Nae and her siblings were being raised by their grandmother when the abuse took place. Jon’Nae spoke exclusively with WNDU’s Tricia Sloma about what it was like to live in that home.
Jon’Nae says she was abused by her mother, her older sister and her cousin’s killer, her Uncle Terry. He was the person she feared the most.
“He was always upset, he was always angry,” remembered Jon’Nae. “Always ready to release his anger on somebody.”
“The way that the power of his arm when he was swinging, then whoopin’ us with poles and sticks and anything he could get his hands on. You bound to break a bone or anything,” said Jon’Nae.
“(They) hit us with crowbars, extension cords, anything they could pretty much get their hands on,” explained Jon’Nae.
Terry made sure their injuries weren’t visible.
“We really didn’t wear dresses, shorts or anything like that because we had bruises,” said Jon’Nae. “We would wear long thermals to cover scars up.”
Jon’Nae says she’s never had a best friend, and kids at school were mean.
“I would not want to be around other kids because I feel they would hate on me, see my scars, they would pick on me. So I would be just like, alone,” said Jon’Nae. “I felt like I was the only one, other than my brothers and my sisters. I just felt like nobody, nobody cared.”
Months before Tramelle’s death, the Department of Child Services (DCS) was called to the home. There was another time that police showed up. But in every instance, authorities found nothing wrong. The kids were instructed to lie.
“So it was like nobody cares. After a while I think we just stopped caring. It was just a normal thing to us. It was just life,” said Jon’Nae. “It was going to happen forever. Probably until we moved out of the house.”
Or until, in Tramelle’s case, someone died.
“November 4, 2011. The worst day of my life. The day my cousin died.”
Jon’Nae was upstairs with her grandma that night. She heard and witnessed things that will never leave her.
“You can still hear the screams. I went downstairs and I seen a couple of things myself. My cousins being tied up to poles, naked. Just being tied up to poles, mouth was taped. They was getting hit in the head. Punched in the chest. It was something I’d never seen before. Worse than he ever did anything,” recounted Jon’Nae. “That night? I don’t think anybody could forget it. And after that it just went downhill from there.”
After Tramelle’s murder, Jon’Nae and her siblings were separated from her cousins and put into foster care. She admits to acting out and acting up.
“I can say for a while I was really aggressive. My head was messed up. After that I was really angry. I just wanted to fight everybody. Smoke. Drink. Do anything to hold the hurt in,” said Jon’Nae. “I didn’t care about what anybody said. I just wanted everything to end.”
Jon’Nae estimates she’s been in nine or ten foster homes, juvenile detention and residential care.
“Me and the foster parents got into it because we didn’t know each other. It’s kind of scary going into different homes and different families because you don’t know anything about them, they don’t know anything about you they don’t know about your emotions. They don’t know about your past,” explained Jon’Nae.
“I’ve been in so many schools. I’ve never stayed in a school since I’ve been in the system. Since I’ve been in foster care, I’ve never stayed in a school more than six months,” said Jon’Nae.
Jon’Nae wishes her grandma never went to prison.
“My grandma, she never whooped us,” defended Jon’Nae. “For people that think she’s more responsible. She’s responsible in a way, but everything is not up to her.”
When Sloma pointed out that Castile was the only adult living in the home that could’ve stopped it, she replied, “Yeah, but imagine you having fear. Imagine you having a lot of fear. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You have fear of him and you also have fear of losing your family.”
“If it was all up to her, it was all up to us too. Because we stayed there. We got mouths, we could’ve said something. We was old enough to say something, but it’s the fear that got to us.”
It was the fear and trauma that fractured a family.
“I miss him every day,” said Jon’Nae. “That’s one of my biggest scars, and the other scar is not having that family.”
Jon’Nae says she’ll never forget Tramelle and doesn’t want you to forget him either. She would like to continue her education and someday work in the legal profession helping victims of child abuse.
If you would like to report child abuse, please contact authorities at the following numbers.
In Indiana, the child abuse and neglect hotline is 1-800-800-5556.