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.”
Postal worker rescues teen who managed
to escape hands of sex traffickers
SACRAMENTO, CA – A California teenager had the opportunity to reunite with her unlikely hero — the postal worker who saved her from sex trafficking.
Sixteen-year-old Crystal Allen gave postal worker Ivan Crisostomo a warm hug when she saw him Thursday, but the first time they met, Allen feared for her life.
Allen’s mother Stacy Ohman said her daughter met a “friend” who had lured her to Sacramento, where she found herself trapped in a world of drugs and sex trafficking.
“I was kidnapped, and held captive, and abused and stuff,” Allen said.
One day, she found the opportunity to escape. Allen was inside her captors’ car in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood when she heard them discussing a crime. She then jumped out of a car, grabbed one of their phones and ran for her life.
That’s when Crisostomo found her.
“I heard this crying when I came out of the vehicle, so I approached her and I asked her. She was afraid, she didn’t want to talk,” he said.
Eventually, he convinced the terrified teen to call her mother.
“She was frantic. I didn’t know what was going on,” Ohman said. “I couldn’t even understand her she was so upset and that’s when I told her she had to reach out to someone for safety and she gave the phone to Ivan and he instantly kicked into gear and told me that he would save my daughter.”
Crisostomo let Allen sit in his postal truck until police arrived on scene.
“He stepped up where a lot of people would have just kept driving down the road. He made a huge positive impact in this young girl’s life,” said Deputy David Cuneo of Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.
Crisostomo said he’s just happy Allen is safe.
“The way I see her, she has a wonderful future ahead. She’s doing so well. I’m happy. I’m really happy,” he said.
CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, VA – The second of twin infants found unresponsive in a vehicle Thursday has died, according to police in Chesterfield County, Virginia.
The 5-month-old twins were found unresponsive around 2:30 p.m. in an SUV in the 2400 block of Alfalfa Lane near Jefferson Davis Highway, according to WTVR.
Police, along with Chesterfield County Fire and EMS responded to the scene and transported the children to Chippenham Hospital.
One of the children was pronounced dead at the hospital Thursday afternoon. The other child died several hours later.
The children, according to neighbors were a boy and a girl.
A woman who lives a few doors down defended the children’s parents through tears.
“They go to work, they come home to their kids. They’re not any trouble, they’re awesome,” the woman, who declined to be identified, said.
“It’s tragic what happened, I don’t even know how to help them with their pain. It was certainly not an intentionally negligent act, it was a horrific mistake that can never be erased,” said another neighbor, Donna Gusti, who also works with both parents at a nearby Waffle House.
The woman who lives next door to the family said the wife was at work Thursday afternoon when she called her.
“His wife called me at 2 p.m. to wake him up to come and get her from work and that’s when everything happened,” the neighbor said. “That’s when he found the babies in the car.”
She believes the husband just forgot the babies remained in the car when he got home from dropping his wife off at work.