Extensive testimony given by a family witness
March 5, 2003
The older sister of James Csucsai, who committed suicide in jail, said she heard Lisa Platz say she would rather have her daughter dead than send the child back to her ex-boyfriend.
But a jail employee, who took the stand at the end of Tuesday’s testimony, said Csucsai referred to killing 9-year-old Rebbeca Aramburo.
Luanne Greenwood, who is assigned to the medical department of the jail, testified that Csucsai became nervous when another inmate on suicide watch joined him in the infirmary.
The arrival of the inmate of Hispanic descent seemed to spook Csucsai, who got up from his bunk and started shaking his head in a corner.
“(The inmate) looks just like the man who is responsible for me being here,” Csucsai was reported as saying. “I can’t stay in there with that Mexican. I killed a little person because of a man who looks just like him. You need to move me or we will not last 24 hours.”
Cathy Tarzia, Csucsai’s sister, took the stand and testified for roughly four hours on the events surrounding the early morning of Sept. 21, 2001 when authorities ended a South Lake Tahoe campground standoff only to find Rebbeca dead, Platz suffering from wrist cuts and Csucsai bleeding from a throat slash.
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Platz stands accused of the kidnapping and first-degree murder of her daughter Rebbeca. She faces life in prison if convicted.
Tarzia, called by the prosecution from a dwindling witness list, said Platz made a reference to her own death when Tarzia questioned her about Csucsai’s spiraling mental state during a conversation in San Diego months before the reported kidnapping.
Tarzia said she approached Platz in the kitchen to discuss her brother while he was in the shower.
“She got kind of angry and said ‘Well I’ll just kill myself too’,” Tarzia said at El Dorado County Superior Court.
Tarzia replied that Rebbeca would then be without a mother.
“Becca won’t be going to jail either,” Platz said at the time. “I made arrangements for her.”
Tarzia testified that Platz said in a next breath, “I’d rather see her dead than return her to (father Jose Aramburo).”
Platz then brushed past Tarzia and left the room.
In the courtroom, Platz hunched forward while listening to Tarzia and would occasionally whisper to her attorney.
After a similar discussion with Platz about Csucsai’s apparent suicidal state, when Platz said Csucsai is a “big boy and can take care of himself,” Tarzia said she went to her brother’s car and hid two rifle cases and another case for a 9 mm handgun.
Csucsai and Platz, along with Rebbeca, stayed at Tarzia’s San Diego house at various times in spring 2001. It was months before the couple took Rebbeca, then with her biological father and his family, from her stepmother at gunpoint in Washington.
During the couple’s visit, when Csucsai was job hunting, Tarzia observed the relationships among the three.
She noted Platz would remain guarded about the custody fight revolving around Rebbeca and Platz had the more dominant personality of the two.
Tarzia testified that Platz once made a statement that Jose Aramburo sexually assaulted Rebbeca at his home in Washington.
Rebbeca stayed with Aramburo starting in December 1999 when a judge granted custody. After child custody investigators interviewed both parents and investigated their lifestyles, Aramburo was subsequently granted total custody.
Tarzia, a registered nurse thus mandated to report abuse, said she questioned Rebbeca on the alleged assault but did not get far. Based on Rebbeca’s answers during a talk when Tarzia was babysitting, Tarzia believed there was not sufficient evidence to file an official report.
Tarzia said she was uneasy with Platz’s statements, along with seeing Rebbeca’s picture on an endangered children’s Web site while Platz was surfing the Internet. She spoke to her brother about leaving Platz. Csucsai refused.
It was after Platz was taken into custody by San Diego authorities for not returning Rebbeca to Aramburo after a granted visit, and Csucsai having left for a San Francisco computer job, that the pair did separate for a brief time, Tarzia testified.
Csucsai had the job for about a month. Tarzia scheduled a visit to see her younger brother but a phone call by Csucsai’s ex-wife canceled the plan. The ex-wife phoned to say Csucsai was with Platz when the pair took Rebbeca.
Tarzia said phone calls to family and friends and e-mails to her brother followed. Tarzia said she told a detective in Washington that Platz alluded to her daughter’s death, but the detective wouldn’t listen.
“I felt in talking (with the detective) that he felt my brother was the aggressor, the one he felt was the one to be worried about,” Tarzia said.
Tarzia said another conversation with a Washington FBI agent had similar results.
“If your brother wants a shootout that’s what he’s going to get,” Tarzia said about the agent’s comments.
During cross-examination, El Dorado County Public Defender Rick Meyer remarked that he will call both law enforcers to the stand and both will testify that they don’t have Tarzia mentioning Platz’s remark in their reports.
Meyer also thought it odd that Tarzia didn’t mention Platz’s remark to a South Lake Tahoe police officer who called her during the standoff for information on Csucsai.
Tarzia was on her way to South Lake Tahoe when she received news of Rebbeca’s death and the arrests of the adults. She said she visited Platz in jail while Csucsai was receiving hospital care.
Tarzia testified that Platz was quiet and failed to make eye contact with her, except when Platz asked about Csucsai. Tarzia then brought up Rebbeca’s death and Platz reportedly replied “Now Jose is going to get her body.”
Meyer began his cross-examination asking Tarzia if she would alter her testimony to protect her brother’s name. When Tarzia replied no, Meyer dove into an interview Tarzia had with SLTPD Detective Mike Dente days after her brother’s arrest.
Meyer read from the interview transcript, citing differences between Tarzia’s testimony and Dente’s interview.
One included Tarzia telling Dente she never heard Platz saying bad things about Rebbeca’s father.
Tarzia said remarks made to Dente were rambling thoughts and she wasn’t sure what to tell the detective.
“I don’t know which one of them did it,” said Meyer, citing Tarzia’s remarks in the report. “It’s not an evil crime. It’s a crime of desperation.”
“I said something like that,” Tarzia said.
Meyer went on to ask Tarzia about her impression of a threatening e-mail from sent by a heavily depressed Csucsai a day before the standoff and why she wasn’t alarmed.
Tarzia replied that she was more concerned that her brother answered an e-mail and that he was “verbal venting but nothing ever happens.”
When Tarzia stepped down, two more witnesses were called.
For the last witness of the day, Meyer called Karen Buchanan, a nurse and longtime friend of Platz who knew her before Rebbeca was born. Meyer was able to call Buchanan to the stand because of scheduling complications.
Platz worked at Buchanan’s Washington deli in the early 1990s.
Buchanan said she rarely saw Aramburo after Rebbeca was born, but an upbeat, sensitive and caring Platz remained with the child.
After a question by Meyer, Buchanan said there is “no way” Platz would hurt her daughter. She stuck to her answer even after Lacy showed her a handgun used in the alleged kidnapping, echoed the threat of Platz which alluded to Rebbeca’s death and recalled Platz’s having said “We’re all prepared to die in here” while inside the tent.
— E-mail William Ferchland at firstname.lastname@example.org