Victim testifies in front of family: Testimony in preliminary hearing of starvation case is to resume on Friday
CARSON CITY – Buoyed by a courage few will ever need, a tiny 16-year-old girl took the stand in a capital city courtroom Friday to tell the stories of her and her brother’s alleged torture at the hands of their grandmother, their mother’s failed attempts at intervention and their stepfather’s indifference.
Looking healthier than she did when she was found a month ago weighing 41 pounds, the immaculately dressed girl spent nearly three hours telling her story – composed, articulate and detailed – as her alleged captors, Esther Rios, 56, Regina Rios, 33, and Tomas Granados, 33, sat some 20 feet away in shackles and jail-house garb.
The three are each charged with two counts of child abuse causing substantial bodily harm, alternate charges of child neglect causing substantial bodily harm and two counts of false imprisonment.
The 4-foot-tall girl said “the grandmother” was her warden.
She said she and her brother were fed “bologna, weenies and hot cereal.”
But the food was never consistent and “the grandmother” often pitted the two children against each other.
“I would tell on (my brother) to try to get more food out of her or he would get on her good side to try to do the same,” the girl testified.
She described being locked in the bathroom for good in 2001 after she ran away and how her brother was sentenced to the same fate sometime later when he tried to help her by sneaking her food.
“Who put him in there?” prosecutor Anne Langer asked.
“The grandmother,” the girl said.
She said Esther Rios taunted her with food.
“She would tell me to stand in front of her and she would tease me with food,” while she ate, she said. “She would give (my brother) better food just to tease me.”
Esther Rios allegedly forced her to clean the house, watching her closely and hurrying her to finish.
“The grandmother would get up and follow me wherever I cleaned. Sometimes she would have a stick and tell me to hurry up. If I was too slow she would hit me,” the girl said.
The girl said she constantly lived with threats of violence or worse.
“(Grandmother) would just say she hates me and she wishes to kill me,” she said. “She told me the day I die she was going to cut me into little pieces.”
In her hunger, she recalled, she resorted to eating paper or paint and every day, several times a day, she would regurgitate what she’d already eaten so she could eat it again.
“It just happened because of starvation,” she explained during Defense Attorney Tom Susich’s questioning. “I did it on purpose to get more food. I thought I could get more food that way.”
“Do you recall when that started?” Susich asked.
“When I started being hungry,” she said.
She said she was allowed to drink water from the sink, but since her brother was only 43 inches tall, he had to find other means.
“(He) would get from the toilet because there was no cup, and he was too short to get from the sink,” she said.
She also said she and her brother were forbidden from talking.
“What would happen if you did talk,” Langer asked.
“I would miss a meal, get less food, or get hit with a stick,” she said.
And she told of begging to be fed after no food for three days, recalling a day in December, a month before she was discovered, when the beatings went too far.
“I was begging on my knees and she was hitting me with her black boots and (my brother) told me I blacked out when she was hitting me,” she said.
She often cried from the intense hunger pangs, she said, which caused more problems.
“(Grandmother) does not like crying at all, so she just keeps hitting until you stop crying,” the girl testified.
Throughout Friday’s testimony, Regina Rios fought back tears or openly sobbed. At times, Esther Rios would react to the testimony, sometimes scoffing and other times looking confused.
During cross-examination by Esther Rios’ attorney Ben Walker, Walker took a moment to look through his notes. As the girl watched him from the stand, her eyes wandered over to her mother, who with shackled hands was dabbing her eyes. The child stared for a moment, then looked down. She turned to her adult companion sitting nearby and said something. The companion appeared to reassure the girl, tenderly touching her and offering hushed words. The girl looked down into her lap again, then wiped her eyes with her hands. A bailiff walked across the courtroom and laid tissue in front of her.
The child dried her eyes and regained her composure. It was the only emotion, other than strength, she displayed during the proceedings.
She said her mother was always kind to her, smiling at her and waving. Once, she said, her mom brought her a book and a pencil.
“The grandmother wouldn’t allow that,” the girl recalled.
Another time when Esther Rios went out of town, Regina Rios freed the children from their confines during the day, the girl said.
“She let me out into the grandmother’s room, giving me really good food like pancakes, sausage, bacon and cookies.”
When Esther Rios returned, Regina Rios laid down the law, the girl recalled.
“My mom told the grandmother there was going to be a change. ‘They are going to eat right, twice a day,'” she said. “It lasted for a while, until the grandmother got her way.”
Through it all, she said, Granados never intervened. She said he put the deadbolt on the bathroom door, threatened to beat her with a belt for “stealing food” and told on her when she did.
Also testifying Friday was psychologist Gregory Giron, who said the children faced “an extreme level of deprivation” at the hands of the adults.
Giron said the prognosis for the children is “guarded.” He said they’re in much better health after a month of hospital care, have teachers and like the idea of schooling – “but they just don’t have a concept of it,” and may never be able to attend public schools.
Dr. Todd Gray, a pediatric dentist, said the girl’s regurgitation of her food caused many of her teeth to rot. Gray added that without costly dental work, estimated at $50,000, the girl’s teeth will have to be pulled.
Investigators said the girl had not attended school since her family moved to Carson City from Los Angeles in about 2000. Her brother also had not been enrolled in school here.
On Jan. 19, police were called by a state worker, Sarah Koerner, after she spotted what looked like a small boy pushing a shopping cart on a street. When sheriff’s deputies arrived, the girl told them she had just escaped from her home. Officers went to the apartment and found the boy hidden under a bed.
Three healthy children living in the home and leading outwardly normal lives have been placed in the custody of the state.
After nearly a month in the hospital, the two victims have been placed with a foster family together in Carson City.
Testimony will resume Friday.
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