Disabled La Puente boy dies in summer school class, leaving family with few answers

The bus driver didn't know she should skip Moises Murillo's house.

The bus had pulled up to the 8-year-old’s home in La Puente, ready to take him to his third day of summer school. His older sister, Liz Murillo, walked outside.

“He’s not going back to school,” she told the driver.

Moises had died the day before after he stopped breathing during class at Sunset Elementary School.

Moises had Down syndrome. Investigators from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said that Moises was injured May 31 when he fell backward from his chair. After being transferred from Queen of the Valley Hospital in West Covina to Children’s Hospital of Orange County, where he stayed four days on life support, Moises died on June 4.

Final autopsy results are pending, but the sheriff’s homicide unit, which is required to investigate when children die of unnatural causes, is treating the incident as an accident.

According to Lt. Joe Mendoza, who is overseeing the investigation, the preliminary autopsy results showed no “obvious sign of trauma” to Moises’ body.

But Moises’ family disputes the officials’ preliminary version of the events, saying it was not possible for him to accidentally fall and injure himself. His Down syndrome rendered him unable to speak and limited his motor capabilities, so he typically sat in a chair with fastened straps or a wheelchair that would have protected him from a fall, family members said.

The family hired a lawyer and filed a claim Monday against the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District, alleging that the district was negligent in caring for Moises. The family, which is seeking unspecified damages, said it had never experienced problems with the school before.

The claim alleges that Moises “fell from his chair, which he was supposedly strapped into, causing extensive damage to his nervous system and fracturing his neck, ultimately leading him to his death.”

“They want to have justice for their little baby,” said Luis Carrillo, a lawyer for the family. “School districts have a responsibility to protect children.”

Jill Rojas, the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources, said Moises’ death is “an extreme loss for our school community” and said she sympathizes with the family’s grief. Rojas said, however, she knows little more than the family does.

“It’s hard for the parents,” Rojas said. “They want answers we don’t have.”

Rojas did not respond to calls or emails requesting comment on the claim.

Sunset Elementary Principal Rosette Holmes did not respond to requests for comment.

The lack of detail surrounding Moises’ death has left his family confused and struggling to make sense of his brief second day in summer school.

The morning started like any other: His mother, Roberta Gomez, 47, woke up at 6 a.m. to get Moises ready for school. He initially resisted, laughing and pushing her away with his feet. She checked his blood pressure, heartbeat and temperature, then gave him his medicine, brushed his teeth and fed him applesauce for breakfast. After dressing Moises she waited outside with him for the bus to arrive.

Gomez, who cared for Moises full time, left the house to get her blood drawn for a routine checkup. A little after 9 a.m., as she sat in a laboratory chair, she received a call from the school telling her Moises had stopped breathing and his lips were purple.

She rushed to Queen of the Valley’s emergency room and was shocked to see her son — usually smiling, laughing or clapping his hands — lying motionless with a respirator. Moises did not look like himself.

“He left for school happy,” Gomez said. “I never thought that would be the end.”

Happy was Moises’ typical disposition, his two sisters and mother said. He always broke out into peals of laughter and wide smiles.

“Even if you were not happy, he would make you happy. He would make you smile,” said his sister Sara Murillo, 27.

A Facebook page she created called “Justice for Moises” has garnered more than 300 followers.

Small and simple moments — a drink of soda, the bus ride to school — delighted Moises. He sometimes played soccer with his brother Jonathan in the living room. For his eighth birthday, on April 3, he sat in a Jolly Jumper while his cousins clambered around him, elated to bounce up and down.

He loved to watch the show “Olivia,” whose characters are all pigs. When he died, Moises held in his arms two stuffed pigs, given to him by the hospital staff members who had grown close to him during frequent visits over the years.

Moises had heart and respiratory problems. Born premature, he spent his first few years living almost full time at the Whittier Hospital Medical Center.

But nothing could prepare his family for the morning of May 31.

For Gomez, every day she sent her son to school was a cause for concern. She was used to having him constantly by her side until she enrolled him for half days at Sunset Elementary last year. He was, Gomez said, “everything for me.”

“I was left worried that something would happen because I wasn’t there with him,” she said of helping him board the bus each morning.

With encouragement from friends and family, she reluctantly agreed to send him to summer school this year. Now, she wonders why.

Gomez said she plans to keep Moises’ room just as he left it, with his Spider-Man sheets and pile of stuffed animals on his bed, photographs and stickers on the walls and oxygen tanks in the corner.

Her birthday fell on June 7, a week after Moises was taken to the hospital. Gomez did not want to celebrate, but her children bought her a cake — even though, Liz Murillo said, none of them felt particularly festive.

But Moises was always happy. So for a few hours that day the family tried to be, too.

megan.bernhard@latimes.com

@meg_bernhard

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