Malnourished boy found dead in Echo Park closet was subject of earlier child abuse reports, LAPD says

When police arrived at his Echo Park home on Monday, the body of an 11-year-old boy was lying in a closet, wrapped in a blanket. 

The boy had been dead for at least several hours, showed signs of physical abuse and appeared to be malnourished, officials said.

Authorities are now trying to determine the exact circumstances of the boy’s death and also whether officials missed warning signs of possible abuse in the home.

The boy was identified by the Los Angeles County coroner’s office on Wednesday as Yonatan Daniel Aguilar. Authorities said he went by the name Daniel.

On Tuesday, officers with the LAPD’s Abused Child Section arrested the child’s mother, 39-year-old Verónica Aguilar, on suspicion of child endangerment resulting in death. 

UPDATE: Mother of boy who was found dead in closet of Echo Park home is charged with murder »

The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services received reports of possible abuse regarding the boy at least three times between 2009 and 2012, said Capt. Julian Melendez, commanding officer of the LAPD’s Juvenile Division. 

He did not have details of the Police Department’s response but added that any evidence of injury or sexual abuse would have triggered an investigation by Juvenile Division detectives. He added that he did not believe any police investigation was ever launched.

Armand Montiel, a DCFS spokesman, said in an email that “the law does not allow us to confirm or deny whether we provided any services to this child or family.”

At about 2:15 p.m. Monday, police received a call from the child’s stepfather, Jose Pinzon, who said he had come home from work and his wife, Aguilar, told him the child was dead, Melendez said. 

Pinzon told officers that he saw the boy in a closet in the home in the 2100 block of Santa Ynez Street and ran two blocks to a 7-Eleven on Sunset Boulevard to call police because his cellphone would not work in the house, Melendez said. 

Officers met Pinzon there. When they found the boy, he had been dead for some time and “had obvious signs of malnutrition and visible injuries,” Melendez said.

Police arrested Aguilar early Tuesday morning. Pinzon was not arrested, Melendez said. 

Aguilar has at least three other children, ages 14, 16 and 18, who were not at the home but were located and contacted by police, Melendez said. They were taken to a police station, and the minors were released to DCFS, he said. 

An autopsy on the boy’s body was expected to take place Wednesday, he said. 

The child had not attended classes in the Los Angeles Unified School District since 2012 and was thought to have possibly been in Mexico for some time, Melendez said. It was unclear whether the boy attended school in another district. 

Aguilar is being held in lieu of $100,000 bail.

In Echo Park, a neighbor who declined to provide her name said she and others in the tight-knit community were stunned by the boy’s death.

“Every person on this block wouldn’t have hesitated to take action if they had known about the child,” the neighbor told The Times. “We are all devastated by this tragedy.”

The death comes as the DCSF has been grappling with several high-profile cases of children being killed after social workers received allegations of child abuse.

In 2013, Gabriel Fernandez was beaten to death, even though authorities had numerous warnings of abuse in his home. His mother and her boyfriend have been charged with murder and torture. 

Gabriel was forced to eat cat feces, shot with BBs and locked in a cabinet at his Palmdale home, officials say. The abuse of the 8-year-old boy went on for several months despite repeated reports to DCFS  and the Sheriff’s Department, records show.

Four social workers have been charged with felony child abuse and falsifying records in connection with Gabriel’s killing. Prosecutors alleged that they minimized his physical, mental and emotional injuries and allowed him to remain in the home.

In September 2015, three young brothers were found stabbed to death in the back seat of their family’s car in South Los Angeles. The boys, Luis, 10; Juan, 9;  and Alex, 8, had been the subject of multiple calls to the county’s child abuse hotline alleging physical abuse by their father. The family had been supervised for a year, ending in 2011, by social workers.

A year before their death, the boys’ risk of abuse at home had been marked as “high” by a DCFS program intended to guide social workers’ degree of intervention.

The children’s father, Luiz Fuentes, was charged with capital murder. Authorities said he stabbed the boys and himself.

At a hearing, he appeared in a suicide prevention gown, sobbing. “Perdoname,” he said. Forgive me. 

hailey.branson@latimes.com

Twitter: @haileybranson

richard.winton@latimes.com

Twitter: @lacrimes

MORE LOCAL NEWS

California students score better on state tests, but only slightly

710 Freeway lanes near Long Beach reopened after triple big rig crash

Illegal drugs are flowing into California's most guarded prisons — and killing death row inmates


UPDATES:

10:25 a.m. Aug. 25: This article was updated with the boy’s name and information about the deaths of three boys in September.

8:10 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from one of the boy’s neighbors in Echo Park.

5:09 p.m. This article was updated with more information and background.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
67°