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Taping a Gut Instinct : Child care: The father who set up his TV camera to capture a nanny mistreating his 2-year-old daughter said he had felt for weeks that something was wrong.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Lewis’ parental instincts told him something was wrong with Stevie, his 2-year-old daughter, but he wasn’t sure what.

For the last several weeks, when Lewis had tried to leave the family’s large, comfortable Palmdale house, Stevie would “go crazy” and “scream at the top of her lungs like she was seeing Freddie Krueger,” the horrifying slasher movie character, her father said.

She recently began slapping her forehead while saying the name of her nanny. And she once threw herself down on the tile floor of the vestibule, and said “I fall” and “ouch.” Lewis, a field supervisor for an oil company, and his wife, Betty, a computer programmer, saw small bruises on their daughter but deemed them insignificant.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” he said during an interview in his family room filled with children’s books and dozens of colorful toys. “I thought maybe Stevie was just going through a change.”

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Monday, John Lewis vowed to discover the source of his child’s fears. Before he left for work, he inserted a 90-minute blank videotape in the camera that normally is left on top of the TV set, pointing toward the family room and kitchen. He secretly turned it on, covering the red light that indicated it was running.

The tape, which he watched late that night, after everyone was in bed, confirmed his worst fears and shattered the safe suburban world that he and his wife thought they had assembled for their daughter.

Investigators described the tape as “shocking” and “offensive” and said it recorded Martha Mendoza, the 19-year-old nanny, as she slammed the child down on a kitchen counter. After trying to force the scared child to eat, she grabbed a wooden spoon and hit the child seven times on the forehead, they said. Then, they added, she threw Stevie onto the floor, only breaking the fall by holding onto her arm.

After waking Mendoza and making her watch the tape, the Lewises notified authorities. Mendoza was arrested early Tuesday and was being held in lieu of $20,000 bail at the Antelope Valley Sheriff’s Station.

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Doctors examined Stevie on Tuesday morning and said she was physically uninjured by the apparent violence, John Lewis said.

Steve Cooley, the head of the district attorney’s office for the Antelope Valley, said he will seek a misdemeanor charge of unjustifiable punishment of a child at Mendoza’s arraignment this morning. If convicted, she could face a maximum penalty of up to six months in jail.

Efforts to contact Mendoza in jail were unsuccessful.

Cooley was “disgusted with the pain being inflicted on this very small child” when he saw the videotape, he said. “It was offensive. Those pictures are worth a thousand words, but it’s up to the trier of facts” to determine guilt or innocence.

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Sheriff’s Sgt. Kevin Carney, who is investigating the incident, said the tape was “shocking.”

Making the secret videotape was within Lewis’ rights and will provide important evidence in any court trial, officials said. But, Carney said, if parents fear that their child is being abused “it might be a wise idea to remove the child from what they feel may be a dangerous situation” and to call authorities rather than investigate themselves.

In the Lewises’ case, Carney said, they “really didn’t know” whether anything untoward was occurring.

Married since 1985, Betty, 29, and John Lewis, 36, were living a comfortable life in North Hollywood. When Betty became pregnant, they wanted to move farther out into the suburbs, and in 1989 bought a new, two-story, five-bedroom house on a cul-de-sac in one of Palmdale’s planned developments.

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After Stevie was born, Betty Lewis took three months off, then returned to work, commuting early each morning by bus to her job in Woodland Hills. Like many working couples, the Lewises struggled to find the optimum child care situation.

For a while, Stevie stayed with a neighbor who cared for children in her home. But, exposed to the other children’s germs, she was coming home sick too often, her parents said. Then the Lewises went to an agency and found a nanny who seemed to adore the dark-haired, generally cheerful child. When the first nanny left, they advertised in the local newspaper and conducted interviews.

Mendoza, John Lewis said, arrived for an interview accompanied by her sister. Mendoza told them she had taken care of children in Mexico but had not worked previously as a nanny. The sister, however, had been baby-sitting for three years for a family who gave her high praise, Lewis said.

He said he had nagging doubts but attributed them to the fact that Mendoza seemed quiet and that she did not speak English and he did not speak Spanish. Besides, things seemed to be going smoothly.

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The Lewises thought, he said, that they had resolved the dilemma faced by parents torn between their careers and their children.

“I’m on the go and my wife, she’s on the go too,” he said. “We both have good jobs, but we thought we were doing the best thing for her. It’s not like in the old days, where papa takes in all the money. Two people have to work and you almost feel guilty because you maintain a certain lifestyle.”

In retrospect he wishes he had followed his instincts earlier. “I had a gut feeling for a long time” that something wasn’t right, he said.

Now, he said, the couple are re-evaluating their situation once again. “We don’t know what we are going to do next.”

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