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Couple Held in Abuse of 2 Boys, Death of a 3rd : Crime: Pair accused of killing child who police say tried to protect his younger brothers. His body has never been found.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Police believed they had strong evidence of child abuse last July when 3-year-old Miguel Romero turned up at a hospital, sexually mutilated and covered with scars from beatings and knife cuts.

Miguel and his brother Eric, 4, who showed similar scars, were placed in foster homes and their mother, Ana Isabel Romero, 27, and her boyfriend, Alvaro Ortiz, 28, were arrested for mayhem and child endangerment.

But the gruesome tale would get much worse.

Two months later, Eric told social workers of another boy--older brother Rene, 5, who had been beaten repeatedly for trying to protect his two younger siblings. Rene, the boys told authorities, disappeared without a trace last year.

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Tuesday, Romero and Ortiz were in jail facing the death penalty for the death of the boy, whose body has never been found.

“This doesn’t happen every day,” said Burbank Police Detective Brent Dyrness, who investigated the abuse case. “This is very shocking.”

The case began in Reno, where the family lived last year. Police had been called several times to Romero and Ortiz’s home to investigate child-abuse calls, but no charges were ever filed. Social workers offered parenting classes to Romero, according to Detective Ronald P. Dreher of the Reno Police Department.

Romero and Ortiz, who worked as a casino hostess and a money-counter in Reno, came to California in May, briefly stayed with friends in Arleta, then moved to an apartment on Scott Road in Burbank, police said.

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On July 14, the couple brought Miguel to Pacifica of the Valley Hospital in Sun Valley. Doctors took one look at the young victim and immediately called police.

Miguel told police, “Poppi did it,” referring to Ortiz.

Since her arrest, Romero also has told authorities that Ortiz was responsible for the injuries. Ortiz, who has entered not guilty pleas to the charges, blamed Miguel’s injuries on Eric. Later, both adults blamed Miguel’s injuries on an older child who lived nearby, according to the transcript of the Aug. 7 preliminary hearing.

It was during a routine visit from a caseworker in September that Eric mentioned a brother Rene.

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He had been drinking juice one day and Rene fell on the ground, Eric said. His mother and her boyfriend wrapped Rene in a blanket and said they were going to take him to a hospital, Eric said. Eric never saw his brother again.

Police say the incident occurred in Reno last November. They believe Romero and Ortiz were again abusing the two younger boys, and that Rene died trying to protect them.

The couple claimed Rene had been accidentally injured, and contended they took him to a hospital where he was treated and recovered.

But Reno police, contacted by Burbank authorities, checked all local hospitals and found no records of Rene’s treatment, or that of any similar patient.

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Romero told neighbors in Nevada that Rene was sent to live with his birth father in El Salvador.

Authorities said detectives contacted the father in El Salvador, but he said he had not seen Rene in years.

A two-state search began. Reno police served search warrants in Arleta and at a bathtub refinishing business in Glendale, where Ortiz worked up until his arrest, and were able to recover evidence, authorities said.

Dreher said bloody clothes that may link Romero and Ortiz to the boy’s death have been recovered.

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But no body has been found.

The search continued Tuesday as Reno investigators, hoping to question Romero, attended a hearing in Pasadena Superior Court. But Romero, on the advice of her lawyer, refused to speak.

“She knows and we want her to tell us,” Dreher said. “The family wants to bury the boy.”

Romero’s lawyer, Amy Jacks, would not comment on the case. Ortiz denies that he abused Miguel in July, his lawyer, Dale K. Galipo, said. Neither Romero nor Ortiz have entered pleas in the murder case.

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Interviewed outside court Tuesday, police said doctors believe Miguel will recover from his physical injuries, but said he may never recover emotionally. The detectives from Nevada and California marveled at the series of events that led to breaking the case.

“Even after they killed Rene they were still abusing the younger boys,” Detective Joe Depczynski of the Reno Police Department said.

“Kids that age don’t make up stories about pain,” Dreher said.

Dreher said he searched the family’s apartment and found no pictures of Rene in family photo albums.

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“If he was only going to El Salvador, why wouldn’t they keep pictures of him?” Dreher said. “It was like he never existed.”


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