Two Baldwin Park women were found guilty of murder Tuesday for helping to brutally paddle a 5-year-old girl to death in an effort to "rid her of the devil," closing what police and prosecutors called one of the most horrific child beating cases they have ever seen.
A Los Angeles jury found Julia Ann Olivas, 36, and Esther Rebecca Griggs, 43, guilty of first-degree murder, felony child abuse and the use of a deadly weapon in the death of their friend's young daughter, Breeann Spickard. The two women, who face 26 years to life in prison, sat stone-faced as the verdicts were read.
The victim's mother, Deborah Elizabeth Reynolds, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder Oct. 8 for her role in the beating and faces 15 years to life in prison.
The three woman were accused of savagely paddling the child with a wooden cheese board during a bizarre exorcism they performed in Griggs' apartment during the 1996 Fourth of July weekend.
Outside the courtroom Tuesday, Breeann's father thanked prosecutors for their work.
"I was crushed by her death," said an emotional Philip Spickard. "My faith in the judicial system is renewed. I hope this offers some kind of closure for my family to this horrific crime against Breeann."
Olivas ordered Reynolds to "strike the devil out" of her daughter after the little girl was spinning cartwheels around the apartment July 3, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Steven Slavitt.
Two days later, Olivas ordered another beating because "their work was not finished," prosecutors said. Olivas and Griggs held down Breeann while her mother whipped her buttocks with a cheese board for two hours, stripping away several layers of skin. At one point, Griggs stuffed her foot in the mouth of the child to stifle her cries, Reynolds testified, and Olivas, who weighs about 180 pounds, jumped on the girl's back.
When Reynolds finally called police, they found the dead child lying face-down on the bedroom floor. Her pink shorts were smeared with blood.
"In 27 years, it was the worst beating of any kind I've ever seen, let alone that of a child," said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt. John View.
Investigators said the women had used methamphetamines the night before the beating, and more drugs were found in the apartment.
Sheriff's detectives who investigated the case called it "emotionally trying."
"I have never seen more devastating injuries in my career," said sheriff's Det. Mark Lillienfeld. "This little kid had no way to defend herself. The worst was I think she thought this is what normal life was like."
Testimony during the trial revealed that the three women regularly gathered in Griggs' Baldwin Park apartment, where they would take methamphetamines and use the wooden paddle to beat their children.
Breeann participated in a similar beating of another youngster a few weeks before her death on the instructions of Olivas, who told her she was helping to get rid of the devil, according to prosecutors.
Defense attorneys argued during the trial that Reynolds was the only one responsible for the fatal beating.
"I was shocked by the verdict," Joseph Shemaria, Griggs' attorney, said Tuesday. "My client did nothing but stand by and watch, and the woman who was responsible for 99% of the beating got second-degree murder."
Shemaria said Griggs sincerely believed that God wanted her to participate in the exorcism.
"She believed lock, stock and barrel she was doing the right thing, that she was communicating with God," Shemaria said.
The two women also faced allegations of special circumstances of murdering the girl by torture, which would have led to a more severe penalty. The jury found that the special circumstances did not apply to Griggs and deadlocked on the allegations against Olivas. They are scheduled to be sentenced Nov. 12.