Fourteen-month-old Demitri Robledo's last few weeks of life were spent bound, gagged, beaten and starving at the hands of his caretaker's heroin-addicted boyfriend, a witness testified during a hearing in a Ventura courtroom Friday.
Teresa Rodriguez baby-sat her godson for several months while the child's mother served time in jail for a drug charge. During that time, Rodriguez said, she routinely watched boyfriend Patrick Santillano abuse the infant, who died in Oxnard on Oct. 22 from a blow to the head.
The worst abuse came, Rodriguez said, when the baby interrupted Santillano's efforts to inject himself with heroin.
"He was in the bathroom fixing," Rodriguez testified, "and the baby started crying and he came out mad. He had been in there over an hour and finally got a vein and he lost it, so he was mad. . . .He hit the baby across the face and put a sock in his mouth."
A few days later, Rodriguez, 21, rushed the infant to St. John's Regional Medical Center in Oxnard, where he was pronounced dead, the result of a brain hemorrhage, neglect and physical abuse. Rodriguez has pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and general mayhem for failing to stop the attack. She faces up to 12 years and four months in prison when she is sentenced Nov. 1.
But prosecutors believe Santillano was chiefly responsible for Demitri's death. Santillano, 32, is charged with murder and child abuse. A judge will decide when the hearing concludes Monday if there is enough evidence to bring Santillano to trial.
Defense attorney Steven Powell has argued that Rodriguez was the main caregiver and the one responsible for the infant's death. Santillano, he contends, is just a "scapegoat."
Rodriguez said she began caring for the baby at her Oxnard home shortly after his first birthday, in August 2000, when the boy's mother, Yvette Robledo, was arrested on a drug charge. Authorities said Robledo regularly used heroin and that Demitri was born addicted to methadone.
Rodriguez, who had a daughter with Santillano and was pregnant at the time with their second child, said Santillano became increasingly abusive to Demitri. He called him names and by September of last year began slapping him. He then moved on to using a belt, and then socks to bind the baby's feet and hands--a move to prevent Demitri from picking at scabs that had developed on his ears, Rodriguez said.
Soon, Rodriguez was also stuffing a sock in Demitri's mouth and holding it in place with another tied around his head, she said. And he began denying him food, arguing that the baby ate too fast and smelled bad, Rodriguez said.
The abuse left sores on Demitri's body, including marks around his mouth and nose from the gag. Rodriguez said Santillano feared what would happen if Demitri's mother saw the sores. After her release from jail in late August, Santillano began telling the child's mother Rodriguez and the baby were out of town, Rodriguez said.
On the morning of Oct. 22, Rodriguez said she used heroin and then tried to feed Demitri, who had not been holding down any food. He later fell asleep and Rodriguez became alarmed when she couldn't wake him.
According to Rodriguez, Santillano wouldn't allow her to take Demitri to the hospital, instead telling her to take him out for fresh air. She drove to a fast-food restaurant to buy the child French fries, his favorite, and tried to slip a couple into his mouth to rouse him. When he still didn't wake, she took him to the emergency room. He was pronounced dead an hour later.
Rodriguez went into labor after Demitri's death and was arrested on suspicion of murder two days later. In her blue jail jumpsuit, Rodriguez appeared timid on the stand, with much of her testimony barely above a whisper. As Deputy Dist. Atty. Dee Corona showed her pictures of Demitri's battered body, Rodriguez took only brief glances.
"You realize what you are describing sounds like a horror story for Demitri," Corona said. "And you were watching. Why did you not intervene?"
"I don't know," Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said she didn't know how Demitri received the fatal blow to the back of his head. She said she was afraid to take the baby to the hospital because she feared they would find out she was using heroin while pregnant and that her own children would be taken away. She also knew Santillano would get in trouble, she said.
"Even though I didn't do anything to the baby," Rodriguez added, "I was still responsible."