Demitri Robledo's life story is a short and tragic tale.
Like a character from a Dickens novel, Demitri was born into poverty. His mother was a drug user. A day after his first birthday, she left him in the care of another junkie after she was arrested for suspected cocaine use. Three months later, Demitri died.
His tiny, battered corpse showed he had been starved, beaten, gagged and bound at the ankles and wrists.
There is no dispute that these incidents occurred in a converted garage apartment in south Oxnard, where Teresa Rodriguez, the woman entrusted to care for Demitri, lived with her drug-dealer boyfriend, Patrick Santillano, and their 2-year-old daughter.
But who tortured and killed Demitri is the hotly disputed question in a child-abuse case Ventura County prosecutors have described as one of the worst they've seen.
They have charged Santillano, 33, with murder, torture, aggravated mayhem and child abuse causing death, saying he starved and beat Demitri so severely that he died.
"You could say Demitri Robledo never had a chance at life," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Cheryl Temple, who told a jury Thursday that the boy was tortured "until his body couldn't take it anymore."
But defense attorney Steve Powell told jurors Santillano is innocent, and blamed Demitri's death on Rodriguez. "This entire case is a tragedy," Powell said in his opening statement. "But, ladies and gentlemen, he did not die that death at the hands of my client. He died that death at the hands, and the neglect, of Teresa Rodriguez."
On this much, both sides agree: Demitri Robledo was born addicted to methadone on Aug. 6, 1999. His father, living in the country illegally and working full time as a cook, reluctantly agreed to leave Demitri with Rodriguez after the boy's 21-year-old mother was jailed Aug. 7, 2000, on a drug-abuse charge.
At the time, Rodriguez and Santillano were living in a cramped apartment. She was a 20-year-old heroin user; he was a heroin dealer who wanted Rodriguez off drugs and was regularly receiving methadone treatments for the same addiction.
According to prosecutors, Demitri had no injuries, only a rash, when his father dropped him off at the McMillan Avenue apartment on Aug. 8 with a new set of clothes, several jars of baby food and diapers.
A few weeks later the boy's mother, Yvette Robledo, visited the apartment after she was released from jail. She picked up drugs from the defendant but left the child, Temple said.
In early September, the Robledos and Demitri's grandmother returned to the apartment four times for the boy but were told by Santillano that Rodriguez had taken Demitri with her to Lompoc to visit relatives, Temple said.
On Oct. 11, David Robledo, the baby's father, bought a used car to drive to Lompoc to get his son, but could not find the boy. On Oct. 22, Rodriguez drove Demitri to St. John's Regional Medical Center in Oxnard, where he was pronounced dead.
It was four months later that Rodriguez, who had been arrested in connection with Demitri's death, implicated Santillano before pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter and mayhem.
Rodriguez told authorities that Demitri, who arrived at the apartment with a rash from scabies, often scratched, cried and wanted to be held. Early in his stay, the boy developed a wound to his nose and often picked at the scab. Rodriguez told prosecutors Santillano had slapped the boy and tied the child's hands behind his back to make him stop.
Three weeks before Demitri died, Rodriguez told authorities, she heard a pop while he was strapped in his car seat. Temple told jurors the injury turned out to be a dislocated left elbow, which went untreated.
"The pain from all of these injuries undoubtedly added to the frequency and desperation of Demitri's crying, and to quiet his crying the defendant started to gag him," Temple said in her opening statement.
Rodriguez told authorities that Santillano pushed a sock into Demitri's mouth, then tied a cloth around the child's head to secure the gag. Temple showed jurors graphic autopsy photos, which showed the boy's lips and portions of his ears had been torn away by the restraints.
Temple told jurors that Rodriguez was an accomplice to Demitri's death. But she said evidence would show it was Santillano who tortured and killed the boy, then manipulated Rodriguez to cover up for him.
But Powell told jurors that his client, upset at Rodriguez's drug use, was not living at the apartment during the weeks preceding Demitri's death. Powell suggested Rodriguez fabricated a story to implicate his client after learning Santillano was with another woman.