The mother of a malnourished 11-year-old boy who was found dead in the closet of an Echo Park home appeared in court Thursday wearing a suicide-prevention garment and pleaded not guilty to murder and child abuse charges.
Veronica Aguilar, 39, was charged with one count each of murder and child abuse resulting in death after her son, Yonatan Daniel Aguilar, was found in the closet in the family's home in the 2100 block of Santa Ynez Street.
Yonatan was wrapped in a blanket and had been dead for at least several hours, police said. Several law enforcement sources told The Times he was severely underweight with healed injuries that showed signs of long-term abuse.
During a brief appearance in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Thursday, Aguilar pleaded not guilty through a Spanish-language interpreter. She stood expressionless in the defendants' area, wearing a padded blue antisuicide smock.
Aguilar's public defender, R. Lawrence Tripp, said he did not believe his client had undergone a psychiatric evaluation but that there would be one before trial. The Sheriff's Department decided to put her in the antisuicide garment, he said, after determining that there was "some sort of danger."
"They're not sure about her mental state; that's all I can say," Tripp said.
Yonatan's family had been the subject of six prior reports to the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, the department's director, Philip L. Browning, said last week.
Two reports to DCFS were made about Yonatan in 2012, and there was one report in 2011 and one in 2009. Two additional reports in 2002 predated Yonatan's birth and involved at least one of his siblings, Browning said.
Yonatan's autopsy report has been put on a security hold by law enforcement, according to Ed Winter, a spokesman for the L.A. County coroner's office. No details regarding the cause of death or the condition of the child could be released.
Tripp said he had not yet gotten any DCFS records regarding prior visits by social workers. He declined to provide any details about Aguilar's emotional state or about his conversations with her.
"It's always tragic when a child dies, but she's innocent until proven guilty; and at this point I don't even have the coroner's report so I don't know what the cause of death is," Tripp said. "I've heard all kinds of dramatic allegations in the press about injuries and the state of the child, but I don't have any evidence at this point."
The prosecutor on the case, Deputy Dist. Atty. Scott McPheron, declined to comment, saying the case was still in an early stage.
Days apart in 2012, two teachers contacted DCFS, with one saying Yonatan was suffering from general neglect and the other reporting that he had a black eye, Browning told The Times. County social workers — who interviewed numerous school employees, the child and others — determined the boy to be living in a safe environment, Browning said.
Any reports that involved possible physical abuse were cross-reported to the Los Angeles Police Department, which was aware of the black eye, Browning said.
Capt. Julian Melendez, commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department's Juvenile Division, told The Times last month that Yonatan's mother has at least three other children, ages 14, 16 and 18. The minors were released to DCFS, he said.
Melendez said he was aware of three reports to DCFS of possible abuse regarding Yonatan that had been cross-reported to police but did not trigger an investigation by Juvenile Division detectives.
The child had not attended classes in the Los Angeles Unified School District since 2012 and was thought to have been in Mexico for some time, according to the LAPD. It was unclear whether the boy attended school in another district.
LAPD authorities and DCFS officials said the family seemed to have moved numerous times.
According to police, the boy's stepfather, Jose Pinzon, reported Yonatan's death after coming home and learning from Aguilar that he was dead. Pinzon was not arrested.
Aguilar is being held at the Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood in lieu of $2-million bail. If convicted as charged, she could face a possible maximum sentence of 15 years to life in state prison, according to the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.