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California

Echo Park mother hid and starved boy in closet for years before his death, stepfather testifies

Veronica Aguilar
Veronica Aguilar has pleaded not guilty to charges in the death of her son.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

The stepfather of a young boy whose emaciated body was found inside the closet of an Echo Park home testified Wednesday that he thought the boy had been sent to Mexico by his mother, who is charged with murder in his death.

In a preliminary hearing, Jose Pinzon said Veronica Aguilar told him she had sent her youngest son, Yonatan, south of the border for treatment for special needs. Pinzon said Aguilar was in the U.S. illegally and felt helpless in caring for Yonatan, a special education student with a learning disability. Aguilar has pleaded not guilty.

But prosecutors painted a very different picture, saying Aguilar locked Yonatan in a closet, sedated him with liquid sleeping aids and starved him to the point that the 11-year-old weighed only 34 pounds when police found his body in August 2016.

At the end of the three-day hearing Wednesday, L.A. Superior Court Judge M.L. Villar ruled there was an “overwhelming” amount of evidence for Aguilar to stand trial on charges of first-degree murder, with the special circumstance allegation of torture, and child abuse causing death.

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Villar also found that two of Aguilar’s other children were not credible when they testified that they had seen Yonatan in the days before his death, eating and looking healthy.

The judge called Aguilar’s statement to investigators that she had planned to take her son to the doctor before he died “self-serving.” There was no testimony, she said, that he’d seen a doctor in four years.

“The fact that she medicated him over a prolonged period of time was alarming,” Villar said.

Aguilar’s attorney, Summer McKeivier, said there was no evidence presented that the boy was being denied food and water, or that he was ever locked in a closet. McKeivier argued that Aguilar loved her children but was unequipped to handle the boy’s behavioral problems.

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“This is a case of a woman who didn’t speak the language, didn’t know her rights,” McKeivier said outside the courtroom, adding that her client attempted to get the child help. “She didn’t know how to help and the help she sought failed.”

Aguilar sat through the hearing in an orange jail jumpsuit, near an interpreter who translated the testimony into her headphones. She was being held in lieu of $2-million bail and is due back in court next month.

LAPD Det. Abel Munoz testified this week that when he found the boy dead in the closet, his body was so diminished that he looked five years younger, KABC-TV Channel 7 reported.

“I saw a very gaunt, frail-looking child,” Munoz said.

RELATED: Mother of boy who was found dead in closet of Echo Park home is charged with murder »

The boy’s stepfather said he was shocked — then hysterical — when he learned Yonatan was actually dead in their home.

He called police about 2:15 p.m. on Aug. 22, after finding the child’s body.

Pinzon told officers he had come home from work and his wife told him the boy was dead, Capt. Julian Melendez, commanding officer of the LAPD’s Juvenile Division, said at the time.

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Pinzon said he saw Yonatan in a closet in the home in the 2100 block of Santa Ynez Street and ran two blocks to a 7-Eleven on Sunset Boulevard to call police because his cellphone would not work in the house, Melendez said.

Testifying through interpreters Wednesday, Pinzon said that consultations with psychologists didn’t seem to help the boy and that his mother spoke often of sending him to Mexico, where he might get better treatment.

The man said he never saw any sign that Yonatan was in the house. He worked 18 hours a day and slept on the floor away from his wife and three other children, he said.

But the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services received reports of possible abuse regarding Yonatan at least three times before his death — between 2009 and 2012, Melendez said.

And the boy’s family had been the subject of six prior reports to DCFS, the department’s director, Philip L. Browning, said, with two reports in 2002 predating Yonatan’s birth and involving at least one of his siblings.

Following Yonatan’s death, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors called for a revamping of the county program that measures children’s risk of abuse.

Case records released to The Times by DCFS showed the boy’s risk of abuse had been marked as “high” four times from 2009 to 2012 by a computerized program called Structured Decision Making, or SDM.

Times staff writers Alene Tchekmedyian, Hailey Branson Potts and Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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