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Mother gets 21 years to life for drowning toddler in custody dispute

An Oceanside woman was sentenced Friday to 21 years to life in prison for intentionally drowning her toddler son after learning she’d have to split custody of the boy with his father.

An Oceanside woman was sentenced to 21 years to life in prison for intentionally drowning her toddler son after learning she’d have to split custody of the boy with his father.

Veronica Rivas, 30, pleaded guilty in Vista Superior Court last month — three weeks before trial — to second-degree murder and willful cruelty to a child.

In September 2014, Rivas placed 21-month-old Elijah in the bathtub of her family’s Oceanside condo and held his head underwater until he stopped fighting, authorities said. When the boy regained consciousness, she called her estranged boyfriend — the child’s father — to ask him to give up his custody rights. When he said no, Rivas held the child underwater again until he died, prosecutors said.

In court Friday, the boy’s father, Marine Sgt. Juan Concha, addressed Rivas as he clutched a blue stuffed elephant — the toy his son had slept with.

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“Remember this?” the 30-year-old asked, holding a long stare at Rivas.“How do you kill a 2-year-old? How do you hold Elijah’s head underwater?”

He told Rivas that “young, innocent Elijah didn’t do anything to you.” He wished her a long life, adding “I hope you think about it every night and every morning.”

Rivas remained mostly expressionless while he spoke. Concha said he should have been getting ready to celebrate his son’s birthday — Elijah would have been 4 this November — not speaking at the sentencing for his murder.

“How do you kill a kid?” Concha asked. “How do you hold Elijah’s head underwater not once, but twice? Do you even care?”

After a tense and quiet moment, Concha wiped his eyes, picked up the toy and walked away.

Juan Concha, father of Elijah, addressed the court during the sentencing hearing for ex-girlfriend Veronica Rivas on Friday.
Juan Concha, father of Elijah, addressed the court during the sentencing hearing for ex-girlfriend Veronica Rivas on Friday.
(John Gibbbins )

Deputy Dist. Atty. Claudia Grasso told Judge Richard Monroy that Rivas’ actions “were all committed out of revenge and spite.

“From the beginning, this baby was a pawn to her that she used to get back at Mr. Concha,” Grasso said. “The minute he moved on … she would not allow him to see the baby.”

Five days after Concha formally asked for custody, Rivas told police she suspected he was abusing the boy, the prosecutor said. The ensuing investigation by three agencies, including Oceanside police and child social workers, found no merit to the allegation.

The day after she learned she would have to share custody of Elijah, Rivas drowned him.

She was about to pick up her son from his baby-sitter’s home around noon on Sept. 10 when she decided to kill him, Grasso said. Rivas told police: “I had to put him down” for his own protection.

At her family’s home, Rivas poured herself a drink and filled the tub in an upstairs bathroom as the toddler ran around in his diaper, Grasso said. She then put him in the tub and held his face down. But he “was a sturdy little guy, who fought, who struggled,” Grasso said.

Rivas thought Elijah was dead, but he regained consciousness.

“And instead of feeling that remorse … she called Mr. Concha to continue the fight,” Grasso said.

After they hung up, “out of anger, out of spite, out of revenge, she got the baby a second time and immersed him in the tub until she killed him,” the prosecutor said. “Revenge, spite, that’s all it was.”

Veronica Rivas was sentenced to 21 years to life in the murder of her 21-month old son.

Veronica Rivas was sentenced to 21 years to life in the murder of her 21-month old son.

(John Gibbins/San Diego Union-Tribune)

Rivas did not make a statement during the hearing. Last month, public defense attorney Daniel Segura said his client was “tremendously remorseful.” When she was arrested two years ago, her arraignment was delayed as she was on suicide watch.

Her family attended Friday’s hearing, but did not comment.

Rivas must serve 21 years — she has already served two as she waiting for trial — before she is eligible for parole.

Concha said the stuffed toy is the only item of his son’s that he has. The sergeant, who is from New York, said he hopes to permanently remain in California for one reason: “My son is buried here.”

teri.figueroa@sduniontribune.com

Figueroa writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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