The San Ysidro border crossing near San Diego. Photo by Matt Wade via Wikimedia Commons
The San Ysidro border crossing near San Diego. Photo by Matt Wade via Wikimedia Commons

A Whittier couple pleaded not guilty Thursday to the torture-murder of a 2-year-old girl whose body was found in a duffel bag as they were trying to cross the border into Mexico last summer.

Mercy Mary Becerra, 44, and Johnny Lewis Hartley, 39, are charged with one felony count each of murder, torture and assault on a child causing death involving the girl, who is identified in the criminal complaint only as “Angelina W.” The two are also charged with human trafficking to commit pimping or pandering in connection with the girl’s mother.

Becerra and Hartley allegedly trafficked the woman between November 2012 and August 2016, seized her daughter, severely abused the child and killed the girl on or about Aug. 9, according to Los Angeles County prosecutors. Authorities have said they believe the child died in Whittier.

Becerra and Lewis entered Tijuana in a pedestrian lane Aug. 9, and Becerra ran off as Mexican customs agents approached the pair, San Diego police said. Authorities chased her and took her companion into custody.

The girl’s body was discovered during an X-ray examination of the bag Hartley had been carrying, authorities said.

San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Kurt Mechals had said the child died in a residential drowning, with contributing causes of malnutrition and dehydration.

San Diego County prosecutors had initially charged the two with the girl’s murder, but that case was subsequently dismissed, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.

Becerra and Hartley remain jailed in lieu of $3.2 million bail each.

They are due back March 16 in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom, when a date is scheduled to be set for a hearing to determine if there is enough evidence to require them to stand trial.

If convicted as charged, the two could face up to life in state prison.

—City News Service

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