A woman accused of keeping her son — whom she described to police as “evil” — sedated and hidden in a closet for at least three years leading up to his death was ordered Wednesday to stand trial on murder and child abuse charges.
At the end of a three-day preliminary hearing, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge M.L. Villar rejected defense attorney Summer McKeivier’s argument that there was insufficient evidence to allow the case against Veronica Aguilar to proceed to trial.
Aguilar, who faces a special circumstance allegation of murder involving the infliction of torture, could face a potential life prison term if convicted of the Aug. 22, 2016, death of her 11-year-old son, Yonatan Daniel Aguilar.
The judge said the boy’s condition at the time of his death — he weighed 34 pounds — and “the fact that she medicated him over a prolonged period of time” were both “alarming,” and characterized the 42-year-old defendant’s statement that she was planning to seek medical help for him that day as “self-serving.”
Her attorney acknowledged that the boy slept in a closet and was kept out of sight of his stepfather, but told the judge that there was no evidence that the tot was locked inside the closet or that Aguilar had withheld food or water from the child. She said an undiagnosed medical condition from which the boy had suffered accounted for his appearance.
“While tragic, Yonatan’s death was not caused by her actions,” the defense lawyer said, telling the judge that the woman had repeatedly tried to get help with her son’s behavioral problems.
Deputy District Attorney Lisa Kassabian countered that Aguilar made decisions to “withhold medical care” for the boy she subsequently described to police as “evil.”
The prosecutor said the woman made sure that the boy’s stepfather — who hadn’t seen the child in years — was kept in the dark involving his whereabouts, and described the family’s dog as being “better cared for than her own child.”
After the boy’s death, Aguilar spoke in Spanish to Los Angeles Police Detective Sandra Platero about her problems with her son in the years leading up to his death.
“She described Yonatan to be pure evil,” the detective testified, noting that the woman “spoke very highly of her three older children.”
The woman — who described the boy as difficult in school and at home — told police that she had sought psychological help for him and was thinking about having him sent back to Mexico to be institutionalized, according to the detective. She said she found him standing over her other two sons with a knife late at night on one occasion, and subsequently had to move any sharp objects out of his reach, Platero testified.
Aguilar said during the jailhouse interview that she gave the boy medication to calm him down and had him sleep in a closet without her husband’s knowledge, according to the detective.
The woman told police that problems involving the boy had resulted in arguments with her husband, whom she felt did not support her, according to Platero.
“Did you ask her if she loved her child, Yonatan?” the prosecutor asked.
“She said she tried to, but it was a difficult relationship,” the detective responded.
The boy’s body was found inside a closet, swaddled in a blanket that also covered his face, according to the testimony of Los Angeles police Officer Abel Munoz, who responded to a 911 call from the boy’s stepfather.
The officer said the child appeared to be 5 or 6 years old, based on his size, and his hands were cold and rigid.
Munoz said he found the boy’s stepfather, Jose Pinzon Avila, at a nearby 7-Eleven store, where he went to make the 911 call after Aguilar told him the boy was dead. Pinzon Avila “was hysterical, he was panting, he was hyperventilating, he was panicked,” the officer said.
PInzon Avila told the officer that he arrived home and his wife was behaving strangely, then stated that the boy was dead and “that her life was over,” according to Munoz, who said the stepfather was originally baffled because he thought his stepson was living in Mexico with a friend of his wife.
When officers drove back the three blocks to the family’s home, they found Aguilar walking on the street, carrying a small dog.
“She was very calm and she had like a blank stare on her face,” Munoz testified.
When he went into the home and unwrapped a bundle he found in the closet, “I saw a very gaunt, frail-looking child,” Munoz testified.
Aguilar had three other children, who now range in age from 17 to 21, according to Pinzon Avila, who testified that he moved in with Aguilar and two of her children in 2005 and then a daughter and Yonatan were brought up from Mexico in 2007 and 2008. The couple married in 2014.
Pinzon Avila testified that he thought of Yonatan as his son, rather than his stepson. The boy was “short, chubby (and) he was playful” as a young child and got along well with his siblings, Pinzon Avila told the court.
Yonatan “was a big eater,” according to his stepfather, who said he never saw Aguilar deny him food or ever hit the boy. But he said the boy started having trouble in school at about 5 or 6 years old. Pinzon Avila said he was told Yonatan had hyperactive behavior and the boy was accused of cutting one girl’s clothing and hitting another child.
Aguilar complained to her husband about Yonatan’s behavior and said she was taking him to therapy and asking for additional help from school and government officials, but was frustrated and believed she wasn’t getting enough assistance because she and Yonatan were undocumented residents, according to Pinzon Avila.
“She would cry a lot because she would say she didn’t know what to do,” he testified.
A specialist in child abuse pediatrics, Dr. Janet Arnold-Clark, testified Monday that the boy’s body showed signs of severe malnutrition.
“You can see how wasted he is because his knees are the biggest part of his leg,” Arnold-Clark told the judge, referencing a photo of the boy’s body.
The youngster had pressure sores similar to those seen in elderly patients in nursing homes or coma patients who are rarely moved, despite medical records indicating he was a hyperactive child, the doctor said.
“He was deprived of food for a very long time,” Arnold-Clark said. “Two inches in growth in 4 1/2 years is really marked and concerning, and the only real explanation of that is that he had been malnourished for several years.”
The doctor also found evidence of chronic dehydration that may have lasted for weeks, months or years. Symptoms of dehydration could have included extreme thirst, rapid heart rate, confusion, disorientation and dizziness, all leading to renal failure, she told the court.
Coroner’s records indicated he died of the combined effects of multiple drugs.
An expert called by the defense, Dr. Marvin Pietruzska, testified that there was no evidence of trauma being inflicted.
“This is a medical condition that, unfortunately, caused the death of (the) child,” he told the judge, noting that the metabolic genetic defect from which the boy suffered was very difficult to diagnose and that he believed it stunted the boy’s growth.
Also called to the stand were two of the boy’s siblings, including his 19-year-old sister, named only in court as “Lizeth D.”
The young woman — who said she was scared of her brother because of the “horrible things” he was doing — told the judge that she never saw him sleeping in a closet and never witnessed her mother denying food to her brother.
“It’s not that I didn’t like him,” she said, noting that she did not get along well with him.
“Are you happy that he’s dead?” the prosecutor asked her.
“No,” she replied.
“Are you sad that he’s dead?” Kassabian asked.
“No,” the boy’s older sister replied.
Aguilar has been jailed in lieu of $2 million bail since her arrest in 2016. She is due back at the downtown Los Angeles courthouse for arraignment on July 3.
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