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A Los Angeles mother accused of keeping her special needs child locked in a closet and killing him will stand trial for his murder.
Veronica Aguilar, 42, was charged with one count each of murder and child abuse after her 11-year-old son, Yonatan Daniel Aguilar, was found dead in a closet of the family’s Echo Park apartment on Aug. 22, 2016, NBC Los Angeles reports. Officers who responded to a 911 call from the boy’s stepfather found the child dead and wrapped in a blanket in the closet, the outlet reports. He was severely underweight and Aguilar is believed to have kept the child sedated and locked away for a number of years.
Aguilar could face the death penalty or a sentence of life without the possibility of parole if a special circumstance allegation of torture is added, which a prosecutor has announced that she intends to pursue, according to the outlet.
Following the three-day preliminary hearing, a judge ruled on Wednesday that there exists an “overwhelming” amount of evidence for Aguilar to stand trial on a first-degree murder charge, as well as the special circumstance allegation of torture and child abuse causing death, the Los Angeles Times reports.
The boy’s stepfather, Jose Pinzon, testified that Aguilar told him that she’d sent the child, who had special needs and a learning disability, back to their native Mexico for treatment, the Times reports. But prosecutors contend that Aguilar, for years, used sleeping aids to keep the child sedated in the closet and starved him.
He was only 34 pounds when authorities found him, leading them to believe that he was much younger than he actually was, according to KABC, an ABC affiliate based in Los Angeles.
“I saw a very gaunt, frail-looking child. Who at that time to me looked like a 5-, 6- or 7-year-old boy,” Los Angeles Police Department Det. Abel Munoz recalled on the stand.
Dr. Janet Arnold-Clark, a specialist in child abuse pediatrics, said that the child’s body showed signs of being severely malnourished and chronically dehydrated, according to NBC Los Angeles. She also pointed to the existence of pressure sores, or bed sores, on his body, the type more commonly seen on the elderly or those in a coma.
“He was deprived of food for a very long time,” she 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.”
Pinzon told the court that he thought of the child, who he described as chubby and playful, as his own son, the outlet reports. Aguilar, he testified, would often complain to him about the child’s behavioral problems at school and said that she felt that they weren’t getting enough support because they were undocumented.
“She would cry a lot because she would say she didn't know what to do,” he said.
Aguilar’s lawyer, Summer McKeivier, denied the existence of any evidence that her client starved the boy or kept him locked in a closet, the Los Angeles Times reports. Instead, she painted a picture of Aguilar, who has three other children, as a loving mother who felt unable to handle her son’s problems.
“She didn’t know how to help and the help she sought failed,” McKeivier said.
Authorities have suggested that there was a history of abuse within the family, however. The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services confirmed that they’d received reports that Yonaton was possibly being abused three times, between the years 2009 and 2012, before he was found dead, Los Angeles police Capt. Julian Melendez told the Los Angeles Times around the time of Aguilar’s arrest. The family had also been reported to the DCFS six times, with two of those occasions occurring before Yonaton was born, the outlet reports.
Aguilar, who has pleaded not guilty, has been in custody on $2 million bail since she was arrested.
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