As a preliminary hearing began Monday for a mother charged with killing her 11-year-old son after keeping him sedated and hidden in a closet for at least three years, a prosecutor announced that she plans to add a special circumstance allegation of torture if the case proceeds to trial.
Veronica Aguilar, 42, is currently charged with one count each of murder and child abuse resulting in the death of Yonatan Daniel Aguilar, whose emaciated body was discovered in the family's Echo Park home in the 2100 block of Santa Ynez Street on Aug. 22, 2016.
Those counts carry a maximum sentence of 15 years to life in prison, according to the District Attorney's Office. A special circumstance allegation of torture would make Aguilar eligible for the death penalty or a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
A panel of prosecutors would decide later whether to pursue capital punishment. Yonatan's body was found lying 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.
Munoz said the boy 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, furry 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 5-6 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. The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services received at least three reports of possible abuse of the boy between 2009 and 2012, Los Angeles police Capt. Julian Melendez told the Los Angeles Times shortly after Aguilar's arrest.
Two of those reports came in 2012 from teachers, one of whom said Yonatan was suffering from neglect and another who told social workers that the boy had a black eye. County workers interviewed several school employees and hospital staff and the black eye was reported to police, but authorities determined that the boy was living in a safe environment, the newspaper reported.
Subject to a court order, DCFS ultimately confirmed to The Times that there had been six prior reports of suspected abuse or neglect related to the family, two of which pre-dated Yonatan's birth. The boy's risk of abuse had been marked "high" four times from 2009- 12, however case workers viewed the allegations as unfounded or inconclusive, the newspaper reported. One day in 2012, his wife announced to Pinzon Avila that Yonatan had returned to Mexico to live with a friend because she thought he would be better off there, according to the witness.
School officials apparently also believed the boy had left the country and no further reports of abuse were made. Because he worked two jobs from about 5 a.m. until 10 p.m., Pinzon Avila said he spent little time at home. He said he believed Yonatan was in Mexico and doing well until his wife told him the boy was dead.
The child's body showed signs of severe malnutrition, according to Dr. Janet Arnold-Clark, a specialist in child abuse pediatrics.
"You can see how wasted he is because his knees are the biggest part of his leg," Arnold-Clark testified, 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. The day before Yonatan's death, Aguilar asked her husband to pick up cough syrup from the store, Pinzon Avila testified. DCFS records obtained by The Times stated that Pinzon Avila told authorities that whenever he went to a 99 Cent store to shop, Aguilar would ask him to buy the purple-colored syrup.
On the witness stand, speaking through a Spanish-language translator, he seemed to deny buying it more than once and said he didn't remember what he told police.
A minor, possibly one of Yonatan's siblings, is expected to testify in the case. Court records obtained by The Times indicated that the three siblings knew Yonatan was being hidden in the closet, but were allegedly forbidden by their mother from telling anyone.
Aguilar has been jailed in lieu of $2 million bail since her arrest in 2016.