A former serviceman from Murrieta and his girlfriend both pleaded guilty and were immediately sentenced Friday for severely abusing the veteran's 5-year-old son, leaving the child with lifelong injuries.
Benjamin Matthew Whitten, 34, and Jeryn Christine Johnson, 26, were arrested in August following an investigation by Murrieta police. A preliminary hearing was scheduled Friday morning at the Southwest Justice Center in Murrieta to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to warrant a trial for the pair. However, the defense and prosecution informed Riverside County Superior Court Judge William Lebov at the outset of proceedings that a plea agreement had been reached on an amended criminal complaint.
Under the agreement, Whitten admitted eight felony counts, including child endangerment and assault likely to produce great bodily injury. Lebov imposed the stipulated sentence of 17 years in state prison.
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Johnson admitted one count each of torture, child cruelty and assault on a child resulting in a condition that rendered the victim comatose. She was sentenced to two consecutive life prison terms.
Leslie Whitten, the boy's grandmother, told the court her "once active little (grandson)'' is "now confined to a wheelchair ... learning to walk, talk and eat again.''
She said, "(He was) a helpless victim against crimes committed on his little self, with no way to defend himself.''
The child, whose name was not disclosed, underwent several months of treatment at Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego and is now in his grandmother's custody.
According to Murrieta police Lt. Tony Conrad, officers became aware of the defendants last Aug. 15, after paramedics were summoned to 24001 Verdun Lane, near Mountain Pride Park, regarding a child in medical distress.
Conrad said the boy was suffering from "severe injuries'' and his condition "required immediate medical attention.''
After the child was examined at a Temecula Valley trauma center, doctors arranged for him to be airlifted to the pediatric hospital for specialized care. He was on life support for an unspecified period of time.
After questioning Johnson and Whitten, who was in the U.S. Navy and previously stationed at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Detachment-San Diego, investigators arrested the pair.
Conrad described living conditions at the Whitten property as "extremely unsanitary,'' noting that 11 dogs, four cats and two fish were impounded by animal control officers.
Neither defendant had a criminal record until now.