Redding police announced late Wednesday that the deaths of two young children found in a storage locker there Sunday occurred somewhere else, and that Salinas police are taking over the lead in the case.
The announcement raises the possibility that the children may have been killed before they left Salinas the day after Thanksgiving, although officials would not confirm that Wednesday night.
Salinas police spokesman Spencer Critchley said police and officials from the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office planned a news conference at 2 p.m. Thursday at Salinas City Hall to discuss developments in the case.
Police made the announcement after autopsies were performed Wednesday on the 6-year-old boy and 3-year-old girl whose bodies were found in the locker.
The news came as family members of the children believed to be the ones found dead lashed out Wednesday at Tami Joy Huntsman, the woman who had custody of the pair, and at Monterey County officials for not doing more to ensure the children were safe.
“The System failed my niece and nephew,” Laura Garcia Miranda wrote on a GoFundMe site set up to pay for their funeral expenses and for the care of a 9-year-old sibling found abused and in Huntsman’s care last week.
“Multiple calls were made to do welfare checks, but nothing ever came of it,” Miranda wrote on the site. “Now we have to bury 2 small innocent kids, who will never have the chance to grow up, finish elementary school, play with friends, or even graduate high school.”
“How would you like it if someone starved you for months and broke your fingers, broke your bones, broke your jaw so you couldn’t eat or talk,” the children’s older brother, Lawni Thompson, 15, wrote on his Facebook page. “(W)ould you like that happening to your kids(?)”
The family’s anger spilled out partially over the fact that Child Protective Services workers were called to the Huntsman home in Salinas four times in the last year for reports of general neglect of children there, but no minors were removed from her care.
Elliott Robinson, the director of Monterey County’s social services department, said Wednesday that his office received four reports involving the family, most recently in August.
Robinson said he was limited by legal issues over what information he could release, but said social workers responding to such calls typically make efforts to ensure children are cared for and to help work with adults to address any problems in the home.
“We are all devastated by this horrific outcome, this horrific loss of innocent lives,” Robinson said.
The family lived at a Fremont Street home in Salinas and consisted of Huntsman, 39; two 12-year-old twins she had with a former husband; and three other children she was caring for at the request of their father, Shaun Daniel Tara, who was incarcerated and whose wife, Vivian, died in 2013. Tara is Huntsman’s cousin, family members say.
Two of Tara’s children – Shaun Tara, 6, and Delylah Tara, 3 – had been reported missing by Salinas police and were in the custody of Huntsman and her reported boyfriend, Gonzalo Curiel, 17, police said. The badly abused and beaten 9-year-old girl who was with Huntsman when she and Curiel were arrested last week is the older sibling of the two missing children.
The case first came to light on Friday, when authorities in Quincy in Plumas County received a call that a young girl living on Main Street there was a victim of neglect. A responding deputy found the 9-year-old locked in a parked SUV and discovered she had multiple fractures, broken teeth, and other injuries and infections, and was severely malnourished, weighing only 40 pounds.
The girl, whose 10th birthday is Tuesday, was taken to a Plumas County hospital and later transferred to UC Davis Medical Center for care. Huntsman’s 12-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, were placed into foster care.
Plumas County Sheriff Greg Hagwood said Wednesday the girl’s condition is improving, although family members said they were told they could not yet visit her.
The sheriff also suggested investigators believe Curiel, Huntsman’s 17-year-old boyfriend, may be the primary suspect in the case.
“He was arrested for a reason,” Hagwood said.
The father of Huntsman’s twins, Chris Criswell, arrived in Quincy on Wednesday in an attempt to gather his children, but the sheriff said that reunion would not take place immediately.
“It’s extremely unlikely any children will be released to anyone – family or otherwise – without significant judicial examination,” he said.
The discovery of the 9-year-old victim led to the arrest of Huntsman and Curiel on torture and child abuse charges. The pair are being held on $1 million bail on charges that could send them to prison for life. Curiel is being charged as an adult.
After their arrest, Plumas County officials received a tip from Monterey County that two other children were unaccounted for. When questioned, Curiel reportedly told authorities about the storage locker in Redding, where the bodies were found Sunday, reportedly stuffed in plastic bins. Redding police have not released the identities or cause of death of the children.
Police say Huntsman and Curiel left Salinas with the children the day after Thanksgiving and made their way to Redding, then on to Quincy.
Huntsman rented the Redding storage locker on Dec. 4, Laurie Miller, the assistant manager at Enterprise Stor-All, told The Sacramento Bee on Wednesday.
Miller said the suspect came in to lease a 5-by-10-foot locker, the smallest size among the facility’s 100 storage units. The $35-a-month locker comes with no explicit restrictions except for the storage of drugs and flammable liquids, according to the lease agreement.
Management does not keep spare keys because tenants are required to bring their own lock, Miller said.
She wouldn’t comment on whether there was a smell coming from the suspect’s locker when police arrived late Sunday to collect the bodies.
“I drive by everyday checking on the lockers,” she said. “Driving by and not knowing, you just feel sad.”
Family members say Tara, 31, left his children with Huntsman about two years ago. He is currently being held in the Riverside County jail on charges that include felony possession of a controlled substance, felony possession of a dirk or dagger, and probation violations.
He is listed as having been arrested Nov. 23, although jail logs indicate he has previously spent time in prison. The children’s mother died Dec. 30, 2013, according to online posts. Family members say she was killed by a speeding car while walking down a Yucaipa street.
“RIP to my loving wife, best friend and mother of my beautiful children,” Tara posted on Facebook Jan. 7, 2014. “dont worry baby i got this!”
Laura Garcia Miranda, 30, who set up the GoFundMe site, said she was the best friend of the children’s deceased mother, Vivian Saucedo, 33, and that after Saucedo’s death she raised the kids for several weeks while Shaun Tara struggled to cope with the tragedy. He eventually took them back, but soon handed over custody to his cousin, Huntsman, she said.
“Their father was going through a lot,” said Miranda, speaking by phone from Ontario. “He’s never abused his children. He just didn’t know how to take care of them.”
Miranda added, “He obviously thought they were in good hands – to his own flesh and blood.”
Initially, the children seemed to be doing fine. “They seemed happy,” Miranda said. “Tami was a very loving person.”
The children regularly phoned Miranda and called her an aunt, even though there was no blood relation. There was no sign of trouble, Miranda said, until Huntsman’s grandmother died a few months ago.
At that point, Miranda said, Huntsman stopped communicating.
“The mug shot doesn’t even look like her,” Miranda said. “It looks like a monster. She aged 10 years.”
With a sigh, Miranda said, “I honestly think it was drugs.”
Another family member said Tara refused to divulge to members of his late wife’s family where he had taken his children.
“We were looking for the kids for about a year and nobody would tell us anything,” said Precious Aponte, 17, who was also Saucedo’s daughter and a half-sister to the missing children. “Nobody would tell us anything.
“They were playing keep-away with the children.”
Aponte, who lives with Saucedo’s parents in Pomona, said the family tried to get custody of the children and repeatedly asked CPS in Monterey County to check on their welfare.
The response was always the same, Aponte said: “They said it was in the best interests for them to stay. That’s what angers me. If the justice system really works the way it should this wouldn’t have happened.
“We wanted custody, and it was in their best interests to stay with Tami.”
A Facebook page called “Justice for Tami Joy Huntsman’s Victims” was created that chronicles the case through news accounts. The children’s older brother posted on his own page a message aimed directly at Huntsman.
“I already lost my mom now you killed my baby sis and little brother while (my 9-year-old sister) is fighting for her life,” he wrote.
How to help
In the absence of the parents, a website to help pay for funeral costs and for care of the 9-year-old has been set up at https://www.gofundme.com/rtfwnr4c.