Accusations and mistrust roiled the case of slain 3-year-old Azalya Anderson even as officials announced the arrests of three men they say are responsible for the drive-by killing of the south Sacramento girl inside her home last September.
Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department officials on Thursday flatly accused Azalya’s family members – first in a news release, then in a Sacramento Bee interview – of potentially hiding and holding back information that could have more quickly led detectives to their daughter’s accused killers.
“There is the possibility that they discarded or hid evidence,” said Sgt. Shaun Hampton, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Department.
Hampton said Azalya’s stepfather was standing outside the family’s Della Court home at the time of the fatal Sept. 11 shooting, but refused to cooperate with investigators.
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“Homicide detectives faced a daunting task due to a lack of cooperation by the victim’s family members,” he said in announcing the arrests.
Azayla’s parents joined by family spokeswoman Jamilia Land rejected the claims when they spoke to The Bee.
“Part of the problem is that this family has been criminalized from day one,” Land said. “They have been denied victims’ rights. They have been denied relocation and mental health services. They have been displaced from a home which is now a crime scene. They have not had time to grieve,” Land said.
The dueling accusations appear to lay bare a wide trust gap in the emotionally charged case, even as Hampton said Sheriff’s officials had increased patrols and community outreach in its effort to rebuild trust in the neighborhood they say cultivated vital tips that led to the arrests.
Azalya was taken to UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento where physicians declared her brain dead. She was taken off of life support on Sept. 15.
Christopher Ritchie-Bibbs, 25; Reginald Nash, 18; and Marquess Wilson, 25, were arrested nearly a month ago on Dec. 13.
Ritchie-Bibbs and Nash remain held in lieu of $1 million bail at Sacramento County Main Jail on suspicion of shooting a weapon into an occupied building causing death. Wilson is free on bail but faces a charge of being an accessory after the fact.
All await dates in Sacramento Superior Court.
The men are suspected to have gang ties and targeted one of the home’s residents with the wayward round that killed Azalya, Hampton said.
“We’re three months down the road, but (the arrests) could’ve been much sooner. It’s a very troubling, but sad situation,” a frustrated Hampton said Thursday. “The whole crux of this thing is that this could’ve been solved so much sooner.”
Just a week before Azalya was shot, deputies held a community unity event in nearby Rutter Park. Days later, the shooting and images of the smiling girl with the long braids and colorful striped top shook the community – and Hampton, the sheriff’s sergeant who grew up, went to school and later patrolled Azalya’s neighborhood as a young deputy.
“I grew up in that area. We went to great lengths to reach out to that community. There’s a 3-year-old who may have walked down to that park,” Hampton said. “Something so senseless – to bring someone to justice, it’s relieving, but it’s still disturbing. It’s troubling. This is a kid – a child – and she didn’t have a chance.”
The family contends it has been unfairly marked as uncooperative by Sheriff’s investigators since the shooting and have been denied the help they need to grieve their dead daughter. The family said they only learned Thursday of the arrests from a Sacramento County District Attorney’s victim advocate.
“It’s a shocker to me because of how (the news) got to me – through a victim’s advocate,” Azalya’s mother, Paula Anderson, said. “We were shocked. There’s a sense of relief, but there’s disbelief because we’d heard nothing from (authorities).”
It was unclear why there was a three-week gap between the arrests and the Thursday announcement, but Hampton said the three men may have been arrested and held on other charges before warrants in the September shooting were issued while the trio were in county custody.
Anderson is angry: She maintained she hadn’t heard from detectives in the weeks since the arrests and was left to worry whether she and her three surviving children remained in danger.
“How safe should I feel? I have three other children I’m trying to keep safe,” she said. That investigators have not yet recommended murder charges only increased her anxiety.
“Why are they releasing pictures to the public if no one was arrested for a specific murder charge? How do I know for certain that these are the people who shot into my home?”