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Sister testifies in sibling’s murder trial in Yolo County

When Elisa Torres returned to her Davis home and her niece was nowhere to be found, she felt a surge of panic. She ran out to check the pool, driven by “flashes of her mother,” she told Yolo Superior Court on Tuesday.

“How she always tried to drown the kids,” a tearful Torres said, referring to her younger siblings. “I would always have to run in and turn off the water.”

She recalled the nightmarish memory during the murder trial of her sister, Aquelin Talamantes, who stands accused of carrying out the same act without the same intervention. Talamantes, 29, is on trial for murder after prosecutors allege she drowned her 5-year-old daughter Tatiana Garcia in the bathtub of her sister’s Davis home.

Torres shared other terrible memories of her mother during her hours of testimony. She described her mother as mentally ill, suffering an affliction not yet understood or treated by society. She self-medicated with alcohol – even while pregnant with Talamantes and another sibling – and favored violent beatings with just about anything she could get her hands on. Torres, who at the age of 20 would find herself raising her five younger siblings after their mother’s murder in 1995, recalled one attempt by her mom to stuff her in an oven. She was 8 then.

“She wasn’t there,” Torres said of her mother’s mental stability. “Now I understand.”

Whether Talamantes suffers from the same kind of mental illness – and the extent to which it played a role in Tatiana’s Sept. 26 death – is pivotal in the trial unfolding in Yolo Superior Court. Deputy District Attorney Ryan Couzens has sought to portray Talamantes as a drug-addicted “professional victim” who saw her kids as impediments to her dreams and has tried to escape liability by pointing to her own troubled childhood.

That childhood – complete with sexual abuse and her mother’s violent death when Talamantes was 11 – led to a slow unraveling that culminated in her daughter’s death, Deputy Public Defender Sally Fredericksen argues. Talamantes has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

At times sobbing, Torres spent much of Tuesday on the stand, arguing that she began to see her younger sister exhibiting signs of mental illness in April 2013. Her brows furrowed, she described moments she saw Talamantes talking to herself, and a few other examples when her behavior was odd or erratic. She said she believed her sister drowned Tatiana as a result of her illness.

“She would just sit in the living room, in the dark, in the corner,” Torres said of Talamantes in the weeks before the girl’s death. “I didn’t realize how sick she was.”

On the verge of homelessness, Talamantes and her two children – Tatiana and then-4-year-old Michael – came to stay with Torres in her Glide Drive home in early September. Torres testified she became increasingly worried about her sister’s well-being and became the primary caregiver to the children as their mother “sat on the couch and deteriorated.”

The morning of Tatiana’s death, Torres was pulled over by a Davis police officer after she made an illegal U-turn in front of her home. Dismissed with just a warning, Torres went inside her home and watched through the kitchen window as the officer resumed her position on the street and saw it as a “sign.” Knowing that Talamantes’ car tags were expired, she said she sent her sister outside to ask the officer if there was a problem. Torres testified it was a ruse to get the officer to witness her sister’s behavior.

“I wanted her to be seen ... by someone else besides me,” Torres said. “I wanted somebody else to notice what I was seeing.”

When Talamantes came back inside, she was “worse,” Torres said. She was breathing hard, and her “eyes were just so big.” Talamantes told her sister that the officer wasn’t concerned about her car.

So Torres said she went back outside to talk again to Officer Kimberly Walker – whom Torres knew from a separate incident involving her son. This time, she begged.

“She’s sick ... I don’t know how to help anymore,” Torres recalled saying. “Please send me some help.”

While Torres showered, Talamantes went back outside and spoke with the officer a second time. Walker was concerned enough by the woman’s demeanor that she called for backup, and went to the door to have a look inside. Walker testified last week that Talamantes was acting strange and reviewed her medications with the officer – including antipsychotic pills – but did not appear to be a danger to herself or others, and therefore did not meet the requirements for a “5150” mental health hold.

But Torres testified she felt the officer shouldered at least part of the blame for her niece’s death. That afternoon, police pulled Tatiana’s lifeless body, clothed in pajamas and wrapped in a blanket, from the trunk of Talamantes’ car after she drove to another sister’s apartment in Sacramento.

“I blame the system,” Torres said. “I feel like if (Walker) had taken further action, we wouldn’t be here today.”

In his questioning, Couzens focused on text messages and statements to police in which Torres expressed concern about possible drug use by her sister and her frustrations during the time they shared a home. He cited one statement Torres made to detectives that Talamantes had once called her kids “stupid,” saying she didn’t want them anymore, and another statement that she refused to loan her younger sister money for fear she’d spend it on drugs. She also told police, the prosecutor said, that she was afraid Talamantes would hurt her, so desperate was she for pills her sister wouldn’t give her.

But even when she read transcripts of her messages and interviews with police, Torres repeatedly said she did not recall many of those statements and stressed that her concern had long been about Talamantes’ mental state. She acknowledged that she had worried about her sister’s “Vicodin problem – but not a drug problem.”

Couzens charged that Talamantes and her siblings have come up with a “united front” in arguing that Talamantes’ illness, not her drug dependency and lack of responsibility, is at fault. He questioned why Torres, if so worried, would leave her niece and nephew in Talamantes’ care as she ran errands minutes after the police left that day in September. Torres said she trusted the judgment of the police, who were more educated and more appropriately trained for assessing such situations. She said she never saw Talamantes even discipline her kids, let alone hurt them.

“I never thought that would happen, sir,” she said.

A Davis psychiatrist who testified last week is expected to return to the stand today as Fredericksen begins her case.

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