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Murder charges to be filed in deaths of children in storage locker

Video: Couple faces murder charges in death of two children

Murder charges may be filed in deaths of children. Salinas police chief says case is worst he has ever seen. Children were victims of "ongoing physical abuse." Death penalty may be sought.
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Murder charges may be filed in deaths of children. Salinas police chief says case is worst he has ever seen. Children were victims of "ongoing physical abuse." Death penalty may be sought.

Calling it one of the worst child abuse cases they have ever seen, Monterey County officials said Thursday they will file two murder charges and other counts rapidly against Tami Joy Huntsman and Gonzalo Curiel in the deaths of two small children found stuffed in a plastic bin inside a Redding storage locker Sunday.

The two children, who authorities say are 3-year-old Delylah Tara and her brother, Shaun, 6, were victims of “ongoing physical abuse” that began in Salinas and may have continued for some time before their deaths, officials said.

“This is one of the worst cases I’ve ever seen, and I think the investigators in the room would concur,” Salinas Police Chief Kelly McMillin told reporters at an afternoon news conference. “Suffice it to say it was terrible. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve never seen such abuse.”

Huntsman’s mother, Joy Huntsman, told The Sacramento Bee on Thursday evening that she called Child Protective Services numerous times because of poor living conditions in her daughter’s Salinas apartment, including a lice infestation. But each time, she said, officials could not find a reason to remove the children from the suspect’s custody.

“I’ve tried to commit suicide. I can’t believe I bore this monster,” Joy Huntsman said, bursting into tears. “Those kids were my babies.”

Monterey County District Attorney Dean Flippo said his office would move quickly to charge both suspects with two counts of murder each, as well as special circumstances that could lead to the death penalty, although he added that such a decision may not be made until after a preliminary hearing.

Curiel, 17, will be tried as an adult, Flippo said. He has been described as a “companion” of Huntsman, 39.

Speaking at Salinas City Hall, police and prosecutors provided a brief timeline of the homicides and torture. They jointly announced the suspects would be charged and tried in Monterey County because the events began in Salinas.

Officials also disclosed that Salinas police had been called to Huntsman’s Fremont Street apartment twice in the past six months because of anonymous calls about child abuse, but that the first time no one was home and the second time officers found one child sleeping and two others doing homework.

“They did not see any overt signs of abuse that led them to take any further action,” McMillin said. “Whether there were opportunities missed as we move through investigation is something we’ll absolutely be looking for.”

Child Protective Services workers had been to the home another four times in the last year, most recently in August, but took no action to remove children from Huntsman’s care, the head of the county’s social services agency has said.

Under questioning about whether more could have been done to save the children in Huntsman’s care, the chief was blunt. “I will tell you right off the bat that Mrs. Huntsman (and Curiel) failed these kids,” he said. “That’s your primary point of failure.”

Joy Huntsman, the suspect’s mother, lives directly across from Huntsman’s Salinas apartment, which is now boarded up with a “Do Not Enter” notice plastered to the front door. The side yard was littered Thursday with bags of clothing, a scooter, a soccer ball and a broken door.

Joy Huntsman described herself as a “key witness” whom authorities had instructed not to discuss the case because of the ongoing investigation. “It’s difficult. I’m going to probably be putting my daughter away for life,” she said. “It’s been a roller coaster.”

The mother said the suspect wasn’t always a bad person.

“She was Mary Poppins,” Joy Huntsman said. “Everyone loved her. She was a model citizen. That’s why she had all these kids.”

On her Facebook page, Tami Joy Huntsman lists her occupation as “Being the Best Mom I Can Be.”

Joy Huntsman said her daughter “went crazy” after the recent arrival of the 17-year-old suspect.

“You have a 39-year-old falling in love with a 17-year-old; something is wrong,” the mother said, adding that the relationship caused her daughter’s divorce from her former husband, Chris Criswell.

Joy Huntsman also alleged that her daughter’s boyfriend was responsible for most of the crimes and that he beat her. Asked whether drugs were a factor in Tami Huntsman’s life, the mother said she never saw any drugs, though she had placed Tami Huntsman in a drug rehab program 20 years ago.

The case has gripped Northern California since the children’s bodies were found Sunday in the Redding storage locker, 300 miles away from where the children were last seen on Thanksgiving.

Police said they believe Huntsman and Curiel left Salinas the next day with the dead children; their 9-year-old sister, who was malnourished and horribly abused; and Huntsman’s two 12-year-old twins.

Huntsman rented a storage locker in Redding one week later on Dec. 4, a manager at the facility told The Bee. From there, Huntsman drove to Quincy, where she and Curiel and the twins stayed in a Main Street apartment.

Huntsman and Curiel were arrested there a week after renting the storage locker when Plumas County sheriff’s officials got a tip about possible child abuse at the apartment. A deputy who responded saw the 9-year-old in a Toyota SUV parked outside and saw “obvious child abuse,” Flippo said, and the investigation began.

“It was really quick thinking by one young deputy in Plumas County that very likely saved that young girl’s life,” McMillin said.

Huntsman and Curiel were arrested and charged in Quincy with child abuse and torture. But Plumas County officials learned over the weekend that there might have been two children missing who had been in Huntsman’s care and called Salinas police on Dec. 13 at noon to alert them.

McMillin said Salinas officers went to the Huntsman apartment at 12:14 p.m. and, after what he described as a brief investigation, forced their way in at 3:10 p.m. to see if the children were inside.

McMillin would not describe what officers found, but said, “I would say at this point in time that the conditions were … such that it would cause someone to wonder how someone could raise a child in those conditions,” he said.

By then, Plumas officials had gone back to question the suspects about the missing children and learned about the storage locker. Redding police went to the locker and broke off the lock, then discovered the bodies inside a plastic bin.

Autopsies conducted Wednesday concluded the children had been subjected to “ongoing physical abuse,” McMillin said.

“That abuse very likely started in Salinas and continued at various locations throughout this investigation,” the chief said.

However, Flippo said his office believed the children were killed in Salinas and that prosecutors in Plumas and Shasta counties had agreed the suspects should be tried in Monterey County.

“I think we feel very comfortable that we will be able to prove they were killed in Salinas,” he said.

The suspects will be charged with two counts of first-degree murder, with a special circumstance that can lead to life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty, according to Flippo. The pair also will face a single count of torture and another charge of causing great bodily injury to the 9-year-old victim, who is being treated at UC Davis Medical Center.

Flippo said he expected the charges to be filed by Friday or Monday, and that Huntsman, who is being held at the jail in Quincy, and Curiel, who is housed at a juvenile facility in Butte County, will be brought to Monterey County to face prosecution.

Flippo said his office typically does not decide whether to seek the death penalty until after a preliminary hearing is held, adding, “We do not go death penalty lightly at all in this county.”

Authorities said the investigation has been hampered by complex family relations between the suspects and victims. Officials struggled several times during the news conference to clarify the familial relations.

“It’s just not that clear,” the chief said. “It’s a sketchy dynamic.”

The district attorney added that officials do not know whether Huntsman had the children in her home through some formal custody agreement.

“I can’t verify even legal custody,” Flippo said. “They were just in the house.”

Officials also said that the bodies had not been positively identified yet as Delylah and Shaun Tara but that they have no doubt that is who they are and that DNA testing is expected to confirm that.

Family members have told The Bee that the two dead children and the abused 9-year-old were siblings placed in Huntsman’s care by a cousin after the children’s mother was struck and killed by a car in December 2013 and the father was facing incarceration. The father, Shaun Daniel Tara, is in the Riverside County jail on drug and weapons charges.

The 12-year-old twins, who were not harmed and are now in foster care, are Huntsman’s biological children with her ex-husband, Criswell.

Authorities say they believe there may have been an older juvenile living at the home who was arrested last spring in a robbery case.

Police now say they are hoping the anonymous callers who reported possible child abuse over the last six months will contact detectives. McMillin said the amount of help police are getting from potential witnesses is varied.

“We’re getting varying degrees of cooperation from a number of people, from very cooperative to not helpful at all,” the chief said.

Richard Chang: 916-321-1018, @RichardYChang

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