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Torture case reveals horrible truth: It happens over and over

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.

The emaciated, severely beaten 9-year-old was the first to be found, rescued from a locked SUV in Quincy. Then came the discovery two days later of the girl’s sister and brother, 3 and 6, their bodies stuffed in a plastic bin and stashed inside a Redding storage locker 140 miles away.

Across California and the nation, the revelations this month of child torture struck a deep chord: How could this happen?

“People in the medical field and law enforcement try to make sense of situations, to understand,” said Plumas County Sheriff Greg Hagwood.

His young deputy had been in the field only five months when he discovered the girl on Dec. 11. Hagwood has offered counseling and time off to all of his staff.

“The torture of an innocent child,” he said, “is beyond comprehension.”

Recently, though, science has begun to penetrate the incomprehensible.

Last year, a team of researchers – led by a child-abuse pediatrician at the University of Wisconsin – published a groundbreaking study on child torture, probing everything from the nature of the crime to the makeup of its perpetrators. The study, published in the Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma, is the first to look comprehensively at child torture cases and urge professionals to view them as a distinctly different subcategory of child abuse.

“When you hear some of these stories, you think, ‘Oh, that can’t be true.’ But they are,” said Dr. Barbara L. Knox of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, who treated abused and tortured children before embarking on the research project.

“People also don’t want to admit that this stuff really happens in their own backyards.”

Over and over, though, the terrifying stories surface.

UNCLE CRAZY IS SO SORRY FOR NOT COMING BACK IN TIME TO SAVE YOU.

Facebook post by Chris Criswell, estranged husband of Tami Joy Huntsman

In 1996, Sacramento residents were stunned by details surrounding the death of 3-year-old Adrian Conway, who was beaten, burned, bound, tortured and starved to death by his mother, Tammy Holycross. Earlier this month, Holycross lost her bid for release from prison. (See accompanying fact box for information on other cases.)

In this most recent case in Northern California, authorities have arrested 39-year-old Tami Joy Huntsman and her companion, Gonzalo Curiel, 17, who were living in Salinas at the time of the slayings. Monterey County prosecutors have filed murder, torture and child-abuse charges against the couple.

At the time of the crimes, Huntsman had been caring for at least five children in her Salinas apartment – 12-year-old twins of her own and three other children she had agreed earlier this year to take in. Family members say their father, Shaun Tara, left the three with Huntsman after their mother was killed by a speeding vehicle and he was facing jail time.

Those three became victims.

Authorities say the two youngest Tara children – Shaun, 6, and Delylah, 3 – suffered the worst child abuse they have ever seen. Their sister, now 10, survived the ordeal but was severely injured, with multiple broken bones and teeth and infections. She weighed 40 pounds when the Plumas County deputy found her.

Sheriff Hagwood said the child was only “marginally” able to walk.

“She was the living, breathing example of what’s depicted in concentration camp photos,” he said. “It’s challenging to witness that firsthand and know it’s not motivated politically but out of the viciousness of another human being.”

According to Knox, child torture of this nature is defined as abuse that includes both extreme physical and psychological maltreatment. The acts involve “profound humiliation and degradation,” she said.

This type of abuse allows for complete power and control over that child, 24-7.

Dr. Barbara L. Knox, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health

“This type of abuse allows for complete power and control over that child, 24/7,” she said.

Knox stressed that this type of torture should not be seen in the context of politically or militarily motivated abuse, whose purpose is to extract information or control populations. And, it is not the same as child abuse resulting from a tired, stressed-out caregiver who snaps under pressure and injures a child, then seeks medical care, she said.

“This is not discipline gone awry,” Knox said. “… These are children who go day to day not knowing if they’re going to live or die.”

Knox and her five national colleagues closely examined 28 torture cases of children from ages 9 months to nearly 15.

The details are horrifying: There was the 2-year-old girl, forced to sit still under heat lamps for prolonged periods. And the 2-year-old boy, dangled over an angry dog. A 4-year-old boy was starved, submerged in freezing water, forced to lick a 9-volt battery and locked in a clothes dryer and tumbled. An 8-year-old girl was starved and consumed her own urine, feces and vomit. An 11-year-old boy was deprived of food and water, scalded repeatedly and tied by the neck to a shower head and forced to stand, or strangulate if he fell.

Throughout the cases, the research team found striking similarities. The torture occurred over time, anywhere from 3½ months to eight years. Beatings and starvation were common, along with physical binding. As the violence escalated, the children were increasingly isolated from outsiders. The majority were forced to stand or pose in fixed positions that are physically impossible, leading to more punishment.

Half of the cases reviewed had a history of one to 15 referrals for investigation by Child Protective Services.

Before the bodies were found this month in Redding, CPS went to Huntsman’s apartment four times this year – the latest in August – but found no signs that children needed to be removed from the home, according to Monterey County officials.

Salinas police say they were called to the home twice for welfare checks on the children. The first time, authorities found no one home; the second time a deputy saw children sleeping or doing homework and left.

Huntsman, Curiel and the children – Huntsman’s twins and the three Tara children – are believed to have left the Salinas area the day after Thanksgiving, eventually stopping in Redding, where Tami Huntsman rented the storage locker on Dec. 4.

The bodies were found there a week later.

Officials in Monterey County say they are convinced Shaun and Delylah Tara were killed in the Salinas area, although they have not released details on what caused their deaths – or which suspect might have done what.

The Shasta County Coroner’s Office has not formally identified the two bodies and is conducting DNA tests expected to confirm their identities. Because of that, the autopsy reports have not yet been released, said Mo Hern, administrative assistant to the chief deputy coroner.

The criminal complaint filed against the suspects alleges they conspired “with another person and persons” whose identity isn’t yet known to commit the abuse but offers no specifics.

Knox and her research team took a close look at the perpetrators of child torture.

In the study team’s cases, 20 of the 51 perpetrators – about 40 percent – were the biological mother or father. In every one of the team’s 28 cases, a woman was involved. Among the 20 male perpetrators, eight were the biological father while the remaining were identified as the stepfather, boyfriend, adoptive father, another relative or an unrelated male.

Knox, who did not specifically discuss the California case, said the research revealed that siblings sometimes are coerced into participating in the torture of other children in the household. Where multiple adults are involved, she said, one may emerge as the dominant figure while the other is more passive, failing to intervene.

“These acts are so horrific that are occurring in the house that, in our research, you did not live in the house and not know that this abuse was occurring,” she said.

Many of the details of how the California case unfolded over the past year remain a mystery.

But court documents, interviews with family members and social media postings paint a portrait of a woman whose life began to fracture a year ago as her marriage started to fray, and a young man, Curiel, came into her life. Curiel had been a friend of Huntman’s 15-year-old son and a neighbor boy.

“You have a 39-year-old falling in love with a 17-year-old,” Joy Huntsman, Tami Huntsman’s mother, said last week. “Something is wrong.”

Huntsman’s mother said she began to see a steady deterioration in her daughter’s living conditions. The mother lives in an apartment directly across the street from Huntsman, and she said lice infestations and filthy living conditions led her to call Child Protective Services several times and to ask Huntsman to give up some of the children.

By then, the maternal grandparents of the Tara children had been trying for months to get custody of the three, but without success, according to a family member.

Joy Huntsman said the last time she saw her daughter and the children was on Halloween.

At the time that Curiel appeared on the scene, Huntsman’s husband, Chris Criswell, was working out of state. Her relationship with the teenager soon created a split at the family’s two-bedroom apartment on Fremont Street in Salinas, a neighborhood packed with apartments and overparked streets.

“I was on a work trip in Austin and he was there when I came home,” Criswell, 47, wrote in a Facebook post Dec. 19.

Criswell refused to allow Curiel to stay there when he returned from Texas, he wrote on Facebook, and in early January Huntsman filed for a temporary restraining order against her husband, alleging that he threatened and followed her and told her that “if he can’t have me no one will.”

Huntsman also complained that she was the only person listed on the apartment lease and was paying all the bills, according to her application for the restraining order.

Criswell, who did not respond to requests for comment, apparently moved to Texas not long after.

He has since posted notes on his Facebook page that he did not want to speak to the media but wrote that he was remorseful that he had not returned in time to save the children.

“UNCLE CRAZY IS SO SORRY FOR NOT COMING BACK IN TIME TO SAVE YOU,” Criswell wrote.

He added that his “one and only comment” to the media would be “To clear up what’s been wrongly reported about my relations to these very sick and twisted nightmare Tami Huntsman and THAT WEAK AS PUNK B**** COWARD OF A BOY GONZO Curiel,”

“HELL IS TO GOOD FOR U BOTH BUT MAY IT COME SOON AND SLOW,” he wrote on Dec. 19.

That posting came two days after prosecutors in Monterey County announced they would seek murder charges – and possibly the death penalty – against Huntsman. Curiel, who faces the same charges, cannot face death because he is a minor, although he will be tried as an adult.

Knox, the University of Wisconsin pediatrician, said she fervently hopes her work will lead the medical community to recognize child torture as a diagnosis – and help law enforcement and CPS workers spot red flags and intervene sooner. Front-line workers can learn to quiz children more thoroughly about timeouts to determine if they actually are being placed in forced-position holds.

Starvation is a “huge red flag,” she said, so meticulous plotting of weight on a growth curve is essential. Children under CPS’ watch who suddenly are yanked from school for alleged home-schooling could trigger a closer look, given the perpetrators’ need to isolate and “get them off the grid,” Knox said.

For those children who survive the torture, Knox acknowledges the prognosis is grim. Many victims will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety, the most common fallout, she said.

The brutalized girl in the locked car, whose 10th birthday was Tuesday, is reportedly being treated at UC Davis Medical Center, where her condition is improving. However, Hagwood, the Plumas County sheriff, said she may face additional surgery for her many fractures and injuries.

The case has elicited an outpouring of support from every state in the country, he said. The greatest current need is for cash donations to contribute to the girl’s medical treatment.

The 12-year-old twins, a boy and girl Huntsman had with Criswell, were placed into foster care and will be the subject of separate court proceedings in Plumas County to determine where they will go next.

Criswell wrote on Facebook that he hoped to visit them the Wednesday before Christmas and sought help from his friends with gifts. The boy likes football, he wrote, and the girl enjoys art.

“MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL,” he added.

Marjie Lundstrom: 916-321-1055, @MarjieLundstrom. Richard Chang and Jane Braxton-Little contributed to this report.

How to help

Authorities have set up accounts and mailing centers to collect funds to help the victim and deliver cards and gifts to her.

To donate by mail: Send checks to Plumas Crisis Intervention and Resource Center, 591 W. Main St., Quincy, CA 95971. Checks should be made out to “Plumas CASA Special Child.”

To donate online: The Salinas Police Officers Association Victims Fund is accepting donations at salinaspd.com/spoa-victims-fund.

To send gifts or cards: Mail to Plumas County Department of Social Services, Special Child, 270 County Hospital Road, Suite 207, Quincy, CA 95971.

Child torture study: Key findings

▪ 28 cases included children ages 9 months to nearly 15 years.

▪ More than a third of the victims died.

▪ Abuse lasted from about 3 1/2 months to 8 years.

▪ Majority of victims, 93 percent, had visible skin injuries.

▪ Nearly 90 percent were isolated from people outside the immediate family.

▪ Three-quarters were put in solitary confinement in rooms or, in one case, a clothes dryer. 

▪ The majority had their food and water restricted.

▪ All of the children were psychologically mistreated, including 75 percent who were threatened with harm or death to themselves or loved ones.

▪ Half of the study children had a history of prior referrals to child protection agencies.

▪ Nearly half of the victims’ siblings had been coerced into participating in the torture; 65 percent of siblings were abuse victims themselves.

Source: “Child Torture as a Form of Child Abuse,” Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma, 2014

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