Local News

Saturday, Apr 07 2012 10:00 AM

Severe child abuse linked to couple who fled to Mexico

BY RACHEL COOK Californian staff writer rcook@bakersfield.com

By relatives' and acquaintances' accounts, Serenity Gandara suffered for a long period before police found the little girl dead on her living room floor.

Family members and friends told police they saw Serenity's aunt and foster mother Carla Garcia hit her, yell at her and spank her so hard that Serenity was pushed to a nearby wall, according to Bakersfield Police Department reports filed in Kern County Superior Court.

Carla reportedly told people she had tied Serenity to a chair and to her bed so the girl couldn't wake her up at night, the reports said. One relative said Carla fed 3-year-old Serenity extremely small portions of food and that Carla told her more than once that she disliked the girl.

After Serenity died, doctors observed that she and her 4-year-old brother Isaiah Gandara bore numerous scars and bruises consistent with ongoing abuse. The boy told investigators that "mommy" hit him and Serenity with a belt and a stick.

The reports, reviewed this week by The Californian, add grim new details to a 2010 homicide case that disturbed Bakersfield and spread to Mexico. The documents reveal more about the abuse and the Garcias' flight to the south.

The Garcias were arrested Feb. 9 in the Pacific coastal state of Colima by the Mexican Agencia Federal de Investigación and are still in Mexico, FBI spokeswoman Gina Swankie said. After the Garcias' arrest was announced, Swankie said the three children were not in custody and that she did not know their status. On Friday, Swankie said she had no new information about the childrens' whereabouts.

The hunt for Carla and her husband Alberto Garcia, the brother of the children's biological mother, began after the couple fled their Bakersfield home on July, 18 2010. Serenity was found dead in the living room and her brother asleep in bed.

The police reports noted that the couple seemed to have fled in a hurry, leaving with cabinets and drawers open. The Garcias took off in their white Ford Expedition headed for Mexico, taking their two biological children and Carla's son from a previous marriage with them.

Carla, whom court records identify as Carla Mariela Garcia Torres, is charged with first degree murder and three counts of willful cruelty to a child, and Alberto Garcia is charged with first degree murder and two counts of willful cruelty to a child, according to court records.

Police were called to the Garcia's southwest Bakersfield house by Sandra Garcia, Carla's sister. Sandra said her sister called her on a Sunday and said "(Serenity) is dead," instructing her to go to the home. Sandra went to the house and found the front door closed but unlocked. Inside, Serenity was laying on the living room floor, covered by a green towel with what looked like blood beside her. Sandra called 911.

Another one of Carla's sisters, Elsa Torres said Carla called her that morning and told her the Garcias left because Serenity fell out of bed and Carla thought she hit her head. Carla reportedly said she heard the girl whining at 2 a.m. and she and Alberto found she wasn't breathing. Scared to call 911, they fled, Carla told her sister.

Images from an ATM showed Alberto withdrawing cash at 12:20 a.m. July 18, the report said. Police "pinged" Carla's cellphone and traced it to downtown Los Angeles just before 2:40 a.m., the reports said. At 10 a.m., Carla's phone's signal was received by a tower in the San Diego area.

According to police reports, Torres' step brother, Juan Carlos Torres, who lived in Mexico, told Elsa that Carla called him asking for money and help. Juan said the Garcias were in Sonora but Alberto didn't have the documents to cross from one Mexican state to another. Juan suggested they find someone to sneak them across the state line.

On July 21, Sandra said a relative told her that she spoke to Carla, who was at her godmother's home in Mexico. The house was searched but the godmother didn't appear to live there, according to the police report.

While investigators tried to track down the Garcias, family and people who knew them came forward with stories of abuse. Elsa Torres said her sister stopped bring the two children over to her home as often. Torres said every time she saw Serenity and Isaiah, the children had new bruises or injuries. Carla told her they fell a lot.

Torres told police that Carla treated the two children differently, yelling at them for little things like drinking juice too fast and children were afraid of Carla. Torres and other family members told Carla to give the children to the foster care system.

The children's grandmothers said Carla cut off their visits with Serenity and Isaiah about a year earlier. Maria Garcia, the children's maternal grandmother, said she told social workers to check on Serenity and Isaiah.

After the killing, authorities found that both children had been the victims of severe trauma.

Serenity's cause of death was determined to be blunt force trauma to her abdomen. Her liver and bowel were lacerated and a doctor said her pancreas was torn in half. She had a skull fracture on the left back side of her head and multiple contusions, bruises and abrasions, the report said. Her head had numerous injuries in various stages of healing that a doctor said were consistent with having been repeatedly hit on the head with something, the reports said.

Officers noticed Isaiah had large bruises under each eye and what looked like healed scars over the whole left side of his face the day his foster parents disappeared, the police report said. The boy told police, "Mommy whipped (Serenity's) ass" in her bed and that the girl cried. He told police Carla hit him on the head many times.

Reports said the children were placed with the Garcias in June 2008 and the couple was in the process of adopting them. Paul Bryan, who was monitoring the adoption, said his last visit with the Garcias was a scheduled one in April 2010. The kids were playing in the yard and face painting. In retrospect, the paint could have masked injuries, according to the police report, Bryan said.

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