By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
It was nearly three years ago that Ricardo Morentes pulled into a Food 4 Less parking lot in Anaheim and begged bystanders for help. A five-year-old girl, Jimena Correal, lay motionless in his truck. Morentes, claiming to be Jimena's uncle, told anyone who would listen that the girl injured herself when she fell out of bed. Paramedics took her to West Anaheim Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead.
An autopsy revealed that Jimena had died of a ruptured abdomen. It also discovered numerous bruises and several broken ribs, as well as indications of sexual abuse—lacerations on her vagina and a partially ruptured hymen. Later, Morentes told police he was actually the live-in boyfriend of Jimena's mother and admitted that he punched the girl repeatedly in the stomach. That, said prosecutors in Morentes' July 2002 murder trial, led directly to Jimena's "agonizing death over a 20-hour period."
Morentes is serving 31 years to life, and his conviction should have been the end to a very sad story, except that a civil suit heading for trial in November alleges that child-welfare officials could have prevented Jimena's murder. The lawsuit, brought by Jimena's father, Raul Orozco, a 40-year-old machine operator, claims that Orange County Social Services Agency (SSA) staff ignored injuries that told a clear story of abuse and were slow to react to eyewitness accounts from Jimena's grandmother and Jimena herself, who told a therapist she was being physically and sexually abused. What's more, the lawsuit charges, the SSA closed its investigation of Jimena's case even while acknowledging in an official report that "problems are happening."
Orozco's lawyer, Ray Brown of the Santa Ana law firm of Sayre & Chavez, said his client has refused the county's $10,000 offer to settle the lawsuit. SSA officials refused to comment for this story.
The lawsuit, which seeks an unspecified monetary award, claims the SSA "violated numerous mandatory duties and acted with malice. As such, they failed to protect Jimena from being murdered."
The agency's own reports show that beginning in August 2000, Orozco told SSA employees on numerous occasions that Morentes, the 18-year-old boyfriend of Orozco's estranged wife, Claudia Correal, was abusing Jimena. Correal, who pleaded guilty to child endangerment, continued to defend Morentes even after he confessed to the murder. When she finishes her four-year prison sentence, she will be deported to Mexico.)
Orozco says that he first noticed bruises on Jimena's body in April.
"Usually, I would only be able to see Jimena once a week for 15 minutes while I was giving her mother the child support check in the parking lot of a store in Anaheim," he said. "I would see bruises on the child and Jimena would tell me she had fallen down. I didn't believe her." But Orozco felt trapped, afraid that if he raised the issue, Correal would block his efforts to win custody of their daughter. "I didn't want to make her suspect anything," Orozco said.
In June, Correal's mother, visiting from Mexico, confirmed Orozco's suspicions. She telephoned Orozco and told him that both Claudia and Morentes were hitting Jimena. Orozco says he immediately called SSA's child-abuse hotline but said the agency refused to investigate a first-time call without physical evidence.
It's easy to look back at the murder of a child by a family member and blame not just the killer but the public agencies charged with monitoring reports of child abuse. It's also reasonable—without letting SSA off the hook—to acknowledge that child-abuse cases involving estranged parents often have a maddening he-said/she-said quality, making it difficult for social workers to know what's really going on.
In Jimena's case, SSA reports suggest that the agency may have hesitated to believe Orozco's claims because he had been convicted of domestic abuse against Correal in May 1999. (Orozco denies he ever hit his wife. He says he and Correal had been fighting so loudly that a neighbor called police. When they arrived, he says, Correal falsely told police he had hit her. Orozco says he didn't challenge her story because he didn't want both of them to be arrested. "If they took [only] me to jail, there would still be somebody to stay with the child," he said.)
It's also clear that social workers suspected Orozco's charges might be part of a custody dispute between the parents. "Mom stated that dad is the person who is making allegations of child abuse," says one report. "According to mom, all dad wants is to have full custody of Jimena, and wants to convince Jimena to stay with him by buying for her different things."
Meanwhile, the warning signs continued. On July 16, Orozco noticed a bruise above Jimena's eye.
"She said she was playing and fell off the bed," he said. "But I didn't believe her and took her to the Placentia Police Department. I explained what Jimena told me. They took her into a different room and she confirmed that she had hurt herself."