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."
A week later, SSA child-abuse workers who had been alerted by police visited Jimena, but uncovered no fresh physical evidence of abuse. According to the agency's report of that visit, Jimena told a social worker that she "hit her face a few days ago because she was jumping," repeating her mother's story that Jimena injured herself because she was hyperactive.
"Jimena has been diagnosed with hyperactive behavior due to complications during childbirth," the report says, adding that she had "displayed hyperactive behavior" during the visit. SSA took no further action, and Jimena and her younger sister, Sabrina, remained with her mother.
"She wasn't hyperactive, that's a lie," Orozco said. "She was active, like a normal child. She liked to play and was a happy girl. She acted just like my other daughter, Sabrina, does now, and Sabrina's not hyperactive either. Jimena was a normal child, but what she had were not normal injuries."
On Aug. 11, Orozco took Jimena to Anita Jo Rice, an Anaheim therapist. In her arms, Jimena held a doll that Orozco had given her a day earlier for her birthday. "She had a cute little dress on and her hair was all done up," Rice later said in a deposition. "She looked like a little energetic doll. She held a doll in her arms. Very cute, vivacious little girl. Very bright."
During the therapy session, Jimena told Rice that her mother had thrown a television remote control at her head, and that she had to get stitches. "She told me that her mother and Ricardo hit her a lot," Rice stated. "And that Ricardo hit her with his sandal and belt. And she told me that her mother slaps her face a lot."
"I . . . asked her if there was anything else," Rice continued. "And she told me that her second daddy, Ricardo, had put his finger in one of her holes. And that when she tried to tell her mother that, Ricardo put his hand over her mouth." Rice asked Jimena to point on the doll where her "second daddy" had touched her. "She turned the doll upside down and pointed approximately to the area of the vagina," Rice said.
When Jimena told Rice she had been sexually abused, Orozco says he almost lost his mind. "I was beside myself," he said. "I started crying. I felt angry, impotent, emotionally distraught."
SSA records show Rice immediately called the county's child-abuse hotline, reporting that Jimena had said Morentes "had put his finger inside of her vagina and that it hurt."
That day, social services workers went to Correal's apartment to investigate. But when Correal told them Morentes had accidentally rubbed Jimena's vagina while drying her off with a towel, and that he was no longer living with her, the SSA closed its file on Jimena.
"Case is closed—inconclusive," wrote SSA social worker Providencia Ramirez-Hull, who is also named in Orozco's suit. "However . . . Jimena was touched in a not so kind manner. Also mom was a concern. Jimena was touched by Ricardo. He used a rag to clean this minor [sic] vaginal area. Minor suffered an irritation . . . By observing Jimena with the doll appears [sic] that other problems are happening that they was [sic] not been disclosed. However, appears that minor's father is observing and trying to protect this child. Case closed."
The following day, on Aug. 12, Orozco took his daughter to a birthday party in Anaheim. He snapped a photograph of her—the one that accompanies this story. It was the last day he ever saw her alive. Correal failed to meet him at the store several days later to pick up her child-support check. In fact, she had moved. SSA records show she called child-abuse workers on Aug. 28 to provide a new telephone number and address where she could be reached for the next four days.
"[Correal] said that as soon she find [sic] another place she will get in touch," Ramirez-Hull wrote in a report. "Plan is for Claudia to call this [social worker] as soon she [sic] moved to an [sic] stable place."
Ramirez-Hull made no mention in her report of any further effort to investigate Jimena's welfare.
When Orozco discovered that Correal had disappeared, he and Rice went to Placentia police, hoping to file a missing person's report on Jimena. Police refused to cooperate.
"I informed them of the ongoing child-abuse report," Rice said. "They said . . . that a mother could take her kids any place she wanted to." According to Rice, police "refused to investigate at all. They were very rude."
Rice tried twice to contact Ramirez-Hull. When that failed, she spoke to an SSA supervisor.
"I was concerned that this was a case that was going to fall through the cracks," Rice said. "I felt that Jimena was at extreme risk with the people that she was with. I conveyed that they disappeared. And the supervisor intimated that they might be . . . might be in a shelter of some kind. I took that to mean that Social Services knew where she was."
Rice was mistaken: the agency had lost contact with Correal—and Jimena. When SSA social worker Ann Ballenger typed up the agency's last report on Jimena on Oct. 5, she stated that Correal "called in early September and left a voice mail message indicating she had a new address but did not provide it. Repeated attempts to locate mother have failed. Therefore, at this time this referral will be closed and no further services provided due to loss of contact."
Five weeks later, at some point between the night of Nov. 15 and the next morning, Morentes, Jimena's "second daddy," began beating Jimena to death. After being transported to the hospital on the afternoon of Nov. 16, she was pronounced dead at 3:49 p.m. Orozco learned his daughter was dead the following day, when his mother-in-law called from Mexico with the news.
"I didn't believe her," Orozco said. "So I asked her to tell me how to reach Claudia [Correal]. She gave me her telephone number and I called Claudia. She answered and I asked her what happened, if what I had heard was true. She just said, 'Yes, it's true. Jimena is dead,' and then hung up."
Orozco says he never met Morentes until he testified at the murder trial. That's when he recognized him as a young tenant who lived in the same Stanton apartment building where he and his wife stayed before moving to Anaheim.
Seeing Morentes sentenced to life in prison didn't make Orozco any happier. Nor does he feel justice has been served—at least not completely.
"I still feel very sad because my daughter could have been saved," Orozco said. "I went to both the police and Social Services Agency. If they had done their jobs, Jimena could still be alive."