SALINAS, Calif. – Prosecutors said they will charge a woman and a teenager with first-degree murder in the deaths of two young children found dead in a rented storage unit in California.
Monterey County District Attorney Dean Flippo also said Thursday that autopsies had determined the children — ages 3 and 6 — died around Thanksgiving in Salinas of ongoing physical abuse.
The charges could be filed as soon as Friday and will include a special circumstance of torture that Flippo said could bring the death penalty if defendants Tami Huntsman, 39, and her 17-year-old male companion are convicted.
The teenager was not identified and the relationships between Huntsman and the children remained unclear.
Salinas police chief Kelly McMillin said two dozen investigators are still trying to piece together the tangled and horrific series of events that led to the deaths.
"In my 32-year career, this is the most egregious child abuse homicide case I've ever seen," McMillin said.
The investigation began Friday when Plumas County deputies were called to a residence to check on a child abuse report. They found a severely abused 9-year-old girl and arrested the two suspects. The girl is recovering in a hospital.
After questioning the suspects, police in Redding — about 300 miles from Salinas — were directed to the storage unit where the bodies of the other children were found.
Plumas County Sheriff Greg Hagwood choked back tears and said responding officers were being offered counseling and time off after rescuing the 9-year-old girl and finding the two bodies in a plastic container inside the rental unit.
Huntsman and the teenager were charged in Plumas County with child abuse, torture and mayhem involving the 9-year-old child. Their lawyers have declined comment and the suspects didn't enter a plea when they appeared in court Tuesday.
Flippo said that case will be transferred to Monterey County for prosecution.
Elliot Robinson, head of the Monterey County Department of Social Services, said the woman was visited by county child welfare workers four times over the course of a year to check on complaints of neglect.
The complaints between September 2014 and August were about general neglect, a category that includes poor supervision, improper feeding, lice infestation and dirty household conditions, Robinson said, adding that none of the complaints alleged physical abuse.
"General neglect calls rarely will result in the removal of the child," he said. "More often than not it's about poverty."
Social services officials were reviewing the agency's handling of the four neglect complaints.
McMillin said Salinas police responded twice to the woman's house over the past six months to check on child abuse reports. Officers didn't find anyone at home the first time and didn't see any evidence of neglect or abuse when they returned later.