SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. – Felony charges have been reduced to misdemeanors for a Southern California couple found with their three children in a makeshift desert shack.
Daniel Panico, 73, and Mona Kirk, 51, pleaded not guilty Wednesday to misdemeanor child endangerment and charges related to truancy, according to court records.
It wasn't immediately clear why prosecutors decided to reduce the charges. Panico and Kirk have said they're not abusive, just poor.
Their children — between 11 and 14 years old — remain in the custody of child welfare officials.
Authorities took the kids when the parents were arrested in February near Joshua Tree National Park, about 125 miles (201 kilometers) east of Los Angeles. Investigators said the children had been living without running water or electricity for several years.
A shelter was cobbled together with plywood and plastic sheeting. Several holes on the property were filled with feces, the sheriff's office said.
The children didn't appear to have any obvious injuries and showed no outward signs of malnutrition but "it was apparent they had not bathed in days," sheriff's spokeswoman Cindy Bachman said at the time.
The children were not enrolled in public school and there was no evidence they were being educated, Bachman said.
Dozens of people rallied in support of the couple outside a court hearing in March, holding signs that read, "Being homeless is not a crime" and "Poverty is not a choice."
An online fundraising site started by a friend raised enough money to buy Panico and Kirk a new home near Joshua Tree.
The couple's next court appearance is set for June 29th.