DALLAS – A mother whose three children were found starving after being shut away in a hotel bathroom for as long as nine months was sentenced to life in prison Friday after changing her plea to guilty in the middle of her trial.
Abneris Santiago, 31, had faced between five years and life in prison on a felony charge of injury to a child.
Police rescued Santiago's 11-year-old daughter and 10- and 5-year-old sons from a bathroom at an extended-stay hotel along one of Dallas' busiest freeways in July 2009. The children, whose skeletons were visible beneath their flaky, stretched skin, were near death from chronic starvation. Authorities say the girl was repeatedly sexually assaulted by her mother's boyfriend.
Alfred Santiago was convicted Tuesday of injury to a child and continuous sexual abuse. He was sentenced to two 99-year sentences, to be served concurrently.
The former couple share a last name but never married.
Abneris Santiago's plea on the third day of testimony came a day after she apologized to her daughter in a tearful courtroom reunion, saying she wasn't strong enough to stop the abuse. The girl said she loved her mother and did not want her to go to prison.
Prosecutor Eren Price addressed the girl's concern in her closing argument, asking the jury to sentence Santiago to life in prison.
"One day (the girl) will understand," Price said, adding that she wanted the jury to let Santiago know that she was the "worst of the worst."
The defendant apparently thought her guilty plea Friday would end the proceedings and was confused after testimony continued before the jury for purposes of sentencing.
"I think this is unnecessary since I already pleaded myself guilty," Santiago told the judge. "I want it over with. This is pointless."
Instead, prosecutors called to the stand the doctors who treated Santiago's children last summer.
Dr. Susan Scott, an emergency room physician, said the girl "looked like a skeleton with skin." A photograph pinned to the courtroom wall showed the girl's bare back, her ribs and spine clearly defined.
The 10-year-old boy was angry and withdrawn. He and his 5-year-old brother were so skinny that every bone stuck out, the doctor said.
"Anyone with a brain, much less a heart, would know these kids needed help," Scott said.
The older children were put on a 450-calorie-a-day diet that was slowly increased until their bodies could handle more nutrition. Their primary doctor in the hospital, Matthew Cox, said the children became obsessed with food. On daily walks with Cox, the girl would spend long minutes in front of vending machines staring at the items.
Cox said the 10-year-old suffered brain atrophy from chronic starvation and that both brothers were terrified to use the bathroom once they were taken to the hospital. The oldest boy has been hospitalized three times since his rescue because he is suicidal.
The youngest boy weighed less than 30 pounds when he was rescued, or about the weight of a healthy 2-year-old. Cox said he found medical records indicating the girl weighed 100 pounds in 2006. She weighed 59 pounds last year.
A fourth child, who is 2, was found healthy and unharmed last summer. She was the biological daughter of Abneris Santiago and Alfred Santiago. Price, the prosecutor, said she found hospital records indicating Abneris Santiago had brought the girl to the hospital for treatment in March 2009. At the time, her other three children were starving in the hotel bathroom.
A Dallas police detective testified Friday that the 385 square-foot, one-bedroom hotel suite appeared relatively tidy, with the cupboards stocked with crackers, peanut butter, bread and barbecue sauce. The fridge had leftover chicken and rice.
The bathroom had an oppressive stench of feces and body odor. There were blankets on the floor next to the toilet, Detective Parker Baum said.
In his closing argument, defense attorney James Jamison portrayed Abneris Santiago as a victim of domestic violence. The starvation of the children started after her relationship with Alfred Santiago began, he said. Jamison also said Santiago changing her plea to guilty was an indication of remorse.
"This young lady has made some pretty poor choices in life," Jamison said.
The children were rescued after Abneris Santiago's brother made a 1,200-mile drive from his home in Ohio, thinking he was going to rescue his sister from an abusive relationship. What he found behind the door marked B2019 at the hotel was horrifying, Abner Santiago testified earlier in the week.
His niece and nephews appeared to be nothing but skin and bones, the uncle said, with his niece having to hold up her pants to keep them from falling. Their clothes were ragged and their hair was falling out.
The children were so sick that one of them immediately threw up the fast food the uncle brought.