DALLAS – The uncle of three children allegedly locked in a Dallas hotel bathroom for up to nine months testified Wednesday that the oldest among them reassured him she was OK as she emerged gaunt and starved from captivity.
Abner Santiago said the 11-year-old and her 10-year-old and 5-year-old half brothers were clearly weak and malnourished when he and police officers rescued them from the Budget Suites hotel.
He said the girl saw tears in his eyes and told him: "It's OK, we're safe now. Everything is going to be OK."
Abner Santiago addressed the court Wednesday on the first day of testimony in the trial of Alfred Santiago, who is charged with injury to a child and continuous sexual abuse in relation to the girl. He faces life in prison if convicted. Two more charges of injury to a child related to the boys are pending.
Alfred Santiago had been living in the hotel room with the children's mother, Abneris Santiago, since 2007. The two share a last name, but were not married. Alfred Santiago is not the father of any of the children he is accused of abusing. A fourth child, a 1-year-old girl who is Alfred Santiago's biological daughter, was found healthy and unharmed.
Police discovered the children, who all have different fathers, after Abneris Santiago's brother and sister-in-law drove to Dallas from the Cleveland area to check on her last summer.
Abneris' brother and sister-in-law picked her up at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress, called for police assistance and then drove to the extended-stay hotel along one of Dallas' busiest freeways.
A doctor has said the children appeared to have been starved and that their condition was life-threatening when they were rescued July 1. The 11-year-old said she had been sexually assaulted, and the eldest son was covered in bruises from a beating authorities said was delivered by his mother's boyfriend.
Prosecutor Eren Price told jurors during opening statements that none of the children had been to school since moving to Dallas from Florida in 2007. She said the children stayed home with Abner Santiago while their mother worked.
"Sometime in the fall 2008, something changed and the defendant started keeping them in the bathroom of the Budget Suites hotel," Price said.
She said that the children started to eat less and less, getting thinner and thinner. She said that Alfred Santiago would bring the oldest girl out of the bathroom to sexually abuse her.
"The defendant starved the mind, the body and the soul of (the girl)," she said.
Jurors saw pictures of the children after their rescue, their faces gaunt, ribs protruding.
"It was obvious that these children were malnourished," Dr. Susan Scott, an emergency room doctor at Children's Medical Center Dallas testified.
Monica Lindsey, a Child Protective Services investigator, said the girl told her they believed they were rescued from the hotel because God had answered their prayers.
The defense declined to make an opening statement on Wednesday.
A Dallas police detective specializing in child abuse testified that it wasn't until he went into the bathroom that he found any evidence that anyone other than the couple and baby lived in the 385-square foot one bedroom suite.
He said the bathroom, which had no windows, had an overwhelming smell of feces. There were two blankets in a corner, Detective Gerald Baum said.
The children's clothes were stuffed below the sink and smelled of mildew, he said.
"Everything was wet, heavily soiled and the smell was overwhelming," Baum said.
A woman who worked at the Budget Suites testified that when the couple checked in they only said that two adults and a baby would be there. She never saw the other children, but before the couple arrived, she said Abneris Santiago had inquired about getting a two-bedroom so her kids could be with her.
The trial of the children's mother, Abneris Santiago, is scheduled to start after the conclusion of Alfred Santiago's trial. She will be tried on one charge of injury to a child and two more injury to a child charges are pending. She also faces up to life in prison.
Abner Santiago testified that before going to the hotel, he and his wife met his sister at the restaurant where she worked. He said she didn't indicate that anything was amiss with the children, telling him that the school-age children were doing well and making good grades.
He said his demeanor toward his sister cooled once he saw the condition of the children.
"Once I expressed my feelings to her, there wasn't too much talk between us," Abner Santiago said.
Child Protective Services spokeswoman Marissa Gonzales said that Abneris Santiago's mother was granted custody of all four of her daughter's children earlier this month. The girl is now 12, her brothers 11 and 6 and the youngest child is 2.