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Warnings to Authorities Failed to Save 2-Year-Old

October 24, 1985|MARK ARAX | Times Staff Writer

In the days before her grandson's death, Magdalena Lupercio had begun the process of trying to win custody of the 2-year-old child.

The boy had been living with Lupercio and her daughter, 20-year-old Ruth Lupercio, when Ruth decided to move out and demanded that her son Isaac go with her. Family members said Ruth Lupercio told them she needed the child to qualify for welfare.

Pasadena Superior Court records show that even though the county's Department of Children's Services had evidence suggesting that Ruth Lupercio was a heroin addict who had beaten Isaac, an agency social worker told Magdalena Lupercio that she was powerless to keep the child while authorities investigated the allegations.

Found Beaten to Death

On July 4, 1984, eight days after his mother had moved out with him, Isaac was found fatally beaten in a cheap motel in Burbank where his mother and her boyfriend had been staying. The child died of massive bleeding caused by blunt-force trauma in a makeshift bed in a room littered with fast-food wrappers and hypodermic needles. An autopsy report revealed that he suffered more than a dozen blows to the head and may have been sodomized before he stopped breathing that morning and his mother called police.

Last week, Pasadena Superior Court Judge Coleman A. Swart sentenced Ruth Lupercio to six years in state prison after she pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in her child's death. Swart rejected a state Department of Correction's recommendation stating that Lupercio had spent more than a year in jail while awaiting trial and that nothing would be gained by additional imprisonment.

Burbank police are still seeking Lupercio's former boyfriend, Eric Retana, who they say has fled to Costa Rica and is believed to be involved in the killing. A warrant has been issued for his arrest on charges of violating parole in a burglary conviction, police said.

For Magdalena Lupercio, who still sobs uncontrollably at the mention of her grandson's name, the disposition of Ruth's case has left many unanswered questions. For the past 15 months, she has searched without avail for official explanations of why the county trusted her grandson's care to a mother who court records show had admitted her heroin addiction and who was suspected of abusing her child. The grandmother had already won legal custody of Ruth's first child, a 4-year-old boy. The fathers of both boys are unknown to family members, they said.

"I've asked the county to give us copies of their records but they refused," Magdalena Lupercio, 52, said in an interview last week after her daughter's sentencing. "We've called and left messages, but no one ever returned our calls. Then they told us that Isaac's records are private and we can't see them."

Court documents show that Ruth Lupercio was under investigation for three incidents of child abuse when social worker Jackie Waltman--over the strenuous objections of Magdalena Lupercio--informed Ruth last June 25 that the county could not prevent her from taking her son with her. A month earlier, the grandmother had twice taken Isaac to the hospital after he returned from outings with his mother with severe bruises on his face and head.

A Los Angeles police detective working the special child abuse unit was the first official to respond to hospital reports of possible child abuse. The detective, Jim Brown, said he recommended that children's services petition the courts on behalf of Magdalena Lupercio and request that she be given custody of the child.

Brown said he did not have sufficient evidence to place the child in the county's protective custody, but warned the grandmother two weeks before the child was taken that Ruth should not have the child while custody was being decided. At the time of Isaac's death, the Department of Children's Services had not initiated the petition nor had Magdalena Lupercio completed the necessary paper work for custody.

Detective Said to Keep Child

"The detective told me not to let Ruthie take the baby under any circumstances," Lupercio recalled. " 'Don't let that baby out of your sight,' he said. He said he was sure that we would be able to win custody. But he said we should be patient because it would take some time.

"But the social worker told Ruth that she could have her baby. I told her 'Do you know what you're saying? If something happens to that baby, who's going to be responsible? You know my daughter can't take care of him.'

"I told her that I wash my hands clean, that if anything happened to that child, it would be her responsibility."

The Department of Children's Services has refused to comment on many aspects of the case, citing the need for confidentiality in cases involving juveniles. But Mary Hayes, a spokeswoman for the county agency, said the social worker had little choice but to apprise the mother of her rights while the investigation was continuing.

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