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Malnourished Girl Found Locked in Closet; Parents Held

October 25, 1990|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN BERNARDINO — Police have arrested the parents of a malnourished 12-year-old San Bernardino girl found locked in a filthy bedroom closet that was infested with cockroaches and kept latched with a nail.

Joseph and Sandra Sauceda, who have six other children and were described by police as unemployed, are accused of confining their daughter in closets off and on over the last decade. They were being held Wednesday in lieu of $50,000 bail each at the San Bernardino County Jail.

Acting on a tip received by a local child abuse hot line, officers confronted the Saucedas Monday evening on the front porch of their rented home in the 100 block of West Orange Street.

Moments later, police discovered the barefoot child in a 4-foot-by-5-foot closet lighted by a single bulb, littered with human waste and fast-food wrappers and crawling with insects, Sgt. Jenifer Kauffman said. The child wore a tattered, oversized sweat suit that was soaked with urine, and had bruises from beatings allegedly administered by her father.

"There are thousands of child abuse cases in this country, and I've seen hundreds myself," said Cpl. Steve Filson, one of two officers who discovered the girl. "But I've never seen anything like this. It was disgusting. . . . Her little world was 20 square feet."

Kauffman said that on this occasion, the girl allegedly had been locked in the closet for one month. She was shy, withdrawn and thin, and appeared to have developed physically to "about the size of a 7-year-old," Kauffman said. The Saucedas allowed their daughter out of the closet just once each night, apparently to use the bathroom, police said.

On Wednesday, the San Bernardino County district attorney's office charged Joseph Sauceda, 33, with one count of felony child endangerment with great bodily injury and one count of inflicting corporal injury on a child, also a felony. He faces more than 10 years in state prison if convicted on both counts.

Sandra Sauceda, 31, is charged with one count of felony child endangerment and could receive a nine-year state prison sentence.

The daughter, whose name was not released, and her six siblings, who range in age from 2 months to 15 years, were turned over to officials from San Bernardino County Child Protective Services. Police said the other six children appeared to have been raised normally, although they were not attending school.

Neighbors were stunned by the allegations that a girl was imprisoned in the Saucedas' home, a neatly kept residence framed by trees and carefully trimmed hedges.

Several neighbors said they were aware of a seventh child but were told by the other children that the girl was living with relatives.

"We never saw her, we had no idea what was going on in there," said Joann Banchetto, who has lived next door to the Saucedas since they moved to Orange Street about eight months ago.

Another next-door neighbor, Lorna Finley, said she saw an "extremely thin, sad-looking" girl of about 12 at the family's home on two or three occasions earlier this year.

"I figured it was just some relative from out of town staying there, but it was her," said Finley, 29.

While shocked by the allegations, neighbors said that, if true, that would help explain why the Saucedas kept the curtains closed and never allowed visitors inside their home.

"Even when they talked to you it was only with the door cracked open," Banchetto said. "I never thought much about it before."

Police said that the Saucedas also kept their daughter confined in homes they occupied previously in the Inland Empire. Kauffman said officers had responded to tips about possible abuse at the Saucedas' homes in the past, but found no evidence warranting further investigation.

Officer Filson said opening the closet door to find the youngster "in the most inhuman conditions imaginable" was one of the most difficult moments of his 13-year career.

"It was just sickening what she was forced to endure," Filson said. "What was surprising is that despite that environment, she was such a bright, sweet girl, just a little doll. . . ."

The San Bernardino Police Officers Assn. has established a trust fund to buy clothes for the child.

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