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Suspect Denies She Shut Off Ventilator

July 27, 2001|GENE MADDAUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Maria Trujillo admits that she visited Cipriana Santibanez's hospital room in Upland in the early morning hours of July 17.

Trujillo says she kissed Santibanez's forehead and told her friend, who was suffering from cancer, that she hoped she felt better soon.

But Trujillo denies she ever touched the ventilator that was briefly turned off 24 hours before Santibanez died.

"I didn't do anything," Trujillo said Thursday at the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga. From behind a glass barrier, she spoke quickly and confidently, contending that police made a mistake.

Trujillo, 46, has been charged with the attempted murder of Santibanez, 66.

Nurses at San Antonio Community Hospital say they went into Santibanez's room at 3 a.m. July 17 and found that her ventilator and its alarm had been turned down to zero. The patient was having difficulty breathing.

They were able to revive Santibanez, but she died a day later. An autopsy revealed lung cancer to be the cause of death, San Bernardino County coroner's spokesman Randy Emon said. But doctors will have to wait for the results of tissue studies to know whether the interruption of the ventilator's functioning hastened the death.

Trujillo said she drove to the hospital after her husband returned home from work with the car about 11:30 p.m. A number of other family members were at the hospital, she said, adding that her visit was supervised by a nurse.

"I was only in there for five minutes," she said, adding that she was home in Ontario by 1:30 a.m.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Nancy Cooper said Trujillo asked nurses specific questions about how the ventilator worked. Then she went into the hospital room, spent time alone with Santibanez and left quickly, Cooper said.

Nurses said they checked on Santibanez almost immediately and found the ventilator off, Cooper said.

Trujillo said she asked one nurse why the ventilator was making a noise and was told the sound was normal. She said she did not ask any other questions.

Hospital spokesman Jim Anderson said Trujillo was able to get in to see Santibanez by telling nurses she was the patient's sister. Trujillo said she did not lie about who she was and was never asked.

Upland Police Sgt. Ken Bonson said he was unaware that Trujillo says she was home at 3 a.m., when the ventilator was turned off.

"I haven't heard anything about anyone giving her an alibi," he said. "There was never a dispute she was there."

Trujillo theorized that a nurse accidentally turned the machine off, but Bonson said it would be difficult to accidentally deactivate both the ventilator and the alarm.

Trujillo said Thursday that she was not worried about being convicted and had heard that she would be charged with the lesser crime of elder abuse.

Cooper said she had not considered a lesser charge or made a plea offer but might change the charge from attempted murder without premeditation to attempted murder with premeditation. The former carries a maximum sentence of nine years in state prison; the latter, life with the possibility of parole.

Trujillo said her biggest concern was making bail and being released. "This is not Disneyland," she said. "I've never been in trouble before. I never pictured myself in here."

Superior Court Judge J. Michael Gunn lowered bail from $500,000 to $250,000 on Wednesday. Deputy Public Defender Carolle LeMonnier had asked that she be released. On Thursday, Trujillo's husband, Anthony, said he was trying to make bail.

Santibanez's funeral was held Thursday, and Trujillo said she was disappointed she couldn't attend. Her longtime friend Lorraine Morales worries that Trujillo doesn't appreciate what she's up against.

"I think she doesn't feel it's as serious as it is," Morales said.

She said that she urged Trujillo to hire a private attorney but that the family cannot afford it.

Trujillo said she hoped the charges would be dropped once detectives spoke with her stepmother, who is Santibanez's sister and who she alleged was most responsible for blaming her.

Bonson confirmed that police spoke with the stepmother but said it was only for background. The woman did not blame Trujillo and wasn't even at the hospital, the sergeant said.

"I think it's a pretty solid case," he said.

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