Four-year-old Maria Isabel Cervantes never knew the father who abandoned her before she was born.
Last November, the little girl lost her mother, who was killed in a drive-by shooting, an innocent victim caught in a cross-fire. Maria later was placed in the care of her aunt. Then, last Thursday, Maria lost her own life. The next day, officers arrested the aunt, Arcelia Chavez, 47, after she carried the child's bruised body into the Los Angeles Police Department's North Hollywood station.
The unemployed North Hollywood woman pleaded not guilty Tuesday to felony counts of murder and child assault causing death. She is being held in jail in lieu of $2-million bail. If convicted, Chavez faces 25 years to life in prison, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Andrea Thompson.
LAPD Lt. Dan Mulrenin said Chavez hit her niece with her hands after becoming angry that the child had wet her pants and spit up some food. Thompson said Chavez beat the child while bathing her.
Chavez hit the 3-foot, 6-inch child so hard that the woman bruised her own hands, Mulrenin said. "It's just hideous," the lieutenant added. "How does a 4-year-old defend herself against an adult?"
The police said Chavez had no criminal record or known history of abusing children. Chavez became Maria's guardian after the county Department of Children and Family Services visited her apartment in the 6800 block of Ben Street in North Hollywood and "found it fit for the child," LAPD Det. Alicia Ibarra said.
A family services spokeswoman said the agency did not have jurisdiction over Maria after she was placed with Chavez, her paternal aunt. "In general, the department will not step in if the family is handling custody matters," Patricia Matesic said. "We don't step in unless we have to."
Maria's father is believed to live in Mexico, the police said. Chavez has been estranged from husband for 15 years, investigators said.
She shared her apartment with an adult son and daughter and a granddaughter, also 4. "She looked like a real nice woman," said neighbor Albert Torres, 18.
Detectives said the child was killed sometime Thursday. Chavez wrapped her body in a blanket and brought it to the station about 10 p.m. Friday, the police said. "I wouldn't have wanted to be the desk officers when the child was brought in," Mulrenin said.
The 1995 beating death of a North Hollywood boy led to a state law that requires welfare officials to give more weight to a child's safety than to family relationships when selecting a caretaker.
Lance Helms, 2 1/2, was killed by his father, who had a long criminal record, after a judge had placed the boy back in David Helms' custody.