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Couple Held in Beating Death of 3-Year-Old

Great-grandmother and neighbors describe their helplessness as father disciplined the boy.

September 22, 2003|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

OAKLAND — Sadie Catchings shakes her head as she describes the beatings, how she listened helplessly from the next room as her 23-year-old live-in grandson struck his own 3-year-old son, the bright little boy everyone knew as "Cha-Cha."

Residents in the middle-class East Oakland neighborhood also heard Chazarus Hill Jr.'s cries and saw the father jerking the boy by the arm outside their home. But while they say they repeatedly called police and Child Protective Services, the child was never removed from the home.

Catchings said her great-grandson was beaten when he made mistakes counting numbers or reciting his ABCs. "I got on my grandson one day, and he told me just to go back into my room," Catchings said Sunday. "He told me he was going to raise his son himself, for me to leave him be."

About 2 a.m. Saturday, Cha-Cha was taken to nearby San Leandro Hospital. It is not clear whether the boy was dead on arrival or whether he died a short time later. The boy's father, Chazarus Hill, is in custody, along with Kymberly Ford-Hill, his wife of five months, and they are due to be arraigned today or Tuesday, Mayor Jerry Brown confirmed late Sunday.

A social service spokesman could not be reached for comment, but Brown said he would look into the allegations that the agency was not responsive to neighbors' repeated calls. "There's a lot of bureaucracy in Alameda County," he said, "a lot of excuses and rationalizations."

Brown said Oakland police were looking into Hill's criminal background.

But the child's mother and others are asking how the alleged child abuse could have gone on so long without being stopped.

"The police told me my baby was badly beaten," said Tyrinda Brown, 23, who lives with a cousin in West Los Angeles. "They said he was like a boxer who'd been all battered and bruised up. He was such a sweet smart boy. I don't understand how this could happen in life."

The death was Oakland's 94th murder in 2003, a year that has seen the city's homicide rate rise nearly 10% from last year. But this death, that of a boy who was just learning to talk, has cast a pall over a neighborhood of tidy homes where residents say they felt helpless to help save the boy's life.

"You'd hear the yelling and the boy crying, and you knew he was being beaten. You'd wonder if there was really any reason," neighbor Lisa Cartolano said. "But there was no logical reason. He was just a 3-year-old little boy."

Brown said that her son had lived with her in Southern California until last September, when he was picked up by his father and not returned. She said she had repeatedly tried to get Hill to return the child.

Catchings said she cared for Cha-Cha for a year. "He was the smartest little boy," she said.

Hill, who was unemployed, would leave the boy with his great-grandmother when he left early in the morning and returned late at night. Then, about three months ago, Catchings said, he decided that he was going to take a more active role in his son's upbringing.

Neighbors said they complained of people coming and going from the house at all hours. The father began taking the boy away each morning. When they returned after midnight, Catchings said, she heard the boy cry, wanting to go and kiss his great-grandmother goodnight. But she said Hill refused to let him.

She also said she saw Hill often slap the boy's head in greeting.

Said a cousin, Cecelia Thomas: "Sadie was not aware of anything that would be criminal. She would have called the police. She loved that little boy."

But Brown was critical of the family for not calling the police. "A lot of people would rather do nothing than call them. It's a conspiracy of silence," he said.

But neighbors did call. One man, who asked not to be named, said he called Child Protective Services four months ago. The neighbor said he visited Catchings when the social worker visited. He said the worker asked the boy in front of his father whether he was being beaten, and the child denied it.

"There were so many warning signs," said neighbor Charlie Cartolano. "As neighbors, we didn't turn the other cheek. We tried to intervene."

Things got worse last Monday, when Catchings told neighbors that the boy had been struck with a tree branch. Another neighbor, who asked not to be named, said she called Child Protective Services and was told that they could only come to the house before 5 p.m. "I told them, 'I didn't know child abuse was a 9-to-5 crime.' "

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