A homeless man pleaded not guilty Monday in the death of his 3-month old son, whose body was discovered weeks after Los Angeles County social workers interviewed the father at a skid row mission and decided he could care for his child.
Mikeal Abdul Wah-hab Sr., 50, was charged March 27 with assault on a child, two months after a Times article highlighted the unsolved death along with efforts by Supervisor Gloria Molina to press detectives and prosecutors to resolve the case.
Prosecutors alleged that Wah-hab killed his son and left the body in a Monterey Park motel room in November 2005. County social workers had arranged for the father and son to stay at the motel, giving them a temporary housing voucher.
According to coroner's officials, the baby -- Mikeal III -- was killed by a blunt head injury, caused either by impact or shaking.
Though the child's death drew little public attention when it occurred, the case shook the county's social service agencies and led to sweeping changes in the way social workers deal with children on skid row.
"I think most of us are elated that he's been caught and charged," Molina said Monday of Wah-hab. "People who harm their children in this fashion should be held accountable."
Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley told Molina last year that homicide investigators had not determined who was responsible, because several people had access to the child before his death. But Sheriff's Det. Jeff Leslie said Monday that additional interviews conducted in recent months had confirmed that Wah-hab was the sole caretaker of his son when the infant died.
By filing assault charges, prosecutors said they do not have to prove Wah-hab intentionally killed his son, only that his actions led to the baby's death. The most serious assault charge carries a sentence of 25 years to life in prison.
Wah-hab, a California native, has spent long periods of his life behind bars for grand theft, drug possession for sale, burglary and robbery.
Deputy Alternate Public Defender Lee Ellis Rosen, who represented Wah-hab at his arraignment hearing, declined to comment.
The child's mother, Tanya Stepney, is in jail on an unrelated charge. Detectives said she is not a suspect in the death.
The infant's maternal aunt, Tracey Cradle, said she was overjoyed at news of the prosecution.
"I'm just so thankful that the baby can finally get some justice," she said.
Cradle, who adopted the child's older brother and four half-siblings after they were removed by the state from parental custody, said she has been trying to scrape together the money to send the child's ashes from the county morgue to her home outside Seattle.
"I really hope that I can bring him home and put him to rest," she said.
Baby Mikeal was nearly 12 weeks old Nov. 1, 2005, when his father carried him into the Midnight Mission in downtown Los Angeles. He told staff at the shelter that his wife had abandoned them.
A team of social workers set up to help families on skid row interviewed Wah-hab at the mission. They examined the infant and concluded he was well-fed, healthy and safe and that his father appeared eager and able to care for him.
But social workers did not check whether the baby's father or mother had a record of child abuse or neglect. In fact, the county had removed the couple's previous son in 2002 after the newborn tested positive for drugs. Baby Mikeal's mother has had at least 11 children removed from her care, including another boy earlier this year.
In the wake of the death, Molina urged the county to take a tougher approach toward parents on skid row. She pushed social service agencies to provide every child living in the area with a full risk assessment. The goal, she said, should be to get families out of skid row within 24 hours.
Last year, the county's skid row team helped more than 200 downtown homeless families find emergency housing. Fifteen children were taken from their parents' custody as a result of the team's work.