For two years, authorities said, a mother subjected her son to what veteran detectives described as shocking, ritualistic abuse.
The 5-year-old was hung by his hands and wrists from a door jamb and beaten with some sort of leash or chain, police said. He was routinely denied food and water, burned with cigarettes on his body and genitals, and left to sit in his own urine and feces.
In the past few weeks, his hands were held to a hot stove, according to Capt. Fabian Lizarraga, causing injuries that may leave them permanently disfigured.
Starkeisha Brown, the boy's 24-year-old mother, allegedly committed the acts for about two years without detection -- until a bizarre series of events last week.
"It causes you to question the humanity of some people," Assistant Police Chief Earl Paysinger said about the abuse. "Whether they have a heart or a soul."
It started with an anonymous tip to the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services saying there was a problem at the South Los Angeles apartment near 110th and Figueroa streets.
On Monday, June 9, Brown and her live-in girlfriend, Krystal Matthews, 19, were ordered to a children services office along with the boy to discuss the allegation of abuse.
Instead, the pair left the abused boy with a complete stranger and attended the meeting with a healthy-looking 4-year-old they said was Brown's son, along with a girl of about 6, authorities said. Police said they are trying to determine those children's identities.
They told the stranger, " 'Watch him for us.' They said 'We'll be right back,' " Lizarraga said.
While the women were being interviewed, the stranger who had been asked to watch the boy started asking people in the neighborhood what he should do with the 5-year-old, who looked sickly and injured. Eventually someone called authorities.
Officials got word of the boy's condition as they were interviewing Brown and Matthews and began asking more pointed questions and challenging the pair's story, Lizarraga said.
Halfway through the interview the two women sprinted from the office, abandoning the 4-year-old and his sister at the office, police said.
"They realize that no one is buying their ruse," said Lt. Vincent Neglia of the LAPD's Abused Child Unit, and "they bug out."
Lizarraga said it was fortunate that the stranger sought help. He "had the sense that something was not right, that the situation he had been placed in was not right," the captain said.
Had Brown brought in her own son, the social worker would have seen a child with a pot belly suggestive of severe malnutrition, burns across his body in various stages of healing, bruises, and badly damaged and burned hands, Neglia said. Some scars appeared to be fairly old.
"This wasn't just one big beating," Neglia said. "You can tell by the different stages of injuries that this was prolonged."
Police said the most severe malnourishment occurred in the last two to three months.
Authorities launched a hunt for Brown and Matthews while authorities took the child to a hospital where he remains.
The boy was in guarded condition through last week, but is beginning to show signs of improvement, authorities said.
Matthews was arrested Friday and Brown turned herself in to police on Saturday.
They were arrested on multiple charges, including suspicion of torture, and the pair are scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday.
Both women have a history of crime and violence. According to court documents, Matthews was sentenced to three years probation earlier this year for assault with a deadly weapon.
The boy's mother served a total of two and a half years in prison for two separate convictions: one for felony robbery of an elderly woman in 2003 and later for petty theft, when she and another woman stole a bracelet and other items from a Macy's department store.
Most recently, Brown was incarcerated from March 2006 to January 2007. During that period, the boy was in the custody of relatives, authorities said.
Police said the bulk of the abuse appeared to begin when Brown was released on probation.
Neglia said that Brown's probation officer recently had a hard time locating her because she was not living at her listed address.
Children services officials, citing confidentiality rules, would not disclose why the boy was returned to his mother after she was released from prison and whether appropriate checks on the boy's welfare were made, given that she was on probation.
DCFS spokesperson Stuart Riskin said there were about 160,000 calls each year to the agency's child protection hotline.
In the South Los Angeles neighborhood where Brown and Matthews lived with the boy, neighbors said they were shocked to hear of the abuse and some said they were angered it had not been reported earlier.
"Everybody's furious," said Katherine Irvin, who recently moved into an adjacent house she said was abandoned by a group of men. "They must've heard something."
Detectives said Monday that they were still trying to determine why a mother would so badly abuse her son.
"So far we have not come up with the answer," Lizarraga said. "Our victim was not on anybody's radar, either law enforcement or DCFS. He wasn't in the system; there was no recent [reported] abuse that could be seen," he said.
Since reports of the abuse became public, dozens of people have called police and social service agencies looking for ways to help the boy, authorities said. One elderly woman called police to see if she could donate her most recent Social Security check, authorities said.
Those interested in contributing can contact Michael Wrice with the DCFS at 213-739-6202.