LAS CRUCES – The remnants of 15-month-old Uriah Vasquez Ordoñez’s body arrived at the Office of the Medical Investigator in 19 brown paper bags and a Tupperware container in August 2004.
Sixty-five pieces of the toddler’s skull. Nine tooth fragments. Fifteen pieces of vertebral bones. Forty-six rib fragments. Twenty-nine pieces of bones from his arms and legs.
That’s all investigators could recover from the site where Freddy Ordoñez burned his son’s lifeless body in the desert near Oñate High School on July 30, 2004.
The next morning, Ordoñez, whom police had already arrested for killing his son, led investigators to the site where he cremated the boy’s body off Pecan Lane and Porter Drive. Once there, Ordoñez dropped to his knees, made the sign of the cross and prayed.
Ordoñez told investigators he spent hours fanning the fire to cremate his son “for the body to be free,” one detective’s report states. He described throwing his son’s ashes in the air.
Investigators combed through the mixed dirt and ash with screens and shovels, recovering the 164 bone fragments.
Ordoñez said nothing when LCPD detectives asked how Uriah died. They asked again. “It was stupid,” he replied.
Detectives learned Ordoñez was watching Uriah earlier in the week while his girlfriend Cecilia Vasquez, the boy’s mother, worked at Subway.
Uriah refused to eat. Ordoñez cuffed Uriah on the head, picked him up by his ears and threw him onto a couch, according to police reports. Vasquez told police Ordoñez had tossed Uriah into a bathtub.
Ordoñez was often rough with Uriah and never believed the boy was his, Vasquez told police.
Being under the care of men who lack emotional attachment or caregivers of either gender who don’t understand child development increase the risk of fatal child abuse, according to the National Center for Child Death Review.
Uriah is not the only child to die from abuse or neglect in Southern New Mexico in recent years and whose case mirrored those factors.
There was Isaiah Lawrence Jimenez. Daniel Medina. Alizandra Jasso. Brianna Lopez.
Their mothers were at work, in jail, asleep or running errands while boyfriends, stepparents or other relatives killed them.
New Mexico has consistently had one of the highest rates of fatal child abuse and neglect in the country in recent years. For four of the past five years, New Mexico has been among the eight states with the highest number of per-capita child abuse and neglect deaths. In 2010 and 2008, New Mexico had the second and third highest rate of deaths in the country, respectively, with 19 children dying from abuse and neglect in each of those years. The state is also at the bottom of the pack in child well-being, ranking 49th or 50th on a national Kids Count study the past three years.
There’s no cure-all for addressing the complex factors that lead to fatal child abuse, but experts say making quality child care more affordable for families would give them better options than leaving children with unreliable caregivers, like Ordoñez.
Yet full-time care for a child age 4 or younger averages $6,000 to $6,800 each year in New Mexico, or about what it costs for a year’s undergraduate tuition at New Mexico State University.
For many families struggling financially, the cost often puts such care out of reach, said Veronica C. Garcia, director of the nonprofit advocacy group New Mexico Voices for Children. Advocates like Garcia want the state to make child care affordable by expanding subsidies for low-income families.
Few studies focus on the risk factors for fatal abuse, but the National Center for Child Death Review, which trains state agencies to review child deaths, lists a lack of suitable child care as one of the major factors putting children at risk of dying from abuse or neglect. Reliable child care ensures a trained caregiver is looking after a child while allowing parents to work or run errands, relieving the burden of social isolation.
Many states with consistently low rates of fatal child abuse and neglect and positive rankings in child well-being offer at least some child-care assistance to families earning double the poverty level. The federal poverty level is currently $15,730 for a family of two, or $23,850 for a family of four.
New Hampshire offers child-care assistance for families making up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level. That state ranked fourth in child well-being this year and had a fatal child abuse rate of 0.36 deaths per 1,000 children in 2012. New Mexico’s rate was nearly 10 times higher: 3.11 deaths per 1,000 children.
North Dakota, which also ranks low in fatal child abuse and high in child well-being, offers assistance for families making up to nearly three times the federal poverty level.
New Mexico used to offer assistance to families making up to twice the poverty level before state budget cuts in 2010.
Currently, new families can sign up for the program if they earn below 150 percent of the poverty level. If a family receives the subsidy and then their income rises to above 150 percent, they can stay in the program as long as they earn below 200 percent, Children, Youth and Families Department spokesman Henry Varela said.
About 750 families are on a waiting list to receive subsidies, Varela said.
New Mexico In Depth and the Las Cruces Sun-News examined hundreds of pages of police reports, prison records, autopsy findings and news articles on 14 fatal child abuse and neglect cases in Doña, Luna and Grant counties from 2001 to 2013.
The investigation found many children were fatally injured under the watch of a stepparent, mother’s boyfriend, distant relative or a father who doubted whether the child was truly his. Other male caregivers appeared to not understand a child’s development, violently punishing young children who wet their pants or shaking babies who wouldn’t stop crying.
Nearly two-thirds of the 19 people convicted of killing the children were men. That portion rises even higher if you discount the three women who were convicted of doing nothing to stop others’ abuse rather than directly harming their children themselves. Of the adults whose actions directly killed the children, three-quarters were men.
Nearly half of the men in the 14 cases were not related to the children they killed. Two who were fathers, Ordoñez and Andrew Walters, believed the children they killed weren’t biologically theirs, according to police reports and then-district attorney Susana Martinez, whose office prosecuted both cases.
Ordoñez and Vasquez declined requests to speak with NMID and the Sun-News. The details of their and Uriah’s story have been gathered from police reports, autopsy findings, prison records and news articles.
After Uriah’s death, Vasquez told police Ordoñez never loved the boy. Because she got pregnant with Uriah so quickly – the day Ordoñez was let out of prison – Ordoñez always questioned whether Uriah was his, Vasquez said, according to LCPD reports. Unlike their daughter, the boy didn’t look like Ordoñez, she said.
Ordoñez was rough and impatient with Uriah, Vasquez said. She once sent the boy to his grandmother’s for a few days, hoping time apart would ease tension. Ordoñez continued to watch Uriah while Vasquez worked.
Garcia, of Voices for Children, wants the state to restore subsidies for all families earning up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level so more parents can have reliable, certified caregivers watch their children. Even that would fall short of what states like North Dakota and New Hampshire offer families.
CYFD will consider seeking “incremental increases” to income eligibility as the budget allows, Varela said.
There’s no way to know if reliable child care would have saved Uriah, but being under Ordoñez’s watch proved fatal for the toddler.
Vasquez, then 21, went to her job at Subway that Tuesday in July 2004, leaving Uriah and their 2-year-old daughter with Ordoñez.
Ordoñez called Vasquez at work. Something was wrong with Uriah, he said. Come home.
Vasquez planned to head right back to work, but she found Uriah “limp.” “His eyes were not focusing on anything,” she later told investigators, according to police reports. Bruises covered his ears and his neck. A scrape ran up one of his legs. A bump rose from the back of his head. Uriah couldn’t hold himself up. He threw up all night.
Vasquez wanted to take Uriah to the doctor, but Ordoñez refused. He reminded Vasquez of another time doctors said Uriah’s vomiting was a symptom of a virus that needed to run its course.
By Thursday, Vasquez thought Uriah seemed better. She returned to work. Ordoñez called again, saying the boy was twitching.
Vasquez returned home to find Ordoñez giving Uriah CPR.
She urged him to call 911 but he refused, saying they would get in trouble if they took the baby to the hospital with bruises. She tried to call several times but Ordoñez hid the phone.
“He kept telling her that he was already gone, there was nothing that could be done and they couldn’t call the cops,” the LCPD report says. “She said he told her Uriah was their son and they could bury him the way they wanted to, they didn’t need anyone to tell them what to do.”
Vasquez’s boss later told investigators Ordoñez had previously physically abused Vasquez, according to a police report.
Vasquez lay with Uriah and tried to comfort him as he struggled to breathe. His breaths grew further and further apart, then stopped.
Children at risk
Other deaths of Southern New Mexico children illustrate the dangers of leaving kids with unreliable caregivers.
Isaiah Lawrence Jimenez wouldn’t stop crying one night in 2009, according to sheriff’s reports. His aunt’s boyfriend, Daniel Holguin, tossed him in the air, caught him by a leg, spanked him and suffocated him, Holguin’s daughter later told investigators. Holguin was watching the 4-month-old while his girlfriend worked. Isaiah’s mother was in jail.Holguinwas sentenced to nine years in prison.
Six-month-old Daniel Medina died in 2009 while under the watch of his 22-year-old step-grandfather, Alfredo Luis Davila, who had married the baby’s 38-year-old grandmother. Davila said the baby fell, but medical investigators found head injuries inconsistent with a fall and ruled his death a homicide, according to sheriff’s and autopsy reports. Though charged in Daniel’s death, Davila fled while out on bond and is still a fugitive.
Several studies have found children living with unrelated adults are more likely to die from child abuse injuries than children living with two biological parents. One study found that risk to be 50 times higher for children living with unrelated adults. Children living only with their mother faced no increased risk, study co-author Patricia Schnitzer, said.
Evolutionary biologists call it the “Cinderella effect,” a controversial theory that care-giving animals focus their time and effort on their biological children rather than the offspring of “reproductive rivals,” ensuring the parents’ own survival and successful reproduction, according to one study on the topic.
Schnitzer hasn’t researched why children living with non-biological adults are at greater risk than others, but she expects it’s more complicated than the Cinderella effect lets on.
Children killed from abuse and neglect are often under a year old, said Schnitzer, a registered nurse and University of Missouri professor who researches child abuse and neglect. The mother is not with the biological father and maybe has another man as her boyfriend, Schnitzer said.
“The way I think about them is households in chaos, that have a lot of social and financial stressors…” she said. “And that puts them at risk of a lot of things, including child abuse.”
Not all male caregivers who killed children in Southern New Mexico in recent years were unrelated to the children or doubted their paternity. More than half were the children’s fathers.
They include Michael Cuhen, then 21, who put his son to sleep on a bed without rails and awoke to find the child burned to death against a nearby space heater. And Robert Flores, then 23, who left his 4-month-old daughter Kalynne in a laundry basket with unfolded clothes while he went to the store. She suffocated to death. Flores is out of prison pending appeal.
Not the end
Then there is Ordoñez.
After Uriah took his last breaths, the boy’s parents laid the baby in his crib and covered him with a blanket. Then they got into their car with their young daughter, drove to the store and bought Smirnoff vodka, drinking and driving around town. They stopped at two other stores to buy beer. Vasquez “just started chugging them, not knowing what else to do,” a police report states. They also smoked marijuana.
Vasquez later went to sleep on the couch in their living room. Uriah’s body lay in his crib in the bedroom. She didn’t want to see it.
She awoke at 6 a.m. to find Ordoñez and Uriah gone.
Ordoñez returned later, smelling of smoke. He told Vasquez to pack clothes; they were leaving for Mexico. Police officers stopped by the house. Vasquez’s boss had called to report a domestic dispute after Vasquez had called her, worried. Ordoñez threatened to kill Vasquez and their daughter if she responded to the officers, according to the police report. The police left without making contact with the family.
Ordoñez and Vasquez tossed belongings into dumpsters around the city before stopping at a motel on Picacho Avenue. There, Ordoñez saw police officers and ran. They caught and arrested him, though the reason for his arrest isn’t clear in police reports.
No one would know of Uriah’s death until Vasquez went to her boss’ home after Ordoñez’s arrest. Vasquez arrived at the house trembling and crying, saying she thought her baby was dead or injured. Her boss called police to report the child missing.
Medical investigators couldn’t determine the cause of Uriah’s death because so few pieces of his body remained. They ruled it a homicide based on Ordoñez’s and Vasquez’s statements and their decision to not seek medical help for the boy.
A judge in 2006 sentenced Ordoñez to 22 years in prison for child abuse resulting in death and Vasquez to 18 years for the same charge. He’s scheduled to be released in 2024 with credit for good time served. She’s scheduled to be released in 2019.
Despite New Mexico increasing penalties for child killers more than a decade ago in response to deaths like Uriah’s, the tide of children dying from abuse and neglect hasn’t ended. After Uriah’s death in 2004, four more children died under the watch of abusive caregivers over the next five years in Doña Ana County alone.