HAGERSTOWN, Md. (AP) — A Maryland woman has pleaded guilty to first-degree child abuse in the beating death of her 9-year-old son over a missing piece of birthday cake.
Prosecutors agreed to drop a second-degree murder charge and seek a sentence of no more than 20 years for 27-year-old Oriana Garcia, who appeared Wednesday in a Hagerstown courtroom.
Garcia’s son Jack was handcuffed to a chair by Garcia’s brother and pummeled by her boyfriend, who suspected Jack of eating cake meant for his 2-year-old daughter.
Police say Garcia allowed the abuse and sent away an ambulance as Jack lay dying.
The boyfriend, Robert Wilson, is serving 30 years for second-degree murder.
Jacob Barajas, 24, is awaiting sentencing for first-degree child abuse. He faces up to 15 years in prison. The maximum penalty is 25 years, but prosecutors agreed to a lesser sentence and dropped six other charges, including second-degree murder, in the plea deal.
Barajas pleaded guilty to the child abuse charge in September of 2016. During that court proceeding, prosecutors and defense attorney Stephen Sachs revealed details about the months of abuse Jack endured after his mother moved them and her brother from Goleta, California, to Hagerstown, about 70 miles (113 kilometers) west of Baltimore, to live with a man she had met online.
Garcia didn’t enroll Jack in school in Maryland, partly because his legal custodian was Garcia’s mother, who lived in another state, Sachs said. He said Jack’s father had never seen the boy.
Barajas, a 10th-grade dropout, had lived with his sister and nephew for years, caring for Jack while Garcia worked in retail. But when they moved in with Wilson, a restaurant cook with a history of violence, all three fell subject to his strict household rules.
Even at his sentencing, Wilson complained about people in the apartment “not doing what they were supposed to.”
Wilson enforced discipline by controlling food servings, Sachs said. Jack, described in an autopsy report as thin, began taking and hiding food, according to lawyers for both sides.
Stealing food brought physical punishment. Garcia told police she allowed her son to be handcuffed, sometimes for hours, and that Wilson had slapped the boy, hit him in the leg with a bamboo sword and sparred with him in the weeks before he died.
On the day Jack was fatally beaten, “I think he was just hungry and Wilson went off his rocker on that,” Sachs said.
The beating followed the disappearance of a piece of cake at a birthday party for Wilson’s visiting 2-year-old daughter, according to police reports. Another child told investigators she heard Wilson yelling, “Cough up the cake,” as Jack cried, “No! Stop!”
Sachs said Barajas may have felt helpless to stop the beating.
“I think they were scared to death of him,” he said.