Prosecutors have added conspiracy charges against the mother and grandparents accused of murder in the death of a Spring Valley girl alleged to have been starved and tortured.
A newly amended criminal complaint filed this week lists nearly 700 overt acts prosecutors say were committed in furtherance of the alleged conspiracy, including routine deprivation of food, water and bathroom trips.
Prosecutors allege the abuse led to the death of 11-year-old Arabella McCormack.
In the newly filed charges, the District Attorney’s Office alleges the girl’s parents and grandparents “worked as a team to create an environment of torment, pain, suffering, violence, and fear” for Arabella and her two younger sisters, ages 6 and 7 when Arabella died.
Prosecutors also allege the three sisters were hit with a belt or paddle.
Leticia McCormack and her parents, Stanley and Adella Tom, each face 46 years to life in prison if convicted of all charges in the 2022 death of Arabella, who first moved into the McCormack home with her sisters while in foster care. They were later adopted by the McCormacks.
Few details of the case have come out in criminal court, and the newly filed charges offer the most detailed account yet of what prosecutors allege happened in the home.
Months before Arabella died, McCormack allegedly told her father to give Arabella “no chances” when she ate her cereal, that “her spoon should not be heaping” and “should be almost level,” according to the complaint filed by prosecutors. Two days later the girl was forced to exercise while wearing plastic bags and wet clothes, according to the complaint. She was days later smacked by her father for “overloading” her utensil and “looking around” while eating,” the complaint alleges.
The 11-year-old girl was so emaciated when she died, prosecutors say, she weighed less than she did when she was 5 years old. She also had cuts, bruises and still-healing fractures.
Arabella was unresponsive when paramedics arrived at her family’s Spring Valley home in August 2022, and she died at a hospital. Later that day, when sheriff’s detectives approached her adoptive father, Brian McCormack, the 19-year veteran Border Patrol agent went into his pickup, grabbed a gun and fatally shot himself.
Leticia McCormack, 50, and her parents were arrested and arraigned in El Cajon Superior Court more than two months after the child died. Brian McCormack is included as a co-conspirator in several overt acts spelled out in the criminal complaint, and prosecutors have said if he were alive, he would also be facing charges.
Attorneys for the defendants either did not respond or declined a request for comment on the case Wednesday.
The three defendants have pleaded not guilty, and all remained jailed. Leticia McCormack and Stanley Tom, 76, were previously charged with murder and had been held without bail.
Adella Tom had faced charges of child abuse and torture, but prosecutors added a murder charge to her case earlier this week. Judge Kathleen Lewis ordered she be held without bail. Tom’s attorney declined comment on the case specifics but said his client is “entitled to the presumption of innocence pending trial.” Regarding her bail, the defense attorney said his 72-year-old client is frail, could wear a GPS tracker, and does not present a danger to the community.
Deputy District Attorney Meredith Pro said the murder charge was added to Adella Tom’s case “after having an opportunity to review all of the evidence in this case,” including hundreds of text messages and multiple videos and photos.
The complaint does not explicitly state in most instances how prosecutors came to believe specific events happened on specific days. Sometimes, though, prosecutors offer direct quotes from text messages.
The first of the alleged overt acts was in February 2019. The last alleged overt act was the day in 2022 when Arabella died.
The list includes scores of alleged instances in which the girl was deprived of a bathroom visit, leading her to urinate on herself. There are dozens of allegations that the girls were forced to engage in “physical exertion.” The exertion is not detailed, although there is some mention of forced exercise on the stairs. Sometimes, it says, the girls were punished for moving in bed.
Among the alleged overt acts laid out in the criminal complaint: Brian McCormack encouraged his wife to let one of the girls sit in her own waste, saying “She can soak in that (expletive) and get sick. Bella will be done soon and we will only have two to worry about.”
He also allegedly once texted his father-in-law to “please quiet everything down a little” because they had neighbors “close to that window.”
A few days before Arabella died, prosecutors allege, the grandmother told the grandfather to let Arabella’s nose bleed because “she just wants attention.”
The complaint alleges as an overt act that the next day, Arabella was hit “multiple times” as she lie in bed, sick.
The second to last overt act alleges that after Arabella died, her father texted her mother with a message: “if I go first, maybe you can get out of it.”
The last of the alleged overt acts was Brian McCormack’s suicide.
County records show that a Child Welfare Services investigation attributed the girl’s death to child abuse and neglect. Her death certificate, filed as part of a civil suit against the county, alleges she died from COVID-19 in a “setting of severe malnutrition/neglect.”
Although the case was filed in late 2022, the mother and grandparents have not had their preliminary hearing, a key proceeding for a judge to review evidence and determine if a defendant should face trial. The case faces yet another delay: One of the assigned defense attorneys is leaving and will need to be replaced. That means the preliminary hearing — which had been slated for the end of January — was again postponed. No new date has been set.
The three defendants are due in court for a status hearing Jan. 30.
Aside from the criminal case, a civil suit has been filed on behalf of Arabella’s sisters, alleging that several agencies, organizations and workers failed to report possible abuse. The suit says the surviving sisters suffered from a syndrome that presents after prolonged starvation and had to be gradually renourished.
Teri Figueroa www.sandiegouniontribune.com
2024-01-18 14:00:29 , News