When Sacora Horn-Garcia finally testified in her own defense, she told the jury she had suffered, too.
For the last three weeks, the 33-year-old defendant has looked the villain in her murder trial in Deschutes County Circuit Court. Her husband and co-defendant, Estevan Garcia, told the jury last week it was his wife who initiated and ordered the strict discipline that led to the starvation death of their 5-year-old daughter, Maliyha.
But Tuesday, Horn-Garcia described her first husband’s suicide in 2013, the troubled marriage to Garcia that followed and the difficulty she had raising Maliyha, whom she called “stubborn” and a “little princess.” She told the jury that by the time Maliyha died on Dec. 21, 2016, her own life had unraveled.
“I was lost. I didn’t know how to live,” she testified. “I basically lived in my pajamas. I would order food from places all over town and go and go pick it up in my pajamas. That was how I fed my kids.”
Maliyha’s autopsy found she weighed 24 pounds. Horn-Garcia and Garcia are accused of withholding medical care and food for nearly a year and a half.
So far in their trial, hundreds of text messages have laid bare a troubled marriage and a struggle of wills between a woman nearing her breaking point and a strong-willed little girl.
“We should have made better decisions,” Horn-Garcia testified. “I was struggling, I feel like, to make the house better.”
Her attorney, Aaron Brenneman, walked her through explanations for seemingly cold-hearted text messages about a girl experts say was experiencing the obvious signs of starvation for more than a year.
She began with her hard childhood in Carson City, Nevada — no father in the picture, poverty, homelessness. When she was in middle school, she and her two younger brothers moved away from their alcoholic mother to be with their father in the Sacramento, California, area.
She was kicked out of high school, but started performing well after starting at an alternative school. As a freshman, she met a sophomore named Nick Horn, who would factor prominently in her life.
Horn and Horn-Garcia began dating, and she became pregnant at 16. Horn moved in with her family and worked construction with her dad. They married when Horn-Garcia was 18 and had two more children.
They moved to Bend after visiting one of Horn’s cousins in the area. They both worked at Walmart, and the company allowed them to transfer to stores in Deschutes County.
“Things were going pretty good at that time,” Horn-Garcia testified.
But when Horn-Garcia accepted a management position and began working 12-plus hour days, it kept her away from her family, and her marriage went on the “back burner.” Horn got a DUII, which put further strain on their relationship, she testified.
“Things started falling apart,” she said.
One day in November 2013, Horn-Garcia’s father went to the couple’s home and found Horn dead inside. Suicide was ruled the cause.
This led to one of the first of several mental breakdowns between 2013 and 2016 Horn-Garcia described from the witness stand Tuesday.
She drank a lot and used marijuana and cocaine as her children slept, she testified.
After she put the kids to sleep, she’d “get really drunk and lose it,” she said, often posting long messages on Facebook, which alarmed a few of her friends.
One day a woman knocked on her door, offering condolences. Horn-Garcia would later learn this woman had been having an affair with her husband, whom she’d never known to be unfaithful, before his death. This led to further grief and trust issues with men, she testified.
Another well-wisher was Estevan Garcia, who offered to bring her soup when she was sick.
“Being a girl, I said like, ‘No, don’t come over — I look like crap,’” she testified.
Eventually, she relented.
“At the time, I felt like I had dealt with things, but I hadn’t,” she said. “I’d been covering it up. I didn’t want to be alone.”
She and Garcia had a few important things in common, namely being single parents of daughters.
Garcia was raising his sister’s child, Maliyha, who had become a ward of the state of California shortly after she was born and tested positive for meth.
One night in August, 2015, Horn-Garcia had an extra ticket to watch the Eli Young Band at the Deschutes County Fair. Garcia was the first to respond to her Facebook message.
They met, and Horn-Garcia brought her daughters; Garcia brought Maliyha.
“She was really adorable,” Horn-Garcia said. “I really liked her.”
Within a month, Maliyha was calling Horn-Garcia “Mommy.” Before they hit the two-month mark, the couple was planning to get married. Almost all their dates had included their kids.
Her children “loved” Garcia, she said. But, she testified, he had a much different parenting style than hers, which led to problems when they joined their households. He doted on Maliyha, Horn-Garcia testified.
“He gave her everything,” she said. “She was his little princess.”
To Horn-Garcia, the girl was “grabby,” and would often escape her crib and bedroom. Usually, she’d head for snacks in the kitchen, but occasionally she’d leave the house, as she did once when a good Samaritan found the girl walking on the sidewalk, crying. One night, the couple was laying in bed in the dark when they noticed Maliyha standing near their bed, silently staring at them.
“It was spooky,” Horn-Garcia testified.
Brenneman, her attorney, asked her about the hundreds of text messages in evidence purporting to show she intentionally and regularly withheld food from Maliyha, often for not “using her words,” or verbally expressing herself to her new mother.
“Why was it a big deal to you that Maliyha use her words?” Brenneman asked.
“Because she was getting older and going to day care,” Horn-Garcia replied. “She needed to be able to tell someone if she needs to use the restroom or if she needs a drink, or let someone know if something is hurting her.”
She said she used different discipline tactics with Maliyha, one of which was withholding food, and she did so only occasionally.
“She got away with everything and got to do whatever when she was living with just him and that kind of followed them to when we were living together,” Horn-Garcia said.
The questions grew more pointed when Garcia’s attorney Shawn Kollie began the first of two cross-examinations.
He asked about Maliyha’s last doctor visit, nearly a year before her death. Dr. Mary Rogers told Horn-Garcia the girl was between the fifth and 10th percentile of girls her age in weight and height and suggested feeding her more and switching her to whole milk.
“I didn’t think it was a serious conversation,” Horn-Garcia said. “It wasn’t like an oh-my-God message.”
Kollie asked if she remembered her own brother, Austin Hanson, telling her in November 2016 that Maliyha “felt light” after he picked her up. And he asked about the family friend who sent her a Facebook message after seeing a photo of Maliyha and thinking she looked too skinny.
She said both exchanges didn’t worry her.
Next, Kollie showed her a blown-up photo she took on Nov. 25, 2016, and texted to her husband. It shows Maliyha standing on the kitchen floor, looking up and reaching at cereal boxes on the top of an approximately 6-foot-tall cupboard.
“She is f----- relentless today!! So much trouble. Ugh!” is the accompanying message from Horn-Garcia.
Kollie asked if Horn-Garcia had sent the photo because it was an example of her daughter not “using her words.”
She said no.
“But is she maybe trying to express to you that she’s hungry through her body language?” he asked.
“She was not trying to express anything to me because she did not know she was being photographed,” Horn-Garcia said.
The state is set to cross-examine Horn-Garcia on Wednesday.
— Reporter: 541-383-0325, firstname.lastname@example.org