A Redmond couple was found guilty Friday of the starvation murder of their 5-year-old daughter, Maliyha Hope Garcia, who weighed 24 pounds when she died Dec. 21, 2016.

The jury returned in the case of Estevan Adrian Garcia and Sacora Rose Horn- Garcia after roughly half a day of deliberation, finding them both guilty of murder by abuse and two counts of criminal mistreatment.

A sentencing hearing will be Nov. 18 in Deschutes County Circuit Court. The presumptive sentence they face is life in prison with parole possible after 25 years. The mistreatment charges each carry a presumptive sentence of 5 years, meaning the couple might have to wait 35 years before a shot at release.

“We’re ecstatic,” said Barb Cook, Garcia’s aunt and guardian of five of Maliyha’s older sisters. “He is guilty.”

The five-week trial was described by parties involved as intense and grueling, with expert testimony on starvation and child scapegoating and more than 25,000 text messages that offered a candid look at a seemingly normal household roiled by mental illness and abuse.

The abuse didn’t happen in a day, a week or even a month.

For nearly a year and a half, as Horn-Garcia experienced several mental breakdowns, the stepmother forced Maliyha to “use her words” to ask for everything, most notably food, though also to wake, leave her room and to go to bathroom.

Horn-Garcia regularly forced Maliyha to miss meals for not “using her words,” and in summer 2016, the abuse accelerated when the couple pulled Maliyha out of day care, according to trial testimony.

Though he was once seen as a doting father to Maliyha, the text messages show Garcia continually gave in to his wife’s increasingly cruel disciplining of Maliyha.

One evidentiary exhibit that factored prominently in the case was a growth chart showing Maliyha’s weight compared to others in her age cohort.

On it, a red line signifying Maliyha proceeds upward through time alongside her peers, until it starts to level off in about January 2015 and declines drastically around summer 2016.

A blue line cuts perpendicular about January 2015. It represents when Garcia married Horn-Garcia.

The abuse culminated in a 911 call Dec. 21, 2016. Horn-Garcia told the dispatcher her girl was “sick” and had suddenly lost consciousness. But more than a dozen police officers and medical professionals testified the girl was dead when the first units arrived at the family’s home. Starvation was determined to be the cause of death.

Cook and her husband, Russ, also raised Garcia for a time, and helped facilitate Maliyha’s adoption by Garcia when she was born and tested positive for meth.

They watched Garcia change after he married Horn-Garcia.

“He went from a loving father to not a loving father,” Russ Cook said. “We opened our house to him, and he distanced himself from his family immediately (after meeting Horn-Garcia).”

After the verdict was read, relatives of Horn-Garcia wept leaving the courthouse, while a plainclothes detective high-fived prosecutor Stacy Neil.

A judge’s order preventing parties from speaking to the media remains in effect until sentencing.

“Gag order,” was all District Attorney John Hummel texted when asked for comment.

Garcia’s brother, Carlos, told The Bulletin he feels conflicted at the verdict.

“I feel that, yes, he should be punished for his part in what happened — and he should have got him and her out of there — but I don’t feel he should have been found guilty of the same charges as her,” Carlos Garcia said. “But I am happy that justice was served and we can start to let all this go.”

For a time, before his brother met Horn-Garcia, Carlos Garcia helped raise Maliyha in Redmond.

Carlos Garcia lives in Salem. He said it’s been painful watching outsiders during the trial blame his family for not acting to save Maliyha.

He said he asks God regularly to wake him and tell him “it was all just a dream.”

“I just really hurt in all this,” he said.

Emily Groves was Maliyha’s daily day care provider from when the girl was 3 months old until Groves closed her Fun in Learning day care in June 2015.

Groves taught Maliyha to walk, to speak and to tie her shoes.

Maliyha was such a hearty eater that Groves chose her to be a “table buddy,” seated next to picky eaters to encourage them to eat.

The one thing Maliyha hated was salad. This is why, text messages show, Horn-Garcia forced her to eat salad exclusively as punishment, while feeding her biological daughters full, healthy meals.

One expert witness testified to the low nutritional content a diet like this would provide a 3- and 4-year-old child.

The day care paid especially close attention to Maliyha’s progress because of her background, Groves said.

“She was such a bright, beautiful little girl,” she said.

“She had such a genuine heart that she was friends to everybody in her day care. She was so smart and always had a smile on her face. For somebody who had such a hard start in life, she blossomed into such a good friend.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0325, gandrews@bendbulletin.com

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