The child-starvation murder trial of Estevan Garcia and wife Sacora Horn-Garcia began Friday with descriptions of a girl so hungry, she would steal crackers at day care, then sneak into a bathroom at nap time to eat them.
The final months of Maliyha Hope Garcia’s life, part of a flood of new information presented in Deschutes County Circuit Court, hinted at what’s to come in the Redmond couple’s trial.
Maliyha died Dec. 21, 2016. She was 5 and weighed 24 pounds. Her autopsy concluded starvation was the cause of death. Several months later, her parents were arrested and charged with murder and mistreatment for allegedly withholding adequate food and access to medical care.
But a gag order prohibited attorneys involved from discussing any part of the case.
Opening statements in Judge Beth Bagley’s courtroom Friday filled in many holes in the timeline of Maliyha’s life and suggested that Garcia and Horn-Garcia will likely have different defense strategies.
“The evidence will show this isn’t what you think of when you think of a murder case,” prosecutor Kandy Gies told jurors. “This isn’t a case where someone pulled a trigger, and in an instant, someone is dead.”
The girl’s short life, as presented by Gies and defense attorney Shawn Kollie, who is representing Garcia, was explained publicly for the first time.
Maliyha was the sixth child of Angelica Garcia, sister of Estevan Garcia. A resident of California, Angelica Garcia has long been addicted to drugs, and her first five children were adopted by an older relative, according to the attorneys.
When Maliyha was born, methamphetamine was found in her blood, and California child welfare officials determined the girl could not live with her mother. But the couple that had adopted Angelica Garcia’s first five children — Russ and Barb Cook, of Redmond — could not take in another child. So, Estevan Garcia, determined to keep his sister’s six children in the same city, volunteered to adopt Maliyha, according to Kollie, his lawyer.
At the time, Estevan Garcia was in a long-term relationship with a woman, but they broke up when Maliyha was 3, and he was left a single father. During this period, several relatives in Central Oregon helped him raise the girl. Some days, she even accompanied him to his job at Safeway, playing on a cellphone in the break room until his shift was over.
At the end of summer 2014, Estevan Garcia started dating Horn-Garcia, a widow with three daughters. They married Dec. 31 of that year and combined their households.
But text messages show the relationship was fraught in those early days. The couple briefly separated several times but decided to stick it out, knowing child welfare authorities would disapprove of a divorce, Kollie said.
Things changed in January 2016, when Angelica Garcia gave birth to her seventh child, another daughter.
Again, Estevan Garcia had a niece who needed a home, and again, he volunteered to adopt her.
The couple believed this newborn could be the “glue” that holds their fraught household together, according to Kollie. Caring for five children, Horn-Garcia quit her job at Walmart, and the couple had to rely on only the husband’s income.
Many of the people involved in Maliyha’s life will testify in the coming weeks. So, too, will emergency medical technicians, police officers and detectives, doctors, day care providers, school friends and their parents.
“I’ll warn you,” prosecutor Gies told jurors. “Some of these officers and EMTs, when they take the stand, they’re going to have a hard time getting through it.”
Evidence in the case includes autopsy photos, medical records and more than 29,000 texts between husband and wife, several of which were read in court by the prosecutor.
In the months before Maliyha’s death, the parents sound reluctant to take her to a doctor.
Horn-Garcia suggests an urgent care facility, where the doctors are more “laid-back.”
“Might be a good idea to bring in all the kids to show that they are healthy,” she wrote.
The jury of nine women and six men was selected earlier in the week from a pool of more than 200 people.
During the selection, defense attorneys polled prospective jurors about how they were disciplined as kids, how they disciplined their children, and whether they’d ever sent morbid text messages out of stress.
After the jury was sworn in, Gies, one of the most experienced prosecutors in the Deschutes County District Attorney’s Office, gave the state’s opening statement.
“This is a case where you have to look at all the evidence — not just hours, or days, or weeks, but months and years,” she said. “There is a huge time span, and the evidence shows the treatment of Maliyha was not adequate.”
Gies is assisted in the case by prosecutor Stacy Neil. They will attempt to prove the couple treated Maliyha differently than the other girls — that she was “demonized, dehumanized and deprived,” as Gies said several times during her remarks.
Gies also regularly returned to the theme of a puzzle. When police detectives first arrived in Garcia and Horn-Garcia’s “extremely clean” house, they knew nothing. Over several months, they pieced together a clear picture of what happened, Gies said.
“There is a lot of information in this case, and I encourage you to take notes and listen carefully to see how the pieces all fit together,” she told the jury.
One of the more intriguing puzzle pieces could prove to be a receipt investigators found taped to a pizza box in the Garcia’s kitchen oven. On the receipt was the date — four days before Maliyha’s death — and the delivery man’s name — Justin Chain.
Detectives tracked down Chain and what he told them was disturbing, Gies said.
Chain happened to know Garcia and Horn-Garcia. When he entered their house on Nov. 17, 2016, he saw a tiny girl on the couch — Maliyha — who had clearly just spat up a clear liquid over her face and chest, he said.
Gies said Chain will testify at some point during the trial.
Next to speak was Kollie, who is being assisted by Jon Weiner.
Kollie reminded jurors to consider the defendants separately, and noted Maliyha had hit most developmental benchmarks until age 3, when Horn-Garcia entered the picture.
“You’ll see this pattern of aggression and anger through the text messages,” he said, referring to Horn-Garcia. “You’ll see this pattern of — it’s not physical abuse. It’s verbal. This relationship is on the rocks, to say the least.”
The state will have to prove the defendants “recklessly and with extreme indifference” caused Maliyha’s death through neglect and mistreatment.
“In this case, mental states really matter,” Kollie said. “You the jury have to decide if the state proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Garcia was aware of, and consciously disregarded, a substantial and unjustifiable risk.”
Last to speak was Aaron Brenneman, who is representing Horn-Garcia, along with Lisa Calyn Valenta.
He called Maliyha’s death a “nightmare that keeps replaying” for his client.
“This wasn’t her husband’s niece that she lost — it was her daughter,” he said.
Horn-Garcia’s attorneys will argue Maliyha was not kept hidden in the months before her death. They’ll say the girl accompanied her parents and siblings on many outings and to medical appointments and no one ever shared concerns about her with authorities.
Brenneman said Maliyha was not treated differently than Horn-Garcia’s other children.
“Should she have gone to the doctor? Yes. We’re not here to argue that. But what you will see is concern, concern for condition and concern that she wasn’t getting better and concern with what to do,” Brenneman said.
The trial will resume Tuesday morning with the state’s first witness.
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