Testimony took on a "he said-she said" tone Wednesday in the preliminary hearing for two people charged with killing a 9-year-old boy by forcing him to stand naked in a tub of ice water for 45 minutes until he died of hypothermia.
Rebecca Hernandez-Velasco, 19, and Pedro Gaucin-Canales, 36, both are charged with killing Josue Contreras-Velasco early July 22 at the Melting Pot Restaurant in Salt Lake City where the two adults worked. Hernandez-Velasco was the boy's sister and Gaucin-Canales was a family friend and the restaurant manager.
Salt Lake City Police Detective Aaron Leavitt testified the pair originally claimed they did not know what happened to Josue or how he ended up dead.
But after repeated interviews with police, each defendant blamed the other for forcing the child into an empty trash can, and filling it with 20 gallons of ice and about seven gallons of water, which came up to his shoulders.
Hernandez-Velasco told police she was told by Gaucin-Canales to fetch buckets of ice and water, which Gaucin-Canales poured over the child in the can as a punishment because Gaucin-Canales said the child told lies.
"She said this was a common way they had disciplined Josue before, so she was going along with this," Leavitt said. "She said Josue knew what he was in for."
But Gaucin-Canales said it wasn't his fault it was the boy's sister who was shouting and angry with the child "for some unknown reason" and she was responsible for the deadly incident. Gaucin-Canales told police that all he did was neglect to stop Hernandez-Velasco, other than telling her she was "overdoing it" with the icy water punishment, and he also poured in one bucket of ice that she had given him.
Third District Judge Sheila McCleve delayed any decision about whether the pair should be bound over for trial until more information is available about the condition of videotapes from two restaurant surveillance cameras. These reportedly malfunctioned, but a Texas laboratory is trying to retrieve images. A status conference is set for Dec. 5.
The defendants are charged with first-degree felony murder, and second-degree felony child abuse and obstruction of justice. The boy's body was found on the kitchen floor after police responded to a 911 call made by Gaucin-Canales, after he called the child's mother, Gloria Velasco, and his common-law wife, who advised him to contact authorities.
Gaucin-Canales' attorney, Ron Yengich, questioned Leavitt about earlier investigations by the Division of Child and Family Services regarding allegations that Gloria Velasco had put the boy in ice water as a punishment and also had used chains to restrain him. Leavitt said these had not been substantiated and DCFS closed the cases.
Yengich's line of questioning hinted that perhaps the child had been immersed in cold water earlier in the day when Gaucin-Canales was not present, making the boy more vulnerable to death if submerged a second time at the restaurant.
Meanwhile, Hernandez-Velasco's lawyer, Solomon Chacon, indicated that Gaucin-Canales would be more responsible for what happened since he was an older man, held a position of authority over his client, and also had been a "caretaker" for the child, doing such things as tutoring the boy and letting him do chores at the restaurant in return for clothing and other items.
Utah Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Todd Grey said a healthy adult put in ice water would die in 30 minutes, based on information about downed pilots and also Nazi "experiments" with concentration camp victims. It would take far less time for a small child to die, he said.
Grey testified Josue's body temperature was 78.6 degrees when taken about three hours after his death was reported. Typically, a human body will cool by one or two degrees per hour after death.
Grey said the first sensation of being immersed in ice water would be pain, followed by shivering, then increasing levels of confusion, and changes in heart rate and rhythm that ultimately can lead to death.Both Hernandez-Velasco and Gaucin-Canales, who appeared in court in beige jump suits and listened through Spanish-speaking interpreters, are being held in the Salt Lake County Jail on $1 million cash-only bail.
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