SALT LAKE CITY — Dawn Nieto cried silently as she recalled walking into her 15-month-old daughter's bedroom to find her dead almost 26 years ago.
Some of the details of that day have since evaded Nieto, but she remembers the desperation of trying to revive her daughter, Vanessa, on the evening of Oct. 3, 1988.
"I just remember grabbing her. She wasn't breathing," Nieto testified in 3rd District Court Thursday. "I started screaming, 'What happened? What happened?'"
All the while, she said, her roommate, Louis Duran, kept saying, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
Duran, 54, appeared before a judge Thursday in a preliminary hearing for a case that was first closed more than two decades ago. The case was reopened this year, and in May, Duran was arrested and charged in 3rd District Court with second-degree murder, a first degree felony, according to 1988 statutes.
The charge carries a potential maximum sentence of life in prison.
Police began looking into the cold case after Salt Lake police detective Thomas Flores determined it was "inappropriately closed" in 1988.
Prior to her daughter's death, Nieto observed bruises on the child's head and cheeks after a brief time that the girl had been left in the care of her roommates. One of the roommates said the child had fallen off a bed.
Duran, who was 28 at the time, later admitted to sucking on the girl's cheeks, which caused some of the bruising, Nieto testified in court.
On the day the child died, Nieto put her daughter down for a nap after the child had been acting ill. Nieto left the girl asleep in Duran's care while she and Duran's sister left the house to run errands.
Less than an hour later, Nieto returned and found her daughter where she'd left her, but the girl's lips were blue and her body was stiff. More bruises had appeared on the child, including bite marks on her arm, according to charging documents.
Nieto unsuccessfully attempted to perform CPR on her daughter, and the 15-month-old was later pronounced dead by paramedics.
An autopsy was performed the next day, which found bruises from near the time of death and from several days previous. Technology at the time did not yield DNA evidence useful to the case. The medical examiner determined the death was a homicide.
Police interviewed Nieto, Duran and others who lived at the Salt Lake home throughout the months subsequent to the child's death. Salt Lake police detective Kyle Jones interviewed Duran in his patrol car, where Duran "began to cry and became very emotional" during the interview, leading him to believe Duran could be a possible suspect in the case, Jones testified Thursday.
However, Duran was never taken into custody during the following two years that the investigation was active. "I eventually closed the case because there were no further leads," Jones said.
But every year since her daughter died, Nieto called Salt Lake police on her daughter's birthday and on the anniversary of her death to ask whether anything new had happened in the case.
It wasn't until the case was reopened this year that Nieto was contacted by Flores, who investigates cold cases. Flores located and interviewed several witnesses to the events leading up to the child's death. He also reviewed old pictures and documents with doctors at Primary Children's Hospital and medical examiners, who identified the child as "a victim of ongoing child abuse."
Duran's preliminary hearing is scheduled to continue on Oct. 30 at 9 a.m. At that time, a judge is expected to determine whether there is enough evidence to order Duran to stand trial on the charges.
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