SALT LAKE CITY — Today, Vanessa would have been 29 going on 30.
But to her mother, Dawn Nieto, Vanessa will always be remembered as a 15-month-old toddler whose life tragically ended too soon nearly three decades ago.
Tears streamed down Nieto's face as she watched a dozen violet, star-shaped balloons float into the sky and disappear into the thick fog blanketing the Salt Lake Valley on Sunday night during a vigil for Vanessa.
"My scars are just so deep," Nieto said, words escaping her as she thought of her daughter.
Decades have gone by since Vanessa was found dead in her crib in 1988 — the day Nieto's roommate, Louis Duran, was supposed to be watching the baby and other children but said he instead "was heavily under the influence of illegal drugs and slept most of the day," court documents indicate.
During that time, Duran said Vanessa sustained multiple bruises and injuries to her head.
The case went cold when technology at the time did not yield useful DNA evidence after an autopsy was performed and found bruises from near the time of Vanessa's death and several days prior.
But when the case was reopened years later, it was determined Vanessa was a "victim of ongoing child abuse" over the final month of her life, according to charging documents.
Since then, Duran, now 57, has pleaded guilty in a deal for reduced charges — two counts of child abuse, third-degree felonies punishable by up to five years in prison.
According to court documents, Duran admitted to sucking on the baby's cheeks, leaving a bruise, and biting her on the arm.
Duran's sentencing is scheduled for Wednesday.
Three days before the hearing, Nieto said she's "nervous, overwhelmed and sick to my stomach."
"I just hope justice is served," she said. "I'm scared it's not going to be, but I hope it is because it needs to be. I think once it is, she'll rest in peace."
Candlelight illuminated Nieto's face as she wiped away tears.
"It's been a long time but … finally. Finally," she said.
Nieto and her family and friends gathered at the Christian Life Center Ignite Church on Sunday evening to honor Vanessa's life, raise awareness of child abuse, and pray for justice ahead of the sentencing.
"I ask a lot of questions, but one is always, 'Why?'" said Gina Lanzalaca-Kirby, Nieto's sister and Vanessa's aunt, breaking down in tears.
"When the Lord couldn't watch anymore, the pain Vanessa was going through … he decided to take her, and he put her in his loving arms," she said.
Vigil attendees pinned blue ribbons to their chests meant to raise awareness of child abuse.
Richelle Fernandez, Nieto's other sister, said Vanessa's family hopes her life will help raise awareness and remind people to "be vigilant" for child abuse.
"No words can explain the pain my sister has been through, the pain that our family has been through, and the guilt that we feel that we could not help her," Fernandez said.2 comments on this story
"If you feel something is going on or something doesn't feel right, be a voice for that child," she said.
The Wasatch Front Chapter of Bikers Against Child Abuse attended Sunday's vigil, revving their motorcycles while family and friends lit their candles.
A member of the biker gang gave Nieto a pin of a guardian angel riding a motorcycle. She held it delicately in her hand and she studied it under candlelight.
"She's a beautiful little girl," Nieto said. "She's touched a lot of hearts. She still is and she still will."