MONTEREY COUNTY, Calif. — A child abuse case that shook seasoned investigators has gotten worse.
An autopsy showed that two preschoolers found in a rented storage unit died of “ongoing physical abuse,” authorities in Monterey County, California, said at a press conference.
The children — tentatively identified as Delylah Tara, 3, and her brother, Shaun Tara, 6 — had been stuffed into a plastic storage bin, Salinas Police Chief Kelly McMillin said.
Tami Joy Huntsman, 39, will be charged with murder in the deaths, as will Gonzalo Curiel, 17, Monterey County District Attorney Dean Flippo said.
He said murder warrants may be filed as early as Friday and he might seek the death penalty.
Figuring out relationships
Investigators are still trying to figure out the relationships among the people involved, McMillin said.
Huntsman is thought to be the aunt of the two dead children, as well as a 9-year-old girl found battered and malnourished inside an SUV, McMillin said. It’s not known if she had legal custody. Huntsman is also the biological mother to 12-year-old twins now in foster care and possibly an older teenager, McMillin said.
Huntsman and Curiel “appeared to be companions. To characterize beyond that would be speculation,” McMillin said.
Huntsman and Curiel lived in Salinas in Monterey County before moving in early December to Quincy in Plumas County, about 320 miles away, authorities said.
On December 11 the Plumas County Sheriff’s Department received a call about a possible case of child abuse or neglect in Quincy. They went to the place where Huntsman and Curiel were staying.
‘Unspeakable measure of torture’
Plumas County Sheriff Greg Hagwood said officers found a 9-year-old girl on the floorboard of a locked SUV, according to The Plumas News. She weighed about 40 pounds, had open sores, lice, broken bones and missing teeth, the sheriff said.
“This has shaken my staff to the core,” Hagwood told the Plumas News. “That little girl had been subjected to the most unspeakable measure of torture for an extended period of time. This is child abuse, the likes of which we haven’t experienced here (in Plumas County).”
The girl was taken into protective custody and is receiving medical care in a Sacramento hospital, the Redding police said. The 12-year-old twins living with Huntsman and Curiel were placed in foster care, the Plumas News said.
Huntsman and Curiel were arrested and charged with torture and felony child abuse.
On Sunday, the Plumas County Sheriff’s Office got a call from someone in Salinas asking about the two young children, according to the Sacramento Bee.
“We knew nothing about a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old,” Hagwood said. The two children had not been seen when the child abuse investigation started.
Deputies interrogated Huntsman and Curiel again.
According to the Plumas News, Curiel tipped off investigators that they would find the missing children’s bodies in the storage locker in Redding, about 140 miles from Quincy.
Quincy police called police in Redding, who went to AAA Enterprise Store-All and found a locked unit, police said. They broke the lock and inside discovered the two dead children.
Children killed in Salinas, DA says
McMillin said Salinas police twice went to Huntsman’s apartment after receiving anonymous reports about child abuse.
One time nobody was home and the second time the officer found a child asleep and other children doing homework — nothing to indicate abuse, McMillin said.
The department will be investigating whether there were any “missed opportunities” to uncover wrongdoing, the chief said.
On a third occasion police went to McMillin’s apartment in Salinas ans arrested a male juvenile believed to be her biological child, McMillin said.
Flippo and McMillin said they’re sure the two dead children are Delylah Tara and Shaun Tara, though the autopsy has not completely nailed down the identities.
They’re also sure the major crimes — the murder of the preschoolers and abuse and torture of the 9-year-old — occurred in Salinas. Prosecutors in the three jurisdictions involved have communicated and decided those cases should be tried in Monterey County, Flippo said.
“I think we feel very comfortable we would be able to prove that the children were killed in Salinas,” Flippo said.
CNN’s Tina Burnside contribute