Selenia Moreno seemed to be a survivor. Abandoned as an infant by her mother to a virtual stranger, she was rescued from a filthy, dilapidated house where pit bulls ran free and transients lived.
Selenia Moreno seemed to be a survivor.
Abandoned as an infant by her mother to a virtual stranger, she was rescued from a filthy, dilapidated house where pit bulls ran free and transients lived.
The state took custody of her Sept. 11, 2007, when detectives with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office were investigating the death of an infant who lived with Selenia.
But on Nov. 5, just four months from turning 3 years old and days from being adopted, Selenia died at a Chandler day care center.
Chandler police on Tuesday arrested Candalaria Bradford, 48, a worker at Colorful Kids Preschool, and booked her on charges of second-degree murder, which carries a punishment of 10 to 22 years in prison.
According to Chandler police, Selenia had lived for about a year with her foster parents, Kent and Lisa Lamb, Chandler realtors who said they were prevented by state Child Protective Services from speaking extensively with the media or providing a photograph of her because she was in state custody when she died.
Kent Lamb wrote in a statement that the family often takes in foster children, and while they are fond of all of them, occasionally one “grabs your heart so tight.”
“Lena grabbed the hearts of our entire family,” Lamb wrote. “Everyone who ever met her fell in love with her from the moment she flashed her beautiful smile at them.”
He added, “We love her and miss her more than words will ever be able to express.”
She wore only a diaper the day authorities placed her and a 2-year-old boy into a van in east Mesa and drove away.
Investigators were at 211 N. 96th St., near Main Street and Ellsworth Road, investigating the death of 5-month-old Makayla Jones.
Selenia, Makayla and Makayla’s 2-year-old brother were under the care of Bonnie Bennett, 53, a Mesa woman who, according to court and Mesa police records, took custody of children belonging to homeless and jailed women.
Makayla and her brother were not related to Selenia, but their mothers were in jail and were acquaintances of Bennett.
When deputies arrived at 3 a.m., Bennett was wailing in grief as paramedics tried to save Makayla inside an ambulance.
One of the deputies walked through a trail in the cluttered house, which had no air conditioning and was infested with ants and dog feces.
In the backyard, the deputy shined a light on a man 25 yards away sitting against a fence with a child in his arms.
The man remained silent and unresponsive as the deputy got closer and asked him what he was doing.
The man finally looked up and spoke.
“He stated that he was holding his granddaughter, Selenia,” deputy E. Thompson wrote in a report.
Thompson said Selenia came to him willingly as she held a “bottle filled with a white, cloudy substance.”
Thompson asked the grandfather what the red streaks were running down her cheeks from her mouth.
“Juice, I think. Maybe fruit punch,” the grandfather said.
Thompson took her to a sheriff’s SUV, where a deputy kept watch and occasionally entertained Selenia and Makayla’s brother until Child Protective Services workers arrived to take them away.
Makayla’s manner of death was considered natural by the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office.
She had a soft-tissue infection that could have developed from any number of sources, according to an autopsy report.
Deputy Doug Matteson, sheriff’s spokesman, said his agency submitted the case to prosecutors and is awaiting word on whether Bennett will be charged with child abuse.
Bennett told the Tribune in September that the allegations against her were lies.
Selenia’s mother was on probation for child abuse and wanted by the law when she became pregnant with Selenia, court records show.
Selenia was a little over a month old when her mother went back into jail for a seven-day stint.
The mother signed away her parental rights to Bennett the day she got out of jail and wasn’t heard from again until another arrest five months later, court records show.
Court records also show that CPS was aware that the child was handed over to Bennett.
Selenia went on to live with Bennett for 1 1/2 years, and in that period, records show that she was evicted from two homes. According to Hilary Johnson, Makayla’s half-sister, Bennett consistently let transients stay with her, and her homes were always filthy.
According to Chandler police, Selenia’s biological father was deported to Mexico.
Court records show that Makayla’s mother left her and her brother to stay with Bennett a few weeks before Makayla’s mother was sentenced to nine months in prison.
Selenia was in the process of potty training the day she died at the Chandler day care center.
She wore a flowered shirt, blue jeans and white shoes.
According to court documents, Selenia would have trouble napping and Bradford, the day care worker, would sit beside her as she lay on a mat for her afternoon nap.
A witness told police that she saw Selenia crying on her mat as Bradford leaned her elbow and forearm across the back of the toddler’s head, neck and shoulders.
A few minutes later, the witness saw Bradford still sitting beside Selenia, who was no longer crying.
Another half-hour passed when a teacher found the girl not breathing.
Bradford told police Selenia had been making a whiny noise and that she did have her arm on the girl’s back, but not how the witness described.
“Bradford denied intentionally hurting (Selenia) and didn’t think that she accidentally hurt her,” a court document states.
An autopsy found that she died from suffocation.
Bradford is in jail in lieu of $200,000 bail.
Alan Oppenheim, deputy assistant director for the division of licensing services with the state Department of Health Services, said the agency has placed Colorful Kids under investigation since Bradford’s arrest.
He said the preschool reported the incident the day after it happened, but Chandler police asked the agency to hold off on its investigation until the criminal investigation is complete.
According to agency records, the preschool has been cited many times over the years but prevented punishment by correcting the violations.
Many of the violations involved record-keeping.
Oppenheim said that depending on what the investigation uncovers, Colorful Kids could face sanctions ranging from adopting a plan of correction to license revocation.
He said one of the most common sanctions is a fine.
Rachel Dechristina, one of the preschool’s owners, declined comment on questions about the incident and Bradford, but she said management has been cooperative with police and had no idea there was any wrongdoing until Tuesday.
“We are shocked,” Dechristina said.