A Tucson landlord testifying in a murder trial Wednesday cried when asked about finding a child’s skull and bones in a toy chest abandoned on his property five years ago.
Mark Weisbrod was cleaning a unit of his triplex in the 700 block of West Idaho Street when his wife’s uncle, who had just opened the chest and initially thought he’d found a Halloween decoration, called him over in March 2014.
The remains were those of 3-year-old Roman Barreras, who died sometime between the spring of 2013 and January 2014. His mother, Raquel Barreras, is now on trial on charges of child abuse and first-degree murder in the courtroom of Pima County Superior Court Judge James Marner.
Barreras pleaded guilty Tuesday to four other charges in the case, including abandoning or concealing a dead body as well as three counts of child abuse.
“You’re going to hear from the surviving children and what they are going to tell you is that Roman was treated differently,” Deputy Pima County Attorney Virginia Aspacher told the jury, referring to upcoming testimony of Roman’s surviving siblings.
The state alleges Raquel Barreras, 44, isolated and abused her youngest child and eventually stopped feeding him. His bones were left behind when the family was evicted from the property.
The magical things of childhood such as a soft blanket, a safe playpen and a little toy chest were not typical in the life of Roman Barreras, Aspacher said.
Instead, she told jurors, his playpen became his jail, the blanket covering it became a way of cutting him off from his siblings and the toy chest became his tomb.
“Roman deserves justice,” she said to the jury. “We can’t save this child, but we can give him justice.”
The prosecutor said the playpen where Roman was confined was eventually moved to an outdoor laundry room, where the toddler suffered alone and eventually died.
“It took Roman a long time to die,” Aspacher said. “It took him a long time to starve to death.”
The tragedy of Roman’s death is not in dispute, said Assistant Public Defender Cynthia Yializis in her opening statements.
But instead of blaming Raquel Barreras, the defense attorney said jurors should consider the role of Roman’s “indifferent” father as well as the state’s Department of Child Safety.
Both knew Raquel Barreras was incapable of raising Roman, Yializis said, because she was “overwhelmed by addiction, poverty and depression.”
Raquel Barreras and her husband, Martin Raymond Barreras, had two prior cases with DCS and Raquel never followed plans prescribed by the state to get her children back.
“They did nothing and, instead, the state of Arizona has charged Raquel and they are blaming her for this,” Yializis said. “She was not a good mother, but she did not want her son to die.”
DCS took Roman and three of his older siblings away from his parents after his birth in July 2010 due to drug exposure, but about a year later, Roman was back with his father. His mother was not supposed to be around the children because, unlike her husband, she had not complied with the DCS case plan. But her husband had allowed her to return to the home.
Martin Barreras, 50, is facing one count of child abuse and has a trial scheduled for August. Both parents are being held at the Pima County jail on bonds of $500,000.
In 2009, Raquel Barreras pleaded guilty to stealing a prescription pad from a south-side medical clinic and attempting to fill a prescription for oxycodone. A presentencing report prepared for the court shows she became addicted to the narcotic in 2003 or 2004 when she was given oxycodone for a misdiagnosis of fibromyalgia.
Barreras twice violated her probation in that case, failed to complete a residential drug treatment program and was sentenced to serve six months in jail, records show.
Relatives of the couple told police Raquel and Martin Barreras began distancing themselves from other family members before Roman’s death. During chance meetings, they seemed evasive and secretive, especially when asked about Roman, relatives said.
The last time other family members remembered seeing Roman was in 2012. Several said they called DCS out of concern for the children.
Records show child welfare caseworkers last had contact with the family in August 2012.
The trial is expected to last into early May. It will not be in session next week.