By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Twelve bleary-eyed jurors filed into Judge Hal Gaither's courtroom on the afternoon of April 14 and dutifully took their assigned seats. The seven women and five men had met for the first time two weeks earlier, plucked from a jury pool of more than 60 to serve in Dallas County's 304th Juvenile District Court. They found the wreckage of an Oak Cliff family laid before them.
For two weeks, the jurors heard testimony in one of the most tangled family law cases in recent county history. For three days after that, they argued over what should be done with the three surviving children of the infamous "Norplant case."
That story--crystal clear in the memories of most of the jurors--broke in 1995, when a 14-year-old girl told police that her stepfather had repeatedly sodomized and raped her from the time she was eight years old. Kelly Cantu's story of horrific abuse by Richard Sanchez Jr. was made all the worse by the apparent approval of her mother, Delia Cantu. Shortly after Kelly turned 11, her parents took her to an East Dallas clinic for birth control. They told a physician the teenage girl was sexually promiscuous, and had her fitted with a Norplant contraceptive device--six matchstick-sized rods implanted in the upper arm that release a synthetic hormone into the body to prevent pregnancy.
The idea of Delia Cantu obtaining birth control for her teenage daughter so Richard Sanchez could continue raping her was revolting. For a day or two, the Norplant story captivated the national and local media. How, columnists and talk-show hosts ruminated, could human beings sink to such depravity? At one later court hearing, state District Judge Mike Keasler would sum up reaction to the allegations. Scarcely able to mask his disgust, Keasler called the case "a smorgasbord of perversion."
Sanchez was ultimately convicted in December 1996 on three counts of aggravated sexual assault--for abusing not Kelly, but her 12-year-old sister, Bertha Cantu. Prosecutors could not try Sanchez for raping Kelly because she ran away from a foster home six months before the trial. To this day, Kelly remains on the run.
Kelly's mother, Delia Cantu, spent 15 months in jail but was released, also because Kelly could not be found to testify against her. Prosecutors say Delia Cantu frequently had sex with her husband in front of Kelly in a twisted attempt to "teach" Kelly the facts of life. The mother was charged with two counts of sexual assault of a child and one misdemeanor charge of failure to report child abuse. Last October, when Kelly could not be located, Judge Keasler released Cantu on bond, and ordered her to undergo random drug tests and to be fitted with an electronic ankle monitor. She lived under house arrest at the Sanchez home in north Oak Cliff until last month, when she shed her ankle bracelet and fled.
Like most high-voltage stories, the Norplant case faded from the public eye. Left unanswered was the question of who will continue to raise the children of Delia Cantu and Richard Sanchez Jr.
Beginning April 1, the chilling details of the case were paraded before a jury charged with deciding whether to sever the parental rights of Richard Sanchez and Delia Cantu. If the jurors decided to terminate the parents' rights--and that seemed a given--they then faced the more excruciating task of deciding who would gain custody. Who would take these scarred children and build them a future?
Would they go to their paternal grandmother, Lilia Sanchez, a plump and kindly woman who had raised seven children of her own, but who quite possibly had ignored the years of sexual abuse that had occurred under her own roof? Or would they remain with a foster family under the supervision of the state's Child Protective Services, the agency that had already bungled key aspects of the case?
When the sorry saga began in 1995, the fates of four children were at stake, but only two remained by the time a jury got the case last month.
First, of course, was Kelly Cantu, the 14-year-old daughter of Delia Cantu and a father who abandoned Cantu while she was pregnant. Richard Sanchez, who met Delia in Mexico shortly after Kelly's birth, was the girl's stepfather. Legal custody of Kelly, however, means little now that she has run away.
The second child in question was "Little" Richard Sanchez, a chubby 5-year-old with a soft mat of wavy brown hair and a love for Batman and Robin. The child of Delia Cantu and Richard Sanchez Jr., Little Richard no longer needs parents. He died mysteriously in a foster home after his parents were arrested. An autopsy report concluded that the cause of death was a "seizure disorder." But the Sanchez family maintains that the boy was a robust child who never suffered a seizure until CPS took him away.
With Kelly gone and Little Richard dead, the jury was effectively left to decide the fate of two little girls--three-year-old Monica and 1-year-old Sonya, both born of Richard Sanchez Jr. and Delia Cantu.
After the story of Kelly's abuse at the hands of Sanchez surfaced, the children became the epicenter of a raging custody battle, living in CPS foster homes while their parents were hustled between jail and court, and their paternal relatives fought to win them back.