The lies that BIND

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.

(Two other children, including 14-year-old Bertha Cantu, who testified against her father at his trial, now live in Corpus Christi with their mother's relatives.)

This tangle of family malfunction was presented last month to the jurors in Gaither's courtroom. It was a typical jury, diverse in its makeup. There were five African-Americans, seven Anglos, and no Hispanics. Among them were a 27-year-old teacher's aide and school bus driver; a 55-year-old reference librarian; and a 48-year-old print-shop foreman. There was a veteran flight attendant and a Ford salesman. One juror, a ponytailed stockbroker who bore a striking resemblance to rock star Don Henley, drove a sleek black Mitsubishi 3000GT with license plates reading NORULZ.

The state tried to convince jurors that under no circumstances should the children be given back to the Sanchez family. The family had protected Richard Sanchez, a child molester and convicted drug dealer, prosecutors argued. The family members had no reliable income and little education. Their extended Hispanic family stretched the limits of convention in a tiny Oak Cliff home, where up to 17 people often shared three bedrooms and one bathroom.

On the other hand, lawyers for Richard Sanchez's mother and two sisters argued that the family should win custody of the children. Lilia Sanchez and her daughters--Patricia and Raquel--contended that Child Protective Services had already proven it could not ensure the well-being of the children. Kelly Cantu ran away not once but twice while in CPS custody. And how could the state brush away Little Richard's death as a mere accident? According to his family's claims, he entered foster care a chubby, active preschooler, and through CPS neglect ended up bruised and brain-dead less than a year later.

Day after day, the jurors heard stories of unspeakable child abuse. They listened to the opinions of CPS "experts," who jammed their testimony with psychobabble and more than a whiff of arrogance.

Lawyers for both sides came packed with ammunition. Seasoned social workers had rarely seen such a textbook case of incest and its effects on a family. The secrecy and the scramble to protect Richard Sanchez was unending. The Sanchez-Cantu family had been rotting for years from this shame; court testimony would reveal allegations of hidden sexual abuse spanning generations. The past two years had simply been the family's public reckoning.

But neither would CPS surface from this trial lily-white. It was the agency's job to keep the children safe and healthy. A team of social workers and psychologists determined early on that the children should never return to the Sanchez home. It was a violent and abusive place, they determined--no place to raise children. Yet while under CPS care, supposedly removed from a hazardous environment, Little Richard died. And Kelly Cantu is still missing.

Who could be trusted to protect these children?

In the snapshot, Kelly Cantu is standing on top of a battered red Pontiac Trans Am, her back to the camera. Dressed in a tube top and daringly short cutoffs, she peeks over her shoulder, grinning and posing for the camera like a lingerie model. Her wavy brown hair cascades over her shoulders. On the back of the photo she later scrawled "Think I'm all it in my Daisys!"

She is 11 years old.
According to Kelly's statements to police and in counseling sessions documented in court evidence files, her stepfather, Richard Sanchez, had begun having intercourse with her only a few months before the picture was taken.

But he targeted her--began "grooming" her, in social work jargon--as his victim years before that. Over the course of 21 counseling sessions from August 1995 to May 1996 with Theresa Vo, a clinical psychologist under contract to CPS, Kelly revealed a seven-year history of sexual abuse that began when Sanchez entered her room one night while she was sleeping.

According to Vo's notes, which the jury also saw, Sanchez told Kelly to "look and learn," then masturbated to ejaculation. "He showed me that white stuff and he showed me his thing," Kelly told Vo. "He said, 'Look Kelly, this is where babies come from. It tastes like milk and looks like milk.'"

For the next three years, Kelly said, Sanchez made her perform oral sex on him, and he performed it on her. She told Vo that Sanchez also began abusing her younger sister Bertha, who is Sanchez's biological daughter. "He would say, 'You and Bertha go to bed without your clothes on,'" Kelly said.

Throughout this time, Kelly, Bertha, and a third daughter, Alejandra, lived with their parents and several other relatives in the home of their grandmother, Lilia Sanchez, on West 10th Street. Three more children--Richard, Monica, and Sonya--were born between 1990 and 1995. The Sanchezes' little brick bungalow sits directly behind the parking lot of Sunset High School, where Richard Sanchez, the eldest of Lilia's seven children, attended school. The house is tight and cozy, with fishing rods, tackle boxes, and other angler's gear stacked in a corner of the living room. A long, rectangular table takes up the dining room. The house has three bedrooms, one bathroom, and a small laundry room that sometimes doubles as a bedroom.

Depending on who needed shelter at the time, the Sanchez place has been home to as few as six and as many as 17. Various family members testified during the termination trial that "we all help each other out. Our family is like that. We all pitch in." And yet no one--not Sanchez's 28-year-old sister Patricia, who lived with her two children in the home, or his 27-year-old sister Raquel, who also lived there intermittently with her two children--reported knowing that Sanchez was sexually abusing Kelly under their roof. Indeed, over the last two years--during a lengthy CPS investigation of the family, during numerous interviews with the Dallas Observer last summer, and throughout the trial--Sanchez family members insisted the abuse could not have occurred.

"It couldn't have happened. It would be hard to hide it," testified John Camarillo, Lilia Sanchez's 17-year-old nephew who has lived with the family for four years. "There are just too many of us there. We would have known."

Whether the family knew or not, Kelly Cantu claims the abuse escalated when she turned 11 and her stepfather came back from a stint in prison. Richard Sanchez, who had spent his adult life bouncing from jobs as a cab driver, pizza parlor manager, home builder, and repo man, was convicted of possessing more than 200 pounds of marijuana and sent to prison. He served 18 months of a 10-year term.

Although Sanchez had begun abusing Kelly long before he went to jail, he returned to the house on 10th Street in 1992 with a whole new desire for his stepdaughter. Sanchez demanded to have full intercourse, Kelly later told her therapist. Her mother, Delia, not only knew of the arrangement, but sanctioned it. In several court documents, Kelly told of a bizarre scheme concocted by her parents to marry Kelly off to Sanchez after her 14th birthday. The plan was for Richard to pull Kelly out of school, take her to Mexico, and marry her. In one session with Vo, Kelly showed her an "engagement" ring Sanchez had given her.

"My mom gave me to my dad," Kelly told Vo. "She wanted me to have a good guy. I was crying, always angry about the abuse. After he sexually abused me, I would be crying in my room. She heard me. Sometimes I would cry and then try to get her to come in there. Sometimes she would tell my dad to leave me alone, and then one time he threw a coffee pot at her and busted half her head. He broke her nose, too. She had to have plastic surgery."

When her mother failed to protect her, Kelly said she sometimes tried to fight Sanchez off herself. In her second session with Vo, Kelly said "I told him no, and he said, 'You may not want it, but your pussy does.'"

That same year, Sanchez and Cantu took Kelly to an East Dallas clinic to have the Norplant implanted in her arm. Kelly would later tell authorities she did not remember the clinic's location or who the doctor was, only that her mother explained that Kelly needed birth control because she had been skipping school and "messing around" with boys.

She wore the Norplant for three years. According to the testimony of relatives who shared the house, no one ever noticed the six rods that bulged, spider-like, from the inside of her upper arm. Meanwhile, Sanchez turned his stepdaughter into his own private project, a toy to play with, his best girlfriend. He bought her tight Lycra skirts and spike heels, made up her face, and took her to all-night raves at Deep Ellum clubs. They took Ecstasy and acid. The drugs helped keep Kelly up all night for marathon sessions of sex.

Two years after getting the Norplant, Kelly had her first chance to tell authorities of the abuse. Nueces County CPS workers were investigating accusations made against Sanchez by Bertha Cantu, then 12 and living with her mother--who was temporarily separated from Sanchez--in Corpus Christi. Court records show that Dallas caseworkers were notified in March 1994 that the Sanchez home should be investigated for possible evidence of abuse against the children there. CPS caseworkers and police interviewed Kelly twice in Dallas--once in March 1994 and again in April 1995. They even saw the Norplant. But, caseworkers reported at the time, Kelly denied any abuse. Her case was classified "unable to determine," and her file was closed.

What finally triggered Kelly's decision to go public with her accusations was her fear of marrying her stepfather. Two days after her 14th birthday, Kelly ran away from the Sanchez home and landed at the far northeast Dallas home of Sandra Espinoza, Sanchez's sister. Kelly told Espinoza that Sanchez had been "messing" with her. Espinoza, who eventually would tell a Dallas police detective that she, too, had been molested as a child by a relative, harbored Kelly through the summer. Although Sanchez and several family members would testify that the living arrangement was something Sanchez quickly discovered and accepted, he clearly resented losing control over his stepdaughter.

And on the night of August 10, 1995, the Sanchez family secret blew wide open.

Sanchez, according to police reports and court testimony, went to Espinoza's home to bring Kelly back to his Oak Cliff home. He argued with Kelly and brandished a knife, threatening to "cut her throat" if she did not leave with him. While Espinoza stalled him at the door, a frantic Kelly called 911. Police arrived and arrested Sanchez, who was charged with two counts of sexual assault, aggravated assault, and indecency with a child.

Delia Cantu was arrested a few days later on a warrant of felony indecency with a child. Police tracked her to a seedy motel on Fort Worth Avenue in Oak Cliff. Kelly was with her, along with a younger child and the newest Sanchez daughter, 2-month-old Sonya. Inside the room, police found hastily packed suitcases, ice chests, and an ample supply of diapers. Though Cantu--an undocumented Mexican immigrant who speaks little English--told them little about her plans, it was a simple deduction for police: She was on her way with the children to Mexico.

With the parents locked up, CPS swooped in on the Sanchez home, removing the children almost at once and transferring them to foster homes. Their grandmother, Lilia Sanchez, begged that the children at least be kept together.

Lilia Sanchez saw her three youngest grandchildren for the last time on March 27, 1996. It was the family's "goodbye visit," as CPS caseworkers had dubbed it--the last of weekly supervised visits that had begun six months earlier, when the children were placed in foster care. Kelly, whom the younger children arguably loved more than even their parents, was living in a "therapeutic" foster home with other teenagers and rigid rules. Richard, Monica, and Sonya were together in an Irving foster home.

For the final visit, Lilia and her two daughters, Patricia and Raquel, took Easter baskets filled with candy and little toys.

At 62, Lilia, plump and bespectacled with a thick Mexican accent, is the matriarch of the Sanchez clan. She reared her seven children with the help of Richard Jr., who became head of the household at age 16, after his father abandoned the family. She lives on a monthly Social Security check of $269. The rest of the family's income is sporadic--daughters Patricia and Raquel have drifted from job to job. Her two sons, Eddie and Jerry, also live in the house and work intermittently.

Lilia, Patricia, and Raquel Sanchez first spoke to the Observer last summer, two months after their supervised visits with the children had ended. CPS had stopped the visits after informing the family through caseworker Alison Farmer that the agency had determined the four children would not return to the home. The family was stunned. Indeed, Farmer's regular reports on the children's progress through February 1996, on file in Gaither's court, state that the agency's "permanency plan" for the children was to explore all available options of returning the children to family members. This, in fact, is the standard CPS goal--to reunify a ruptured family whenever possible.

But by March 1996, the agency's position changed--abruptly. The CPS team assigned to the Sanchez-Cantu case, including the court's guardian ad litem for the children, decided after learning more about the Sanchez family's social and criminal history that foster care and eventual adoption would be the best plan for all of the children. It is a position that CPS has only solidified in the past year, explained CPS Legal Services supervisor Katie Gerber, who testified at the termination trial last month.

"The Sanchez home is an incestuous environment," Gerber said on the stand. "Most all of the adults living there have had criminal convictions. Most of the adults seem not to be aware of or are denying the abuse that has gone on for years.

"And I have great concern that Richard Sanchez is the patriarch of the home. They've never shown they can stand up to Mr. Sanchez."

And so, the Sanchez family was denied visitation with Kelly, Richard, Monica, and Sonya.

CPS recommended continued foster care for the children even after 5-year-old Richard began suffering mysterious seizures, shortly after entering Jim Bushman's state-licensed foster home in August 1995. Along with the seizures, Bushman reported to CPS that Richard frequently lost his balance, stumbled, and fell. Each seizure and any subsequent fall-related injury was documented in CPS files. And, Gerber testified, Richard was under continuing care of a pediatric neurologist at Children's Medical Center.

But the Sanchez family, in their visits with the children, grew increasingly upset at Little Richard's appearance, and questioned CPS officials about his well-being. Lilia and her daughters reported to Farmer, their caseworker, and also to Suzanne Lomenick, the court-appointed guardian, that Little Richard had lost several pounds and had begun pulling out chunks of his hair. He also showed up at several of their weekly visits with bruises on his face.

"When he went into foster care, he was active and happy. He was healthy," Lilia said through tears last summer, sitting at the family dining room table. "During the time we would see him, we saw a big purple bruise above his right eye. And one time he had a big bruise on his cheek. He was losing all this weight. Oh, it was terrible."

At Richard's school, Elliott Elementary in Irving, pre-kindergarten teacher Carol Grimes recorded five suspicious injuries to the boy from October 26, 1995 to March 1, 1996. She reported a bruise on his cheek on October 26, a bruise on his ear on November 2, and two black eyes on November 15. In addition, Grimes reported Richard "had small patches of hair loss and scaly patches on his face."

With each injury she noticed, Grimes wrote in an affidavit to the court, she followed school policy and sent Richard to the school nurse. In early December, Grimes wrote, she received a note from Children's Medical Center telling her that Richard had been found unconscious at his foster home with blood coming from his nose and mouth. He was diagnosed with a severe seizure disorder and had a small line of blood between his brain and skull. He recovered and returned to school.

On February 1, 1996, Grimes noticed more hair loss and a bruise above Richard's right eye. One week later, according to her affidavit, Grimes met for 30 minutes with caseworker Farmer to discuss her concerns about Richard. Farmer, Grimes said, assured her that Richard was safe in his foster home and that the bruises were caused by falls.

"He never had one seizure or fall at school," Grimes said during a break in the termination trial last month. "This always happened at home or at the day care. I was just very concerned for him."

Jim Bushman, Richard's foster father, attended the trial every day, sitting quietly on a bench in the back of the courtroom. He listened intently as Sanchez family members testified of their fears for Richard's safety, all but pointing to Bushman as the source of Richard's injuries. During a court recess, Bushman, a dispatcher for a local trucking firm and a longtime CPS foster parent, produced a photo album crammed with photos of Richard, Monica, and Sonya. In the pictures the children are playing on a swing set and paddling in a wading pool. They are laughing.

"They were happy with us," Bushman said, standing in the courthouse hallway, leafing through the album. "Do these look like neglected kids? Richard fell a couple of times, and we always reported it. We love kids. We take good care of them."

CPS does not suspect or accuse Bushman of any abuse or neglect. Indeed, he and his wife still care for foster children, and have adopted children through the agency.

On April 18, 1996, while watching television with his foster parents, Richard complained of not feeling well. Moments later, according to the medical examiner's report, he suffered a massive seizure. He was taken by ambulance to Children's Medical Center. After two days in a coma, his relatives holding vigil at his bedside, Little Richard died on April 20 at 12:55 a.m. The autopsy lists the cause of death as a seizure disorder. Signed by Dallas County Chief Medical Examiner Jeffrey Barnard, the autopsy states "It is unclear whether this seizure disorder developed as the result of trauma, and if so, at what time the trauma occurred which initiated the seizure disorder or whether seizures led to the head injuries identified at autopsy."

Teacher Carol Grimes wonders if what finally beat Little Richard was abject despair. "In my eight years of teaching, I have never observed a child with such an intensity of mental pain," she wrote in her court affidavit. "After winter break it appeared his sadness escalated into utter hopelessness. He cried constantly and begged to be reunited with his sisters, especially Kelly," Grimes wrote. "One day I suggested he write a letter to Kelly. I wrote it verbatim, as he dictated:"

Dear Kelly,
How many days are we going to get back together again? Tell the cops to let my dad get out of jail. His name is Richard like my name is. Let Delia get out from somewhere. Let my sister get back together again.

To a person, CPS officials agree that Richard's death is a tragedy. But all have denied that negligence or a breakdown in the system contributed to his death. They discuss the Sanchez family's concerns and the details of Little Richard's death in the coolest and most detached of manners.

"A great deal of the time, parents will complain of the appearance of their children in foster care," said CPS supervisor Katie Gerber, in her trial testimony. "It is very often an attempt to distract attention from the real issues."

What happened to Richard, Gerber said after the trial, will never be fully explained. But the responsibility for his death does not rest on CPS.

"You can't explain it," she said. "But I know the Lord has a plan, and I have to rest on that."

But Lyle Medlock, the court-appointed lawyer representing Delia Cantu during the trial, was not content to rest on such faith. After peppering CPS officials throughout the trial with questions about Richard's deteriorating condition, he blasted the agency during his closing argument to the jury.

"There is a sad, sad irony here," he said. The Sanchez family had tried for months to bring Richard and his siblings home. "Richard finally made it home to his family all right, but he made it home in a coffin."

Two weeks after Richard's funeral, Kelly Cantu met for the last time with psychologist Theresa Vo. Kelly had stopped taking Prozac, the anti-depressant prescribed earlier that was helping level out her moods. She was living in her second therapeutic foster home after having run away from the first home a few months earlier.

A deeply grieving Kelly, Vo wrote in her notes, "says her mind has gone blank." She says she "has forgotten all about the abuse." She says "all she wants is her mother out of jail," and she feels that "Richard Sanchez will not do it again."

One month later, Kelly ran away from her Grand Prairie foster home. Dallas police made up a bulletin with her picture--a smiling 14-year-old with shiny brown eyes. The district attorney's investigators have scoured the area for her. CPS officials believe Sanchez family members know of her whereabouts, may even be hiding her to prevent her from testifying against her mother, but family members deny it.

And Kelly remains to be found.

Four months after Richard Sanchez was found guilty of sexually abusing Bertha Cantu and jailed for life, his family and CPS squared off in juvenile court. The long-awaited termination and conservatorship trial had been delayed several times already--CPS was struggling to locate Kelly, and a required study of Lilia Sanchez's home, which had languished for months, had to be completed. Alison Farmer, the CPS caseworker who worked for more than a year on the case, had quit the agency early in the year.

Finally, on April 1, the trial began.
Lilia, Patricia, and Raquel Sanchez had retained Mary Everson, a small, bookish family law attorney in solo practice, to press their case as the best custodians for the children. The court appointed Dallas lawyer Ronald Aland, whose specialty is business litigation, to represent Richard Sanchez. DeSoto lawyer Lyle Medlock, a former prosecutor in the county's juvenile division, was assigned to Delia Cantu.

Aland--tall, lean, and wise-cracking--knew from the outset the challenge he faced. Two days into the trial, Sanchez, sitting in leg irons beside Aland at the counsel table, took a legal pad, scrawled CONSPIRACY on it in big, block letters and held it up to the jury. Judge Hal Gaither, who was looking the other way and missed the stunt, was informed of it by the bailiff and reprimanded Sanchez the next day.

"He is, um, kind of difficult," Aland said of his client after trial one day. "But he's frustrated listening to all of this."

Delia Cantu heard the proceedings from a court-appointed interpreter. She sat behind her husband and beside her in-laws. Her relatives often held hands and comforted each other, but they were noticeably frosty toward Delia. The 32-year-old mother wore a pantsuit to court each day because, as she pointed out one day in the women's restroom while showing her electronic ankle monitor, "I don't want them to see this."

When Assistant District Attorney Colleen Doolin called Cantu to testify, she invoked her right against self-incrimination and took the Fifth Amendment out of range of the jury. Medlock, a huge man built like a side-by-side icebox, said during a court recess it was his best option. "She's got these cases still pending against her," he said, his big voice echoing in the hallway. "They would have gone after her."

Missing the chance to question Cantu did not appear to pain Doolin. Strictly business, hair pulled into a bun, her stare piercing, the prosecutor zeroed in on the rest of her witnesses--a well-oiled machine of veteran psychologists, social workers, and foster parents--to prove the children were damaged not only by Sanchez, but by his entire extended family.

Paul Tathia, a psychologist with the Dallas Independent School District and a group therapist for families of sex offenders, testified that Lilia, Patricia, and Raquel Sanchez attended only six of 24 CPS-mandated counseling sessions before dropping out of the program. The family, he said, never accepted the accusations that Kelly had leveled against her stepfather. And CPS had clearly told them that no move to reunify the family could begin until they believed Kelly.

"When a victim makes an outcry of sexual abuse, every member of the family must make a choice of who to believe," Tathia said. "If they side with the adult, they would have to go into denial in order to live with themselves." The Sanchez family, he testified, with its steady characterizations of Kelly as a liar and promiscuous, was exhibiting denial "in its strongest form."

In her turn on the stand, Lilia Sanchez, who had wept silently through much of the earlier testimony, sat stoically, describing Kelly as a girl with behavior problems and Delia Cantu as a person who "easily misinterprets things." She said the family stopped attending group therapy when they learned from caseworker Alison Farmer that CPS had ruled out ever returning the children.

But, of course, she did not accept that decision. "I think the best place for them is in my home," Lilia said. "Nobody can love them more than I do."

And when Doolin looked icily at Lilia and asked her what her plans for Kelly would be, should she be returned to the home, Lilia responded: "I have a little bit of strength to hold her back. Look at these people," she said, pointing toward the CPS team flanking Doolin at the table. "They all have degrees. But look. Where is Kelly now?...You are the ones who lost her. Tell me where she is and I'll go get her."

Richard Sanchez, shackled at the ankles, hobbled to the stand as the final witness for his family. Resigned to the fact that he would most certainly lose his children, he wanted to endorse his mother as the best hope for his children's future.

More than that, though, he wanted his day in court. In his criminal trial last year, Sanchez did not testify on the advice of his attorney. This time would be different. "He feels like he never got the chance to tell what happened," said Aland, his attorney for this go-round. "So now he gets his chance."

Sanchez wore the same white shirt, black jeans, black necktie, and black suspenders he had worn every day. He settled his bulky torso into the witness stand, and squinted straight ahead at the state's attorneys he so hated. He was going to tell it to the jury.

He told of dropping out of high school at age 16 to support his family with a string of jobs. He told of three and a half years as a cab-company supervisor. "I trained all the drivers," Sanchez said. "I taught protection skills to the drivers. I advised all the drivers to carry all these sawed-off, I mean, these short shotguns."

He brushed over two convictions for drug possession--one in 1986 and the one in 1990 that netted him an 18-month sentence. He recounted how he met Delia Cantu in a store in Mexico in 1981. She was 17. Kelly was a baby; her father, who never married Delia, abandoned them while Delia was pregnant. After producing three children together, "we finally documented it," by marrying in 1992, Sanchez said. On cross-examination he admitted to having herpes and syphilis. ("It's syphilis 2 percent," he said. "It will never go away.")

When his attorney turned the topic to Kelly, Sanchez raised his eyebrows and growled in a barely audible voice "She's a headache, OK?" Then, glaring at Doolin and her colleagues, he said "She'll dance circles around the CPS psychologists and laugh about it when they're not looking."

In his mind, Kelly is a crafty, conniving, headstrong liar. She helped put him where he is, he said, though "I bear no ill will toward her."

And when he read what he dubbed "Kelly's recantation letter," the room fell silent. Kelly, he said, sent him the letter shortly after he went to jail, after she had realized what she had done.

"I wish this all would be a nightmare, but it isn't," Sanchez read. "I don't know what to do...I don't want to be in the spotlight anymore...I love 'em just too much, the kids, Richard, Monica, and Sonya. They're all big now. They're all so cute. I have already scarred them up good. I'm doing good in school, but I could be doing better if my life were happier."

Under Doolin's cross-examination, Sanchez said "Kelly is a sweet person, but she's hard to control. Except when I'm present."

Three days passed before the Sanchez-Cantu jury reached its verdict. The family's lawyers spent the time gabbing with reporters and running to other hearings for other clients. The Sanchez clan often walked the hallways, or sat in a small witness room off Gaither's courtroom. They rarely spoke to reporters.

On the second afternoon of deliberations, John Camarillo, who had testified on behalf of his aunt Lilia earlier in the trial, sat in an empty room in the courthouse, recounting memories of his childhood and his extended family. Camarillo, 17, moved from Gonzales, Texas, four years ago to his aunt's Dallas home. The small town, near San Antonio, offered little to keep a teenager busy, Camarillo said, and he was always bored. "There's a Wal-Mart and a McDonald's. That's about it."

He will graduate this spring from Sunset High, and has witnessed all of the charges and convictions and trials surrounding the fate of his younger cousins. "It has been so hard," he said. "So hard. My uncle, he's a good man. My Aunt Lilia is a good person. There have been so many lies. There's just a lot of confusion."

Like his cousin Richard, Camarillo seems befuddled, completely mystified by the charges of sexual abuse various females in his family have lodged against the men. To hear him tell it, it's almost as if the girls are born with a gene that programs them to lie, to fabricate incredible stories of incest and rape. The men, it seems, are hapless victims.

"My cousin, she lives in Gonzales," he said. "She's about 15 now. She always caused a lot of trouble. She made accusations against my grandfather that he sexually abused her."

The allegations were untrue, Camarillo said, but his grandfather went to jail anyway, and died three years ago. "And Gabby is still down in Gonzales, causing trouble.

"The girls in my family, I don't know. Sometimes I think they have a problem with the truth."

John Ferguson, Juror No. 6 in the Cantu-Sanchez trial, would likely disagree with Camarillo's perception of his family. So would nine of his fellow jurors. On April 14, the panel delivered its verdict: 10-2 in favor of awarding all three children--Kelly, Monica, and Sonya--to Child Protective Services.

A few days after their verdict, some of the jurors discussed their deliberations. Most chose not to respond to a request to be interviewed by the Observer.

Ferguson, a 55-year-old father of three and recent first-time grandfather, arrived at his decision rather quickly, and he never doubted Kelly or Bertha Cantu's allegations against Sanchez for a minute. Sitting in a small classroom in the Richland Community College, where he is a reference librarian and English instructor, Ferguson says "It was uncanny how you could see the family throughout the trial falling into lock-step right behind Richard. This family has a truth problem."

Juror J.C. Cannon, grizzled and gray-haired, called the decision to cut off Sanchez and Cantu from their children a "no-brainer." But the jury haggled for nearly three full days over who should take charge of the children. Juror Freddie Wilson, a lay minister, struggled with cutting the children off entirely from their grandmother--a soft-spoken woman who had impressed him from the witness stand with her common sense opinions about love and discipline. Wilson was one of the two jurors to hold out for Lilia. "I wanted that bond. She was strong. I wanted the children with their blood relatives."

None of them will ever rest easy over what happened to Little Richard. Cannon says four of his fellow jurors wrestled with who should be blamed for Richard's death right up to the end. "There was so much mental anguish on the little boy, maybe that's what caused it," says Cannon, a print-shop foreman from Mesquite with seven grandchildren of his own. "But we couldn't put it on the foster parents. There wasn't any proof."

Speaking for most of his fellow jurors, Ferguson considers little Monica and Sonya's fate as happy an ending as was possible in the case. They will remain with their current foster parents, who now have a green light to start adoption proceedings. The foster father is Hispanic; the mother is Anglo. Both parents are schoolteachers. The home is bilingual. The parents, who remained anonymous during the trial and did not respond to Observer requests for an interview, have previously adopted two foster children in their care--girls who are now 13 and 14.

"Monica and Sonya were terribly young when they were removed from their home, and they have established a bond with their foster family," Ferguson says. "That was a consideration, too, you know. We considered the trauma of ripping them from yet another family. When people stopped to consider that, it brought everything into sharper focus."

A couple of days after the verdict, Raquel Sanchez could be found on the front porch of her mother's home, where her two young children were playing after school. "We're going to be all right, but it's hard," she said, and abruptly ended the conversation. Attempts to visit Lilia Sanchez were unsuccessful. In two more stops at the Sanchez home, no one would answer the door. Perhaps that is because during that week, probation officials discovered that Delia Cantu had fled the home. Her husband's lawyer, Ron Aland, feels certain she has gone to Mexico.

Delia's escape is no shock to the jurors who cut her off from her children, of course. "Did she ever really care about their safety and their happiness?" asks an indignant J.C. Cannon. "At least now people aren't going to be pushing those kids around anymore, beating on them and abusing them sexually.

"For what they put those kids through, I didn't have one damn problem facing that family down.

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Holly Mullen