Two young children whose bodies were found inside a storage unit in Northern California died of "ongoing physical abuse" in one of the worst cases of child abuse police there have ever encountered, officials said Thursday.
"In my 32-year career, this is the most egregious child abuse homicide case I've ever seen," Salinas Police Department Chief Kelly McMillin said at a news conference Thursday afternoon.
Prosecutors now plan to file murder charges against a woman and her teenage male companion in the deaths.
Monterey County District Attorney Dean Flippo said at the press conference that he would file multiple first-degree murder charges with special circumstances against the pair — charges that could result in the death penalty.
Tami Joy Huntsman, 39, and a 17-year-old boy, who were living together Quincy, California, and formerly lived Salinas, were held since Tuesday in the Plumas County Jail on charges of felony child abuse, torture and mayhem at $1 million bond each, police said. The young man's identity is now being held as authorities decide whether to charge him as an adult in the case.
The grim discovery was made in the case that has spanned three California counties after authorities first found a severely abused 9-year-old girl at an apartment in Plumas County last week.
Further investigation led police to a missing children's case in Salinas, Monterey County, and eventually to the bodies of a 3-year-old and 6-year-old child in a plastic container at a storage unit in Redding in Shasta County.
The 9-year-old girl was being treated for injuries at a Sacramento area hospital.
"She is in a safe environment," Flippo said.
The dead children were discovered after a welfare inquiry about two children in Huntsman’s custody, who police said were reported as missing.
McMillin said that an autopsy performed Wednesday determined the two children likely died from continued physical abuse.
"We are confident that the abuse that ultimately led to their deaths began here in Salinas," he said.
Authorities have not positively identified the dead 3-year-old and 6-year-old as the missing children, but said they are convinced of their identities.
"We are absolutely convinced that these are the children that have been missing," Flippo said.
Child welfare workers repeatedly visited the Salinas home due to complaints of neglect, an official told The Associated Press.
But the five children living with Huntsman were not removed from her care because there was was no evidence they were at risk, Elliot Robinson, the head of the Monterey County Department of Social Services told the AP.
Two of the children belonged to Huntsman, while the other three were placed in her care by their father who was incarcerated after the death of their mother, Robinson said.
The two remaining children — 12-year-old twins living at the suspects' Quincy residence — were taken into foster care.
The two suspects moved from Salinas to Quincy earlier this month, authorities said.