WOODLAND — One of the last people to see 5-year-old Tatiana Garcia alive, Davis police Officer Kimberly Walker broke down on a Yolo Superior Court witness stand Tuesday at the memory of seeing the little girl clad in Hello Kitty pajamas, balanced on her mother’s hip.
As Walker struggled to compose herself, the woman on trial for allegedly drowning Tatiana in the bathtub of her sister’s home suddenly spoke up.
“You let me down,” Aquelin Talamantes — who reportedly offered up her daughter to Walker just hours before the girl’s death — said loudly from across the courtroom, stunning attorneys, jurors and spectators alike.
The unusual outburst came on the opening day of trial for Talamantes, 29, who is charged with murder and child assault in connection with Tatiana’s death on the bright fall morning of Sept. 26, 2013.
That Talamantes drowned her daughter is not in dispute among the prosecution and the defense. At issue, however, is her motivation — was it mental illness that drove the mother to kill the girl and conceal the body in the trunk of her car, or was it her resentment of her own children?
A Yolo County prosecutor says it was the latter, characterizing Talamantes as a drug- and pill-addicted “professional victim” who consistently blamed others for her failures and disadvantages.
Deputy District Attorney Ryan Couzens told the six-man, six-woman jury that Talamantes cast blame on her kids for “holding her back” from aspirations of being a model, singer or dancer, yet also feigned mental instability to avoid responsibilities such as holding down a regular job.
“She was the mother of a beautiful 5-year-old girl … until she pushed her under the water for what the evidence will show was a minimum of seconds. For a child, an eternity,” Couzens said in his opening statement Tuesday. “There is only one victim in this case, and that’s Tatiana Garcia.”
But defense attorney Sally Fredericksen told jurors that her client’s life has been marred by trauma — starting with her molestation by a relative “in the most graphic manner,” followed by her mother’s own violent murder when Talamantes was just 11 years old.
Raised by an elder sister, Talamantes later entered into an abusive relationship, after which her “mental health began to deteriorate,” Fredericksen said. That behavior was evident on the morning of Sept. 26, she added, implying that Davis police erred in not removing the children from Talamantes’ care at that time.
“Aquelin Talamantes killed her daughter, but you need to figure out what kind of killing this is,” Fredericksen said, suggesting that Talamantes lacked the mind-set required for a premeditated homicide. “You will see that my client is was absolutely not guilty of first-degree murder.”
Talamantes has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity in connection with the incident, which began with police conducting a welfare check at the Glide Drive home Talamantes shared with her sister.
Walker, the Davis police officer, testified that she had just conducted a traffic stop on Talamantes’ sister, Elisa Torres, in front of the house when a disheveled-looking Talamantes emerged and approached Walker, her eyes darting about.
“She looked concerned, kind of lost,” Walker said. She recalled that Talamantes went back inside the house, then returned moments later with Tatiana slung over her right hip.
“Do you want to take her?” Talamantes asked Walker, the officer said. “I looked at her and I said, ‘Should I?’ ” to which Talamantes replied, “Um, no,” then retreated back inside the home.
On her supervisor’s advice, Walker, with the help of a second officer, conducted the welfare check on Talamantes and her children, which also included 4-year-old son Michael. She said both children appeared content, though Talamantes was a different story.
According to Walker, Talamantes disclosed that she had been diagnosed with depression and paranoid schizophrenia, displaying for the officer a case containing some 15 bottles of prescription medication for various mental and physical ailments.
All the while, Talamantes appeared distracted, moving her head around “as if other people were talking,” Walker said. “I asked if she hears voices, and she said that she does.”
Asked whether she harbored thoughts of harming herself or others, “she said she did not,” Walker said.
Based on Talamantes’ responses, Walker said there were insufficient grounds to place the woman on an involuntary psychiatric hold — called a “5150 hold” in law-enforcement parlance — which requires a threat to self or others in addition to a mental-health diagnosis.
“It was absent that second prong,” said Walker, who cleared the home intending to send a report to Child Protective Services for follow-up.
She never got the chance, however. That afternoon, Walker received a call from Torres, Talamantes’ sister, reporting that Tatiana had vanished and Talamantes had driven off with her son.
They arrived at a relative’s Sacramento apartment about two hours later, Tatiana’s lifeless body — still clad in her pink and purple pajamas — wrapped in a Mickey Mouse blanket and stuffed into a black plastic trash bag in the trunk of Talamantes’ Honda Accord.
Among the evidence slated to go before the jury is a 45-minute patrol car video that shows police officers frantically performing lifesaving efforts on Tatiana in the apartment parking lot, a snippet of which was played during Couzens’ opening remarks.
“C’mon, baby! C’mon, baby!” one officer is heard saying through heavy panting as he delivers CPR. In the background, a woman — believed to be one of Talamantes’ relatives — weeps uncontrollably.
Talamantes’ insanity plea effectively divides the trial into two phases — the guilt phase, followed by a sanity phase in the event of a conviction. The trial is expected to last several weeks.
Testimony in the case resumed this morning before Judge Stephen Mock, who after jurors left for the day Tuesday admonished Talamantes to avoid future courtroom outbursts.
“These are emotional proceedings, but with that in mind, I don’t want to have ongoing commentary from Ms. Talamantes,” Mock said.
— Reach Lauren Keene at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter at @laurenkeene