WOODLAND — Years before Aquelin Talamantes was arrested on suspicion of drowning her daughter in a bathtub, her mother attempted to drown her own children and committed multiple graphic acts of abuse, the defendant’s eldest sister testified Tuesday in Yolo Superior Court.
“My mother suffered from mental illness,” an emotional Elisa Torres said during the second week of trial for Talamantes, 29, who is charged with murder and child assault in connection with the Sept. 26, 2013, drowning death of Tatiana Garcia. The 5-year-old girl’s body was later discovered in the trunk of a car Talamantes had driven to a relative’s Sacramento apartment.
Torres, in whose South Davis house Talamantes and her two children had been staying for several weeks at the time of Tatiana’s death, said when she arrived home that September day to discover her niece missing, she held out brief hope that Talamantes had left the youngster at the park or “at the liquor store.”
“It’s what I wanted to believe,” Torres said, breaking down into sobs. “We’ve already been through it with our mother. … I just remember flashes of my mother when we were little, how she would always try to drown the kids, and I would have to run in and turn off the water.”
Torres also said her mother, Rosa Talamantes, “tried to stick me in the oven when I was 8 years old,” while other siblings were whipped, tied up with chains or had their hands burned on the kitchen stove in their Dixon home. Rosa also “self-medicated” with beer and vodka, even while pregnant, Torres testified.
The family experienced further tragedy in 1995, when Rosa Talamantes was violently murdered by her boyfriend at the time. The mother of seven went missing for several weeks before her body was discovered in a rural drainage ditch.
But whether Aquelin Talamantes shares her mother’s apparent mental illness is in contention in the current case, in which Talamantes has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Defense attorney Sally Fredericksen says her client’s psychosis stems from a childhood marred by sexual abuse and her mother’s death, while prosecutor Ryan Couzens contends Talamantes resented her children and is feigning symptoms of a mental breakdown.
Although Couzens called Torres as a prosecution witness, their courtroom exchanges were contentious at times as Torres repeatedly insisted her sister had been diagnosed with conditions including paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Torres, who raised Talamantes and several other siblings after their mother died, said she first began to notice signs of instability in Talamantes in April 2013. Her sister appeared to hear voices, she said, and would often sit in the dark on the living-room couch.
“She just had this look on her face, like she was paranoid,” Torres recalled.
On the morning of the drowning, Torres was stopped by Davis police Officer Kimberly Walker for performing an illegal U-turn outside her home. Released on a warning, Torres said she saw the officer’s presence as “a sign for me to reach out for help,” urging her sister to go outside and speak with Walker under the premise that Talamantes’ car lacked current registration and was at risk of being towed.
“I wanted her to get seen by somebody else besides me. I wanted somebody else to see what I was seeing,” said Torres, who also approached Walker herself and pleaded for help. “I said, she’s sick, she’s suffering from mental illness. … I don’t know how to take care of her anymore.”
When Talamantes approached Walker a second time with Tatiana and asked, “Do you want to take her?” Torres was in the shower and unaware of the contact, she testified.
Walker and a fellow officer later conducted a welfare check inside the Glide Drive home but found insufficient grounds to place Talamantes on a psychiatric hold. Despite her earlier concerns, Torres said she left the house to run a few errands, instructing her sister to get the children ready to see a nearby trailer that was available for rent.
When she returned, Talamantes’ car was backed up to the home’s garage, and Tatiana was gone.
“Your plan was to move her into a trailer with her kids while she was out of her mind — is that what your testimony is?” Couzens asked Torres.
“I was going to get her help first, get her stabilized,” Torres replied, adding that she never believed Talamantes was capable of harming her own children. She said to this day she feels “let down by the system” for seeking a police officer’s help that never materialized.
“I think she has some responsibility in this, yes,” Torres said of the officer. “How many red flags did she need?”
The trial resumes today in Judge Stephen Mock’s courtroom, where the prosecution is expected to rest its portion of the case’s guilt phase.
— Reach Lauren Keene at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter at @laurenkeene