CRIME

How stepdad held in 3 deaths slipped through cracks

 

Despite red flags, neither cops nor DCF took decisive action to keep Alberto Sierra away from his stepchildren. Now the kids are dead.

cmarbin@MiamiHerald.com

When 6-year-old Julia Padrino showed up at Seminole Elementary with a visible wound on her left arm — explaining that her stepfather “bit me with his teeth” — police and child welfare administrators immediately investigated.

“It hurt,” she said.

Two months later, authorities concluded they had “no safety concern” about Julia and her younger siblings: By then, their stepfather had been sent to jail on an unrelated probation violation, taking him out of the house and putting the kids out of harm’s way. Julia’s mother promised to divorce him, and keep him away forever.

“The children are safe,” a Department of Children & Families report concluded.

Indeed they were — until six months later when Alberto Sierra was released from the Miami-Dade jail. Julia’s mom, who never followed through on the divorce vow, welcomed him back into her Flagami home.

The results were disastrous: Last week, 29-year-old Gladys Machado and her two young daughters were found suffocated and stuffed in the closet of an abandoned home. On Tuesday, Sierra told Miami-Dade police he killed Julia, now 8, her sister Daniela, age 4, and their mother in a fit of rage after Machado, in his presence, took a phone call from another man.

After killing them, he sexually assaulted the corpses of Machado and Julia, police say. He has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder and two counts of sexual battery.

Child welfare administrators said Wednesday they firmly believed Machado’s children were not at risk when they walked away from the family at the end of last year, and, in any case, did not believe they had authority to take additional action.

“At the time of the investigation, Ms. Machado took aggressive and decisive action — both by cooperating with law enforcement to jail the abuser and by voluntarily moving the children to their biological father — to keep them away from their abuser,” said Esther Jacobo, DCF’s top Miami administrator.

However, state child welfare and police reports, obtained this week by The Miami Herald, show authorities had several opportunities to intervene on behalf of the children, but chose not to:

•  Although a team of medical professionals concluded Julia had been the victim of “child physical abuse” — this only a year after he had allegedly bitten his wife during a fight — Miami-Dade police ruled that he had bitten the girl only “playfully.” The department chose not to arrest him.

•  Though a child welfare supervisor recommended that DCF refer Machado for social services to promote the safety of her children, the idea was dropped six weeks later. “Children appeared happy and there is no safety concern for the children at this time,” a report concluded.

•  Though DCF supervisor Osa Ogiemwanye, a veteran child protection worker, instructed an investigator to make sure the kids’ birth father petition a family court judge to grant him sole custody, the effort went nowhere. Michael Padrino did as he’d been urged, filing a handwritten request with the court. But when Padrino appeared at a hearing three weeks later, he was told his request was “moot” — because DCF had already given the children back to their mother.

•  Though Sierra had a lengthy arrest record that included drug and domestic violence charges — and had the two biting incidents on his resume — he was allowed to move right back in with his wife and her three youngsters after leaving jail this summer.

Walter Lambert, who heads the Miami-Dade Child Protection Team and examined Julia a year ago, declined to discuss specifics of the case. In general terms, however, he said he has long viewed bite injuries as one of the most dangerous red flags in child welfare.

“People who bite will also break bones,” said Lambert, a pediatrician who specializes in evaluating children for signs of abuse and neglect. “And they will also kill children.”

The teeth marks on Julia’s arms first were detected by teachers and administrators at Miami’s Seminole Elementary. Julia told DCF that her stepfather bit her because she was going to take her younger sister’s bottle. Julia said her stepfather was “being mean.”

However, Julia’s mother gave investigators another story altogether: Her husband, she said, was only “playing” when he bit the girl. “I overheard from Julia that Papy is biting me,” she told DCF. She said Julia “was laughing at the same time.”

The Child Protection Team concluded the bite mark was the result of “child physical abuse.”

But by the time DCF closed the case 20 days later, agency workers had decided to do nothing.

Machado, DCF records show, had vowed to divorce Sierra: “He must have received the divorce papers already,” she said. Sierra, a convicted felon with a gun in the house, was headed to the Miami-Dade County Jail for violating probation. And Padrino, the children’s birth father, was living in Machado’s home “temporarily” to help her care for the children.

“The children are safe,” a Dec. 20 DCF report says. “The alleged perpetrator, Alberto Sierra, is currently incarcerated.”

Maj. Connie Shingledecker, who oversees the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office child protection unit, and has long been a member of the Statewide Child Abuse Death Review Committee, said child welfare authorities confront a vexing problem when mothers who endure domestic violence are unwilling or unable to part with their husbands or boyfriends. Child abuse investigators are reluctant to remove children solely because their mothers are being battered. But men who beat their wives are likely to abuse their children, as well, so child welfare workers often strongly encourage mothers to leave their abusers — even threatening to remove their kids if they do not.

“Especially with really young children, we can protect them if their mother is unwilling,” Shingledecker said.

In all, DCF had made contact with Machado four times: a 2010 allegation of substance abuse, inadequate supervision and physical injury, another 2010 drug allegation, and a 2011 domestic violence allegation — all closed as unverified. Then there was the October 2011 case that began with Julia’s bitten arm, which was verified as physical abuse. The 2010 drug use, poor supervision and physical injury investigation has not been released to The Herald by DCF.

When DCF investigators evaluated the safety of Machado’s children in the fall of 2011, the available record for Alberto Sierra consisted of the following: Since 2000, he had been arrested 15 times, including multiple marijuana and cocaine charges, drug trafficking, aggravated assault, soliciting a prostitute, grand theft, weapons possession and domestic violence.

The biting of Julia’s mother occurred on Oct. 4, 2010. Sierra, who had moved in a month earlier, was arrested by Homestead police on domestic battery charges. In a court petition to keep Sierra away filed that day, Machado said the two had argued and she had threatened to call the police. Sierra grabbed her cellphone and “punched her on the hand” causing the phone to fall. When she tried to grab the phone again, Sierra bit her and “slammed her against the closet wall.” Machado also said Sierra had repeatedly kicked her car door a week earlier, and had kicked her in the stomach as she tried to get in the car. She said Sierra was on either drugs or alcohol when the assault occurred.

Ten days after she filed that petition, Machado withdrew it. But investigators responding to the complaint had found 79 grams of Ecstasy, and a stolen 9mm Smith & Wesson pistol, as well as ammunition.

Sierra was given a year’s probation, which he served under house arrest — in the same house where Machado and her kids resided.

Sierra was still under house arrest on Oct. 24, 2011, when the biting incident involving Julia occurred. Members of the Child Protection Team were unequivocal in their findings: “This is a [6] year old girl with an adult bite mark on her left arm,” the team reported. “In my opinion, this case represents an inflicted injury that rises to the level of child physical abuse.”

The Miami-Dade Police Department’s disposition: “unfounded.”

“My investigation revealed that, while playing with the children, [Sierra] playfully bit [Julia] on the arm, leaving a mark,” Detective Claude Larochelle wrote on Nov. 28, 2011.

However, police again found a gun in Machado’s house — a violation of Sierra’s probation — and they sent him to jail for 364 days. He served half of that.

The brutal deaths of Machado, Julia and Daniela followed his release by five months.

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