Crime

Years later, a child witness fills in disturbing details in infamous Miami abuse case

Nubia Barahona, 10, was found dead in the back of her adoptive father's pick-up truck in Broward on Valentines Day.
Nubia Barahona, 10, was found dead in the back of her adoptive father's pick-up truck in Broward on Valentines Day. WFOR-CBS4

Six years ago, 10-year-old twins were discovered in horrifying condition in a pickup truck parked along Interstate 95 — the body of Nubia Barahona, a girl with an incandescent smile, was badly beaten, soaked in chemicals and decomposing inside a garbage bag in the truck bed; her brother Victor was in the cab, badly burned by chemicals.

Their adopted father, an exterminator named Jorge Barahona, was passed out nearby.

The appalling case rocked Florida’s child welfare agency, which had received numerous abuse complaints against Barahona and his wife, Carmen, but repeatedly left the children in the couple’s custody.

The ongoing death-penalty case against the Barahonas has yet to be scheduled for trial, but prosecutors believe the couple starved and tortured the twins for months or more — a charge bolstered by a new and disturbing statement from the couple’s own granddaughter, who told investigators that she was so terrified of her own family that she waited for years to tell her story.

That girl, identified as A.P. in the statement obtained by the Miami Herald, chronicled a tormented existence for the twins, who were among four adopted children living in the household, two boys and two girls.

The girl, who was about 6 years old at the time and a regular visitor to the Barahonas’ West Miami-Dade home, described a persistent pattern of psychological and physical abuse.

Jorge Barahona, she said, often made the young twins strip naked and walk in circles inside the living room. “We just had to watch,” A.P. told prosecutors.

Sometimes, the twins were made to stand for hours, even days, inside a tall green trash can, or tied up inside a bathtub, naked and whimpering. To eat, they shared a bowl of milk and bread. A.P. recalled once asking her grandmother, Carmen Barahona, about the meal: “That’s what they deserved,” the woman replied.

The child’s statement, released by Miami-Dade prosecutors this week, included allegations of painful torture by both parents.

One day, the adopted twins and the Barahonas’ two other adopted children were playing in the pool when Jorge tried drowning Victor. He blamed Victor for making the other young boy “swallow water.”

“I wanted to tell him to stop, but I was scared he was going to do something to me,” A.P. said. “So I got out of the pool and I went inside.”

Another time, she recalled the parents wrapping a rope around Victor’s neck and both pulling on it, the girl said, “until he was about to faint.”

Though it comes years after the couple was charged, the statement provided new details and a chilling firsthand account of life in the household of Jorge and Carmen Barahona, who have been awaiting trial for Nubia’s murder and aggravated child abuse since 2011. Jorge Barahona is also accused of trying to murder Victor.

Nubia was one of 477 children who, over a seven-year period, died of abuse or neglect after their families had come to the attention of Florida’s Department of Children and Families. The agency’s lapses were chronicled in the Miami Herald series Innocents Lost.

A year-long Miami Herald investigation found that, in the last six years, 477 Florida children have died of abuse or neglect after their families had come to the attention of the Department of Children and Families.

The defendants face the death penalty if convicted. Lawyers for both declined to comment Friday.

Today, A.P. is a 13-year-old sixth grader who no longer lives with her mother, Jennifer Perez, the daughter of Carmen Barahona. The Barahonas’ two other adopted children also were moved to new homes after the couple’s arrest following the grotesque discovery in the truck along I-95 in Palm Beach County.

The twins’ case cast intense scrutiny on the Florida Department of Children and Families, which had received numerous abuse complaints against the couple. A grand jury report later concluded that DCF gave the Barahonas “a pass” every time allegations of abuse surfaced.

Victor survived the attack and will likely be a key witness against his adopted parents. In evidence previously released in the case, he also told a caretaker that his adopted father doused them with ice water or bleach, and the man once wrapped a plastic bag around the 10-year-old boy’s head until he nearly passed out. Jorge Barahona also glued the boy’s eyes shut and once made him eat a cockroach, Victor told his caretaker in the months after.

Now, A.P. is listed as another child witness. She had previously helped alert authorities to the abuse allegations just before Nubia’s death. Despite her mother’s warnings to stay quiet or face “big trouble,” A.P. mentioned some of what she had witnessed to a therapist, who reported the allegations to DCF. Agency investigators set out to look for the children.

They did not find them, and Jorge and Victor were found on the side of the interstate four days later.

But when A.P. was first interviewed by Miami-Dade police detectives, she would not disclose what she knew. “I thought that if I said something wrong, something was going to happen to me, and I didn’t want anything to happen to me,” A.P. told prosecutors in November after they approached her about making a sworn statement.

Before Nubia’s death, A.P. spent a lot of time at the Barahona home, getting dropped off before school so her grandmother could take her to class. In the afternoon after school, she would spend two to three hours in the home before her mother would pick her up.

Asked to describe what it was like there, A.P. said: “It was very scary at times … seeing how they mistreated Nubia and Victor.”

Nubia, she said, was always “the most abused.” “She would always be really, really hungry, and sometimes she would have bruises on her,” A.P. told prosecutors Gail Levine and Lara Penn.

At times, she saw Victor was placed in a “timeout” chair. “He would sit there just staring at the wall and cry,” A.P. recalled.

The abuse wasn’t just limited to the twins. On some occasions, Jorge would force all the kids, including her, to “play doctor” with each other, making them touch each other in inappropriate ways, she said. Twice, A.P. also saw Nubia lying naked in the bed with Jorge.

Most often, the twins could be found in the bathtub. The others kids were forbidden from talking to them.

“I wasn’t allowed to go into the bathroom unless I was being supervised by [Jorge] or Carmen,” A.P. said. “They would always have the curtain closed, but there was a time when I saw Victor and Nubia in the bathtub tied with ropes or tape.”

She told prosecutors that her own mother, Jennifer Perez, knew what was going on and once walked in on the twins tied up in the tub. “She would usually say that those weren’t her kids and that she couldn’t do anything about it, but that I couldn’t tell anybody because it was a family secret,” A.P. said.

Perez, during the initial investigation, told police she never knew of any abuse happening inside the home. A.P’s version of events raises questions about those earlier statements — but the five-year statute of limitations on child abuse means charging her now is not an option. Perez could not be reached for comment.

But the girl’s testimony will still be crucial evidence against her grandparents.

“Well, I felt better that now you guys know what actually happened,” A.P. told the prosecutors. “There’s still a lot of stuff I don’t remember, and honestly I feel kinda relieved.”

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