Crime

Dead in prison: Brother of ‘Baby Lollipops,’ toddler tortured and murdered in Miami

Juan Cardona
Juan Cardona Florida Corrections

After three high-profile trials over decades, Ana Maria Cardona is now in state prison for life for the 1990 torture and murder of her son, a toddler who became known as “Baby Lollipops.”

But the family’s tormented story continues. Her elder son, a 37-year-old named Juan Puente, has died while also in prison, the Miami Herald has learned.

Puente, who was serving a 10-year sentence for burglary, died at Gulf Correctional Institution’s Annex in February.

The Medical Examiner’s Office for Gulf County has not disclosed a cause and manner of death. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which investigates all in-custody deaths at state prison, won’t say if his death is being treated as suspicious.

“We do have an active investigation regarding this case. We cannot provide any details at this time,” according to FDLE spokeswoman Jessica Cary.

Puente had spent the majority of his adult life cycling in and out of jail and prison, usually on drug or burglary charges. While in jail in 2010, he was brought to a Miami courtroom to testify on his mother’s behalf in an effort to convince a jury to spare her life.

“The case followed him around, every time he got arrested. It was like a revolving door,” said Cardona’s former lawyer, Edith Georgi. “The kid had a really sweet way about him. He was very easy to get to know and friendly. But he had an addiction he couldn’t cure.”

Cardona’s current legal team declined to comment.

Convicted and sentenced in December, the 56-year-old Cardona is currently housed at the Women’s Reception Center prison in Ocala.

Ana Maria Cardona had been twice convicted of her son’s 1990 murder and sent to Death Row but the decisions were overturned by the Florida Supreme Court. She was sentenced to life in prison.

The Cardona family has been in the spotlight since the body of Lazaro “Baby Lollipops” Figueroa — severely malnourished and badly beaten — was found discarded outside a home in an upscale neighborhood of Miami Beach in November 1990.

Investigators looking to identify the child dubbed him Baby Lollipops because of the design on his T-shirt. Cardona was soon arrested along with lover, Olivia Gonzalez. The two had fled to Orlando along with Cardona’s two other children, Puente and sister Tahimi Cardona.

Prosecutors described Cardona as a cocaine-addled mother who grew to hate Lazaro, whose father was a drug dealer murdered in the late 1980s. Used to a lavish lifestyle, Cardona blew through what money she had left and was plunged into poverty, the state said.

Extremely malnourished, Lazaro weighed only 18 pounds, about half what he should have for his age. Beatings had torn away the tissue between his lips and gums, making eating, drinking and talking painful. His left arm was permanently bent at a 90-degree angle. His head had been bashed repeatedly and his diaper, soiled and held together with duct tape, had caused an infection.

At the time of their baby brother’s death, Puente was 10 years old, and Tahimi Cardona, 5. They lived with their mother and Gonzalez inside a small Miami efficiency, where prosecutors believe Lazaro was tortured and eventually beaten with a baseball bat — a wound that helped end his life.

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Lazaro “Baby Lollipops” Figueroa, the Miami toddler found tortured and beaten to death in November 2013. Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office

Cardona was first convicted in 1992, the first woman to be sent to Death Row for killing her own child. The Florida Supreme Court later overturned the conviction. She was again convicted and sent to Death Row in 2010.

At that second trial, in an effort to have jurors spare Cardona, both Puente and Tahimi both testified.

Tahimi Cardona, who went to live with foster parents, told jurors that she began writing her imprisoned mother at age 12, and the two managed to forge a relationship. She later graduated from college.

Puente, however, did not fare well. He recorded his first of dozens of arrests at age 15, for stealing a car. The court system labeled him a ‘habitual violent offender.”

“He first went to visit his mother when he was fifteen or sixteen. They have been writing to each other since that time. She urges him to stay out of trouble, and he finds his motivation in his relationship with her,” her defense lawyer wrote in an appeal.

He served three years in prison for a 2006 robbery but didn’t stay out of trouble long. Arrest after arrest followed: grand theft, battery, cocaine possession, disorderly intoxication, loitering and prowling. He testified at his mother’s sentencing in 2010 while wearing his jail jumpsuit.

Puente was taken into custody for good in 2012, when he broke into a Little Havana home in 2012, stealing a television set and punching a victim several times. He led police on a brief car chase before crashing, running away on foot before an officer corralled him.

He was living at the Gulf Annex, where 17 inmates have died since 2013, most of them of natural causes. Only one inmate has been killed in a homicide; citing a lack of evidence, prosecutors declined to file charges relating to the death of Edgar Rios in 2015.

Puente, however, is one of four inmates whose deaths over the past year are still being investigated, according to corrections. Authorities have yet to release causes or manners of death in any of those cases.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics show that more than 700,000 children are referred to child protective agencies as a result of abuse or neglect in the U.S. each year.

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