COOK COUNTY CRIMINAL COURTHOUSE — The 4-year-old boy found dead in a burning building Tuesday was so malnourished that police assumed they'd discovered a 9-month-old baby, prosecutors said Thursday.
Mother Alyssa Garcia, 27, is accused of regularly locking Manuel "Manny" Aguilar in a back room with urine and feces, denying him food and slapping him.
When the boy died July 29, Garcia — who has six children including Manny and week-old twins — decided to hide Manny's body in an abandoned building because "she didn't want DCFS to take away her kids again," Assistant State's Attorney Jamie Santini said during a bond hearing Thursday.
On Tuesday, Garcia, her 17-year-old boyfriend and his brother, 19-year-old Christian Camarena, wrapped Manny in a blue blanket, drove him to an abandoned home in the 1400 block of West Marquette Road and set his body on fire using lighter fluid, prosecutors said.
Police responding to an arson call spotted the trio running away from the building, according to arrest report.
According to the report, Garcia asked police, "What if something bad happened, and you didn't mean for it to happen?"
Garcia and Christian Camarena are charged with concealing a death and attempted arson. Garcia's 17-year-old boyfriend was charged as a juvenile.
During the course of their investigation, police learned from witnesses that Garcia regularly kept Manny in a back room of her Englewood home in the 6400 block of South Wolcott Avenue, prosecutors said.
The room smelled like urine and feces, witnesses said, because the boy often hid his feces to avoid a beating for defecating on the floor. He was often kept completely naked and was so thin that his ribs were clearly visible, prosecutors said.
Witnesses rarely saw the boy eat, but did report that Garcia gave him water. According to prosecutors, Garcia often beat Manny with a shoe and told her other children not to let him out of the back room, even when he screamed, "Let me out!"
Garcia often left her children at home without food during the day, according to a woman who lived downstairs from the family in the 6300 block of South Wolcott Avenue.
The woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said she sometimes left extra portions for them when she cooked for her own kids.
"I tried to keep to myself and mind my own business, but after that happened I had to curse her out," the woman said. "I had to say, 'You can't do that no more. You can't do that to your children.'"
Unlike her other three children, Garcia never let Manny out of the narrow two-story house, the woman said. On the rare occasions that she saw him, he looked tired and emaciated.
"He didn't really talk much," she said. "Sometimes he said he was hungry."
It's not clear why Garcia allegedly mistreated Manny.
Veronica Resa, a spokeswoman with DCFS, said the department took away Garcia's children in 2012, the same year Garcia was convicted of child endangerment for leaving her children alone in a car, and sentenced to 18 months probation.
DCFS gave the children back to Garcia in 2015 after she "complied with all DCFS requests" and attended parenting classes, Resa said. As of Thursday, Garcia's five surviving children were in DCFS custody; the infant twins remain at the hospital for monitoring.
According to prosecutors, Manny was found dead July 29. One of Garcia's older children took the boy's pulse before Garcia and her boyfriend bathed Manny, dressed him, wrapped him in a blue blanket and placed him in a playroom, Santini said.
The couple later moved Manny's body to the trunk of a car, where Garcia used multiple tree-shaped air fresheners to mask the smell, Santini said.
On Thursday outside the home on Wolcott, a pungent smell remained.
About 9:30 p.m. Tuesday — four days after Manny was found dead — Garcia and the two brothers brought Manny's body to the abandoned building and lit it on fire with lighter fluid, prosecutors said.
Neighbors called 911, and police arrested the trio nearby, smelling like lighter fluid, court records show. Police found Manny inside the building, partially burned, and assumed the boy was a 9-month-old baby based on his small size.
On Thursday afternoon, a group of older men stood on the sidewalk exchanging rumors and shaking their heads in disbelief. In the middle was S. Taylor, who declined to say his full first name, selling snow cones and Red Hots from behind a plastic table.
Taylor said his "intuition was sparked" Tuesday morning, when he saw Garcia and her boyfriend walk out of their house with a large bundled blanket and bring it to their car. Garcia's oldest son followed them holding two bags of laundry, he said.
When the news erupted across the block Wednesday, "it clicked," he said.
"I've been here 41 years, and I've seen a lot of things come and go on this block," Taylor said. "But to do that to a kid like that — you don't mess with the kids, man. Not the kids."
Taylor had only seen Manny once, he said, at a block party about a year earlier. He described him as a "frail little boy."
"I'm a grandfather, and hearing about it just makes me sick as hell," Taylor said, looking down and shaking his head. "It just hurts you to your core. You can't tolerate that s---."
The news was especially shocking, Taylor said, because "99 percent of us didn't even know that boy was in there."
Randy Williams, a retired deacon who lives with his elderly mother across the street from Garcia's house, said he often saw the mother fighting with her boyfriend or cursing out the children. But he never thought something so horrible was going on behind closed doors.
"We have a lot of stuff going on on this block — but to hear something like that has been going on under our nose this whole time is just ridiculous," he said. "The devil's been on this block real strong lately."
The Cook County Medical Examiner's Office has not yet identified Manny's cause of death. Toxicology reports and a radiology exam are pending. If the boy's death is a ruled a homicide, Garcia, her boyfriend and Camarena could face additional charges.
Garcia was previously convicted of endangering a child in 2012 and sentenced to 18 months probation. Cook County Judge Maria Kuriakos Ciesil on Thursday set Garcia's bail at $2 million.
In the 2012 case, Garcia left three of her children alone in a car because "she was busy with her boyfriend," Santini said. Neighbors found the children when the oldest child began knocking on doors.
According to her public defender, Garcia has six children including Manny and the week-old twins. The other children are aged 6, 8 and 10. Garcia works at Olive Garden and was previously employed by Chili's and Dunkin' Donuts, the attorney said.
DCFS is investigating Manny's death, including allegations of abuse and neglect, Resa said. In February 2016, the department investigated allegations of abuse and neglect involving one of Garcia's older children. The report was "unfounded," Resa said.
According to prosecutors, Christian Camarena has no criminal background. His bail was set at $1 million.
Camarena's brother was charged separately as a juvenile with attempted arson and concealing a homicide. He was ordered held in custody Thursday.
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