Taken Baby Syndrome

Raul and Karla Larranaga's baby Desiree died under mysterious circumstances a year ago. Now Child Protective Services has taken their newborn daughter, Sophia, away from them. But witnesses who neither the police nor CPS interviewed tell New Times they su

It's something to hold onto.

The Larranagas sit in their kitchen--they've moved from Mesa to a modest home in Chandler--and explain how someone at Phoenix Children's Hospital, where Desiree died, had notified CPS of Sophia's birth, setting the stage for the state's seizure of their newborn.

They also recount what they've already told police and caseworkers alike: that none of the things CPS says about them is true, and that the Larranagas want to know, as much as anyone, what happened to Desiree.

Raul does most of the talking. He's 22, and originally from California. His parents were born in Mexico and Raul is bilingual, but his English is unaccented. He's young, but Raul bears the seriousness and maturity of someone much older. His stoicism seems etched into his handsome features.

Although he has kept mainly menial jobs in his young adulthood, Raul is an avid reader whose taste runs to history and religious literature.

He met Karla Soto at a raucous Pentecostal church in 1992. They got to know each other at loud church meetings and aggressive evangelical outings--they were even maced by police at a Tempe mall when their militant praying got out of hand.

Since then, they've toned down their zeal, joining a less manic church.
Karla, 23, was born in Mexico, as were her parents, aunts and siblings, many of whom have moved to the Valley from their native Mexicali. Karla has lived in Arizona for five years, but during her life she has lived periodically on both sides of the border. Her English is very good--actually, it's charming, with a rhythmic, lilting accent--but she prefers to let her husband speak. In Spanish, however, she's the more aggressive of the two.

The Larranagas were married in February 1995, and Desiree was born six months later, on August 9.

Yes, they have told investigators, Desiree was a surprise, and the reason they married when they did. But no, she was not unwanted. Unlike most others their age, the Larranagas were quite ready to be parents and to run a home.

Although both of them are quite intelligent, neither had particularly strong educational backgrounds. College was something they talked about but put aside for work. Karla's mother had helped them purchase an office-cleaning franchise, which meant long nights of work with only limited returns. Not surprisingly, tension over finances was a source of conflict in their young marriage.

So were cultural differences. Raul and Karla consider themselves typical of American couples their age--they like to think of their relationship as a partnership, with each donating a half share of effort and resources. Karla's kin, however, are closer to their Mexican origins than Raul's, and her family still holds tightly to traditional ideas. An equal partnership is alien to that tradition, and Raul resented what he perceived as pressure from his in-laws to take over more of the breadwinning.

Three weeks before the death of their child, building pressure over money and family boiled over in the couple's first--and only, they say--bout of violence. Each of them volunteered to investigators that the fight had grown out of an argument over money, and that Karla became so upset she started pinching and pushing Raul. He retaliated with a jab to the nose that left her face swollen. Neither called police.

Despite such difficulties, the Larranagas were known for keeping an exceptionally tidy house (it was their business, after all), and for being doting parents.

And Raul's strained relations with Karla's family didn't keep him from agreeing to help out when Karla's aunt needed help.

Lourdes Arredondo, her husband Raul Ruiz and their 4-year-old daughter Melissa moved into the Larranagas' residence in October 1995 after Ruiz lost his janitor job. The family had only recently moved to the Valley from Mexicali, where Ruiz had worked as an accountant and Arredondo as a high school teacher, according to Karla and other Arredondo family members.

Raul and Karla gave them one of the house's three bedrooms and asked for no rent while Ruiz looked for work. In return, Lourdes offered to watch Desiree when the Larranagas went out to clean offices. Though the two families shared the same house, they soon adopted different schedules, and interacted relatively little.

Desiree Larranaga's first set of bruises showed up about one week after Karla's relatives moved in.

The red dots are still so vivid in her memory, Karla can still sketch them very precisely--a row on the bottom of the toes and a row on the ball of the right foot. Another set on the tips of the baby's fingers. They were purplish-red, and Karla says she had no idea how her baby came by them. After pointing the bruises out to Raul, Karla made an appointment to see Desiree's pediatrician. The soonest appointment available was not for four days.

By then, the dots had vanished, but Karla took Desiree anyway--a new set of bruises had appeared.

This time, there were two yellow-green lines across the back of Desiree's knees, and a bruise on her ear. Karla told the doctor she didn't know where they came from--but wondered if the baby's swing might have pinched the back of her knees, a theory the doctor duly noted. Just in case, the baby's blood was tested. It was normal.

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