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

Officer Terp took Raul to the bedroom and questioned him about what had happened. Meanwhile, the dying infant was flown to Phoenix Children's Hospital. When the Larranagas arrived there, they found Desiree hooked up to a jumble of equipment. That, they say, is when they first noticed the red marks on her cheeks. "I'm sure she didn't have that before," Karla says.

Hooked to the machines, Desiree shivered.

Mesa homicide detective Donald Byers sits with his hand on a large notebook--the Desiree Larranaga murder investigation. He's still so familiar with the case, the notebook remains closed throughout his discussion of it.

Byers has an elfin appearance and a reassuring, guileless manner. It's not hard to see why the Larranagas took a liking to him even as he was investigating them as suspects in the murder of their own child. Byers, 41, is an 18-year veteran of the Mesa Police Department, and in the eight years he's worked as a homicide detective, he says that he has handled few infant deaths--he admits that it's not his specialty.

But the thick investigation, most of which the department turned over to New Times, seems professional and thoughtful. With their child dying literally down the hospital hall, Raul and Karla Larranaga had been interviewed separately by Byers, and were put at enough ease to provide detailed, consistent accounts of the previous 24 hours.

Byers acknowledges that it is an important sign--that in Raul's initial questioning by Officer Terp, and in later interviews with Byers, that the Larranagas had provided unchanging accounts in great agreement.

Byers also interviewed the other adults in the Larranaga house, Lourdes Arredondo and Raul Ruiz, but not until Desiree had been dead for a month.

The transcript of Arredondo's interview contains significant inconsistencies with what the Larranagas had told Byers. Arredondo claims that it was Karla, not Raul, for example, who brought the baby out of the bedroom, and that Karla handed the baby to Arredondo while she went to call 911.

"I don't know that I really placed much emphasis on [the discrepancies]," Byers tells New Times. "In the big scheme, it's not a glaring discrepancy, considering the trauma of the event."

Arredondo and Ruiz also tell Byers that Karla was an uncaring mother who had to be prodded to provide her baby's most basic needs, and that Raul showed no interest in the baby whatsoever.

Byers says that since he doesn't speak Spanish, he was at a disadvantage in his interviews with Arredondo and Ruiz, since he couldn't make judgments about their veracity. And he employed a translator who was inexperienced, he says, in the kind of subtleties of human communication that a veteran homicide investigator learns to distinguish.

Raul and Karla, on the other hand, made definite impressions on him: "I felt that [Karla] was coming off as appropriate for what happened. I didn't get the sense she was trying to deceive us." As for Raul: "He was stoic. I almost think that was his nature rather than something suspicious about him."

After interviewing the Larranagas in November and Arredondo and her husband in December, Byers says he briefed a county prosecutor about the case--telling him that with four adults in the house and the time of head injury undefined, he couldn't with certainty name any of them as primary suspects.

Byers tells New Times that the investigation remains open. He confirms Raul Larranaga's assertion that Byers once said that he found it hard to believe the Larranagas committed the crime, but that Byers couldn't eliminate them as suspects.

It's the burn marks on the baby's cheeks, that keep the Larranagas on the top of the list of four suspects.

"You'd have to believe that the skin problems are a sign of child abuse," he says. "I don't know who caused the [head] injuries that killed the baby. But what I have a real problem with is when you go to bed with the baby that night, they're pretty sure there are no marks on her. I have a problem with that."

If the Larranagas can offer no explanation of the baby's cheek abrasions, Byers says, it's harder for him to believe they didn't also cause Desiree's head trauma.

After their interviews, the Larranagas had no contact with Byers again until February, when he gave them a copy of the medical examiner's report.

The Larranagas say they still hadn't accepted the idea that anyone had really harmed Desiree. Some in the family, to this day, refuse to believe that a homicide occurred at all.

But when the Larranagas finally saw the medical examiner's report in February, they had to accept its conclusion: Someone had murdered their child.

On the day her baby died, Karla Larranaga was adamant: she told detective Byers her aunt, Lourdes Arredondo, could not have harmed Desiree. Karla had great respect for Arredondo, who was only eight years older but had a college degree and had taught handicapped children in Mexico, she says.

Soon after Desiree's death, however, the already frayed relationship between the Larranagas and their houseguests was severed. Arredondo, Ruiz and their daughter moved in with Karla's mother. Karla says she began to hear that Arredondo was saying terrible things about the Larranagas.

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