By Monica Alonzo
By Stephen Lemons
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Dulce Paloma Baltazar Pedraza
By Ray Stern
By Pete Kotz
By Monica Alonzo
By New Times
The friendly fat woman who brings their baby to them for a few hours each week is regaling Raul and Karla Larranaga with stories from her career saving neglected children: Kids with cigarette burns on their arms; two children left in a park on a hot day with a note from their mother explaining that she couldn't care for them anymore; an abandoned 1-year-old with gonorrhea.
The woman's work for Child Protective Services has involved her in some of the state's most notorious cases. She tells the Larranagas with a smile that she's often been caught by television cameras during coverage of one abandoned baby or another. "Oh, yeah, I'm in the headlines," she says.
The Larranagas struggle to pay attention. The couple is allowed to see their 1-month-old daughter, Sophia, for only four hours each week, ever since a CPS official showed up at Phoenix Children's Hospital, when Sophia was only two days old, to whisk her away.
Raul tries to smile at the caseworker's stories, but he can't take his eyes off Karla, who feeds the baby from a bottle. While the woman talks, they pass Sophia back and forth, trying to get enough contact in one hour to last them three days, which will be the next time they see their daughter.
Raul politely asks the woman to tell them more about CPS. Has she known of parents who were wrongly accused of hurting their children?
In fact, the caseworker tells them, before she went to work for CPS she herself had been investigated by the agency on bogus charges made by her ex-husband; she convinced him to recant.
Karla suddenly pulls the bottle out of Sophia's mouth and frowns at it. "What is it?" Raul asks as she opens the bottle and fishes something out with her finger.
It's a dead fly.
Karla asks the caseworker--who had brought the bottle--how it was prepared.
The caseworker shrugs and says that bugs sometimes get into powdered milk.
"She's a little young for protein yet," the caseworker jokes.
Raul takes the baby as Karla goes to the kitchen to replace the bottle. Sophia's eyes widen as she stares into her father's face. He widens his in return.
Too soon, the hour is over, and the caseworker pushes herself up from the Larranagas' sofa with some effort. She reminds them that she'll be bringing a trainee with her on Friday, and tells them not to ask her so many questions about CPS in front of her co-worker.
They promise not to.
Two weeks earlier, Raul and Karla Larranaga had listened in a courtroom while another CPS caseworker told a judge why the agency believes Raul and Karla are murderers.
Early on the morning of November 13, 1995, the Larranagas had called 911 to report that their first child, 3-month-old Desiree, had stopped breathing.
The child was flown by helicopter to Phoenix Children's Hospital, where doctors diagnosed her with irreversible brain damage. After several hours, doctors pronounced Desiree brain dead and removed her from a respirator. The county medical examiner proclaimed the child's death a homicide consistent with "shaken baby syndrome."
To this day, however, Mesa police, who investigated the death, haven't charged anyone with the crime, since several adults had contact with Desiree in her final days. A detective admitted to Raul that he found it hard to believe that either he or Karla would be capable of hurting the child, but he has to consider them suspects simply because they were the last people in contact with Desiree.
If the Mesa police are unsure who caused Desiree Larranaga's death, however, CPS caseworker Lori Adams seems to have no doubts. Whatever hopes of reuniting with Sophia the Larranagas carry into juvenile court disappear as Adams lays out the agency's accusations:
* Two weeks before Desiree's death, the Larranagas had taken Desiree to a pediatrician to ask him about bruises which had shown up on the back of her legs.
* X-rays of Desiree's corpse showed a healing fracture on one of her shins.
* At the hospital on the morning of her death, Desiree had what looked like second-degree burns on her cheeks and under her chin.
* And, most important, Raul and Karla were alone with the child in her final five to six hours, when CPS believes the brain injury occurred.
Raul and Karla Larranaga, Adams is saying, had abused their child, shaken it fatally, and finally burned her face.
Raul's court-appointed attorney, Alan Shaw, points out that the medical examiner had not specified the time the head injury had occurred, but then Shaw cuts his objection short--it's become obvious, he says later, that CPS has no intention of reuniting the Larranagas short of an actual trial.
Devastated, Karla leaves the hearing in tears and has to be taken out of the building on the arm of a relative.
Raul stays behind, calmly discussing his situation with Shaw. One good piece of news has come out of the proceedings: CPS has agreed to evaluate Raul's parents. In only a matter of weeks, the Larranagas are told, temporary custody of Sophia may be granted to Raul's mother and stepfather. The Larranagas would still have limited access to their child, but at least the baby will be back in the family.
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.
Desiree's bruises faded, and the baby seemed to thrive. But Karla says she then noticed that the baby seemed to be experiencing discomfort. The doctor had given her medicine to clear up the baby's frequent, but minor problems with congestion--Karla wondered if the medicine was giving the baby headaches.
On Sunday, November 12, 1995, Karla arose at noon and woke up Desiree. She took the baby with her to prepare food while Raul slept. He got up two hours later, and the entire household--all six persons--were together until 5 p.m. That's when Raul and Karla left for another night of cleaning offices.
Karla says she hated leaving the baby with anyone--the previous night she'd taken Desiree with her and sat in an office lobby while Raul worked.
They returned home at 10:30 p.m. Karla says she went directly to Lourdes' bedroom where Desiree was sleeping on the bed. Karla put the baby into her crib in the Larranagas' bedroom without waking her. Then Karla went to the kitchen and cooked while Raul read at the kitchen table. After eating, the Larranagas retired to their room and watched television. They say the baby woke up about 1 a.m. in a talkative mood, so they took her out of the crib and played with her. She cried briefly but wouldn't take medicine or food, so Karla gave her some chamomile tea--which Raul's mother had recommended for colic--and then put her back to sleep.
Then the Larranagas played a game of Battleship.
It was just something they did, they told investigators. They liked to play board games and they liked to read. After the game, about 2 a.m., they each settled down with books. Karla says she drifted off about 3 a.m., but reawakened enough to sense that Raul had turned off the light and crawled over her to his side of the bed, which was against the wall.
Raul told investigators he fell asleep about 4 a.m.
At approximately 5:30, Raul says he was awakened by a gurgling sound coming from Desiree.
It was not an unfamiliar sound, he says. The baby had had some trouble with congestion--nothing to worry about, the baby's doctor had assured them--and the Larranagas were used to hearing the gurgling followed by a resumption of the baby's normal breathing.
But this time, Raul says, the gurgling was followed by silence.
It unnerved him. He crawled over Karla, waking her, and checked on the baby. "I touched her and she was cold and limp. I told Karla something was wrong with the baby and told her to call 911," he says.
Karla says she dashed out of the room, slamming open the door loudly on her way out.
Raul performed CPR, but he knows now that he was doing it incorrectly. "I was rusty at that point," he says. "I didn't really know how to do CPR." He tried to remember: how many breaths and then how many compressions with two fingers on the sternum?
Karla returned to the bedroom in a panic, saying she hadn't been able to get through to a 911 operator. She noticed then that the baby seemed to have a red discoloration under the chin.
Raul says he yelled to try the phone again. This time Karla got through, telling the 911 operator that Desiree wasn't breathing and that she had blood on her chin. The operator told her to bring the baby close to the phone to make sure Raul was doing CPR correctly. She yelled to Raul, who ran into the living room with the baby.
He set her on the couch, and Karla held the receiver to his ear as he continued to work on the baby.
Meanwhile, Lourdes and her husband--awakened by the commotion--were across the room, watching.
And that is the scene law enforcement officers described in their reports: Raul working on the baby, Karla hysterical on the telephone, Lourdes and her husband across the room.
"My first observation was that [Desiree] was clean and appeared well cared for as far as her hygiene," wrote Mesa police officer Neil Terp, the first one to arrive. "I could not see any evidence of marks of any kind on her. Her skin appeared to me to be flawless other than her pale white appearance."
Later, Terp notes, "While paramedics were treating Desiree, they were opening her mouth to put a tube down her throat. I noticed that when they opened her mouth, I could see saliva on the left side of her mouth that looked like it had a red substance mixed with it. I could not tell if it was blood. I did not notice anything on her face prior to paramedics treating her."
Another Mesa officer, Anthony Boyle, also noticed the substance: "There was a very light red-colored stain on the infant's chin, running from just under the mouth to the bottom portion of the chin on the underside of the neck. The stain appeared to be blood possibly mixed with saliva or vomit."
The third officer to respond, M. Robert Reyes, wrote, "Infant was white/pale in color, and I could see red, what appeared to be fluid, on the infant's left jaw/lip area."
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.
This is confirmed by relatives and family friends who spoke with New Times.
Several people claim that Arredondo, after seeing Raul Larranaga reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, for example, claimed that Raul idolized Hitler and killed his daughter because he only wanted male children.
Rumors that Arredondo had said unflattering things about the Larranagas to detective Byers also began to reach Karla. (The Larranagas, who are wholly unsophisticated in legal matters, did not obtain, until recently, copies of the police investigation or medical records pertaining to Desiree.)
Even after hearing that Arredondo was making derogatory, even bizarre, statements about the Larranagas, Karla has been reluctant to consider the possibility that her aunt could have had something to do with her daughter's injuries.
"Even though she's my aunt," Karla says, "I didn't know her well. I don't want to say something bad about her. They'll think we're just trying to get out from charges."
She does admit, however, that her family is becoming increasingly nervous about discussing Arredondo. And Karla's mother, who family members say repeatedly visited Arredondo when she was watching Desiree, tells Karla that she will not agree to an interview with New Times.
Dr. Heinz Karnitschnig, one of the most respected forensic pathologists in the state--he served as Maricopa County's medical examiner for 21 years--says CPS' version of the death of Desiree Larranaga is pure fantasy.
New Times asked Karnitschnig, who is now retired, to review the autopsy report on Desiree. He explains by telephone from his home in Prescott that shaken baby syndrome is a brain injury which may not kill for many hours, or even days.
After examining the record of Maricopa County medical examiner Dr. Philip Keen's autopsy of Desiree--which he praises for its thoroughness--Karnitschnig says there's no question Desiree was shaken up to a day before she died. And, he adds, the examination uncovered blood-vessel growth in some areas of injury, which indicates that the child received other head injuries as well, days earlier.
As to CPS' assertion that the injury occurred one to five hours before the baby's death: "That's bullshit," he says. "Twelve hours is an absolute minimum. I should say you could go back 24 hours [before the child stopped breathing]."
Children suspected to be victims of abuse are routinely x-rayed to find if their long bones, those in their legs, for example, show signs of fracture that might not otherwise be obvious to a medical examiner in an autopsy. Radiologists found a healing fracture on one of Desiree's leg bones. The Larranagas say they first found out about the x-ray results when they were mentioned by a CPS caseworker in last month's juvenile court hearing. Until then, they hadn't known their child had broken a bone, they insist.
Karnitschnig acknowledges that such a fracture might not be obvious, and that it might not even show swelling. If someone else were abusing their child, it's possible that the Larranagas would not have noticed such a fracture. "If it's an undisplaced fracture and the child isn't mobile anyway, then it might not be discovered until an x-ray is taken." On the other hand, he points out, the tibia broken in Desiree would not have had as much soft tissue around it as other bones, and he would expect the leg to swell, for the first few days anyway. But the Larranagas say they didn't notice anything.
As to the burns on Desiree's face, which detective Byers finds such a compelling indication of the Larranagas' guilt, Karnitschnig finds it significant so many witnesses reported that the child's face did not exhibit the burns when she left in the paramedics' care.
"There's a possibility that if there was nothing seen on the child when it left the house, and then there was discoloration that appeared later, it could have come from a tape that was used to hold a tube, perhaps. But," he cautions, "I can't make that determination simply from the description in the medical examiner's report."
Byers admits that the patrolmen's reports are perplexing--and he adds that paramedics also neglected to mention the cheek abrasions or burns in their reports--but he still finds them troubling.
But to accept Byers' assumption that the source of the abrasions is connected to the source of the shaking, then one also must accept that Raul Larranaga somehow burned his infant daughter at precisely the moment when his child was succumbing to the effects of being shaken hours earlier.
That snag, especially in the light of the unanimous observations by police officers who saw no burns, suggest that the red marks are a red herring.
By Karnitschnig's reckoning, Desiree's fatal injuries occurred during a 12-hour period on Sunday, November 12, from about 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
It's uncontroverted that for 11 of those hours, all six residents of the Larranaga household were present. None reported an unusual occurrence or excessive crying by the baby. And everyone agrees that at 5 p.m., Raul and Karla Larranaga left their house and placed their child in the care of Lourdes Arredondo.
What detective Byers didn't know is that three hours later, someone heard Desiree Larranaga screaming in pain.
Teresa Carrazco was the Larranagas' next-door neighbor in Mesa. When she and her 15-year-old daughter, Dolores, heard about Desiree's death, they contacted Karla's mother, a personal friend, to tell her what they knew. The Carrazcos say they have never been questioned by police.
Dolores tells New Times that on numerous occasions she heard Desiree Larranaga crying excessively when Raul and Karla were not at home.
"I heard the baby crying like desperately," she says, adding that it was the sound of a child in pain. "I told my mom . . ."
Her mother confirms her daughter's assertion, and says that eventually both of them heard Desiree's cries of pain: on the evening of November 12, 1995--the evening before the child was taken away by paramedics.
The time: about 8 p.m., when the Larranagas were away.
Maria Arredondo sits down in a barber chair at a Mesa salon where she works as a hairdresser. It's a nondescript storefront with a few empty chairs and a drab linoleum floor. Maria is wearing faded gold pants and a purple top, her hair neatly coiffed and a nervous smile on her face.
She's decided to talk to New Times and says that her daughter, Karla Larranaga, was mistaken when she said she wouldn't be interviewed. She has always been willing to talk about the death of Desiree, her granddaughter. She's just never been asked to, not by press, police or CPS investigators.
She's amiable, but while she speaks, she compulsively rubs two squishy hair curlers between her fingers. Before long, she becomes emotional.
"I feel sorry for Karla and Raul because they're so young," she says through an interpreter. "And they have to put up with people saying that Raul hurt the baby.
"When the baby died [at the hospital], I picked it up and handed it to Raul. 'Here's your baby,' I said, and he was crying. He said, 'I'll never see my baby again.'
"Raul is very quiet. He suffers inside."
There was a brief moment, she admits, when she allowed herself to doubt Raul and Karla, her own daughter. That occurred after her sister Lourdes had moved in with her and the two were discussing the tragedy. Lourdes questioned Raul and Karla's inability to resuscitate Desiree. Lourdes went on say that it was a sign of Raul and Karla's general neglect of Desiree--that they didn't care for or love her enough.
Maria says when she heard that, her doubts vanished. She told Lourdes that nobody was as obsessed with her own children the way Lourdes was. In fact, she says, Lourdes' relationship with her 4-year-old daughter Melissa was "sick." (Repeated attempts to contact Lourdes Arredondo by telephone were unsuccessful.)
Melissa was badly spoiled, Maria says, and when they moved in with the Larranagas, Melissa became very upset that her parents showed so much attention to Desiree. Lourdes tried to explain to her daughter that they showed the baby a lot of love because she was so little.
That's when another unhealthy relationship began to develop, Maria says: Melissa's obsession for Desiree. "Melissa would always be around the baby, carry it and jealously guard it.
Maria found that Lourdes would frequently leave Melissa and Desiree alone. Three bruises showed up on Desiree during these periods. "In less than a month [during the period Lourdes and Melissa spent with the Larranagas], a lot of things were happening to that baby," Maria says.
"Melissa would hit the baby," she says, "but I didn't think much about it because Melissa was so small. I didn't think that it could cause internal injuries."
Maria says she finally became alarmed after she entered Lourdes' bedroom to find Melissa jumping on the bed. "The baby was also on it, and the baby's head bounced up and down. There were no pillows around the baby." She says she yelled at Lourdes, telling her that she shouldn't leave Melissa alone with Desiree.
Karla also says that she once found Melissa playing around Lourdes' bed when Desiree was sleeping on it, and she became very upset. But her mother didn't tell her about the jumping incident, nor what the Carrazcos heard, until many months after Desiree's death. Maria says Karla asked her why she didn't tell her about it earlier, and was told, "I didn't want this to get bigger than it was."
At 9 p.m. on the evening before Desiree died, Maria says Lourdes called her in an agitated state to say that something was wrong with Desiree. "'What should I do? Should I take the baby to the doctor?'" Maria says Lourdes asked her. When she asked what was wrong, Lourdes replied that the baby had the flu. But Desiree had had a mild case of flu for more than a day, and Lourdes sounded too upset to be concerned about flu.
(It's important to note that when questioned by Detective Byers about the five hours she watched Desiree that evening, Lourdes said the baby was fine, except for a runny nose. She did not mention calling her sister for help.)
Maria says she urged Lourdes to take the baby to the doctor if it needed attention. Lourdes then told her that she had already talked to the baby's other grandmother--Raul's mother Fulgencia Hanson, who confirms that she called Lourdes about 7 p.m.--and Hanson had told her that Karla had been giving Desiree chamomile tea for her discomfort.
Maria didn't press Lourdes on the matter, she says, because as is the Mexican custom, when she heard that the other, elder grandmother had given advice, she demurred.
Following the baby's death, when Lourdes and Melissa moved in with her, Maria began to wonder if the little girl could have hurt the baby badly enough to cause her injuries. She says she asked Lourdes if Melissa had dropped the baby. "She never had a good answer to that question," Maria Arredondo says.
"I didn't want to hurt my daughter, and I didn't want to hurt my sister. I didn't want to take sides, but this thing needs to be cleaned up."
Caught in a swirl of conflicting emotions, Maria says she then gave this advice to Lourdes: "Be careful what you say, because you can get yourself or somebody else into trouble."
Faintly echoing through the empty beauty salon, some of Maria's observations seem like folk readings, like the interpretations of a naive and superstitious person or else someone who desperately wants to believe that a 4-year-old child, who wouldn't be charged with homicide, had caused Desiree's injury.
But when that fact is brought up--that one might suggest that Maria is making up stories to divert suspicions away from both her daughter and her sister--she protests vehemently. Her statements are fact, she says. Desiree's bruises showed up only after Lourdes and her daughter had moved in with the Larranagas; Maria personally saw Melissa endangering the baby by jumping on the bed and bouncing the infant; and bruises showed up after periods when Karla had left her baby with Lourdes and Melissa.
Even if investigators, after interviewing some of the people New Times interviewed, come to the same conclusion, there is no guarantee that Raul and Karla Larranaga will ever get their baby Sophia back.
"It's basically this," says Raul Larranaga's court-appointed attorney, Alan Shaw. "The child died while in the care of the parents. There were other people who were caring for the child before the parents came home, and if it was them, then the child shouldn't have been in their care. If they didn't kill the kid, they failed to protect it. That's [CPS'] whole line of reasoning."
"What I've heard from CPS, they're basing it on that somebody did it, and the parents had the baby last. Then they've gone off with this five-hour, six-hour bullshit that they've come up with here. I don't think that'll hold up in court."
One bright spot in a dim situation for the Larranagas: news that Tempe state Senator Gary Richardson had taken a personal interest in the case. He tells New Times he favors opening of CPS files to ensure greater accountability.
Barbara Hopkins, president of the Arizona Consortium for Children of Chronic Illness, has earned a reputation as an activist who fights to reunite families separated wrongly. She says the Larranaga case follows familiar lines, and betrays cultural biases at the core of what CPS does.
"They lay the responsibility back on the parents for not doing something about the situation," Hopkins says. "I think that if you look at the whole picture, Hispanics will invite family members into their house--family comes first. And when you do that, you disregard the problems that those family members might bring into the home. That's what you do when you're Hispanic, you help people."
She says that CPS unfairly holds parents to a white, middle-class ideal: parents who would immediately suspect child-care workers at the first sign of bruises and report it to a doctor or other authority.
That model devalues the actions of a mother like Karla Larranaga, who, like many working-class mothers, must rely on her extended family for child care and whose reaction to bruises is not to rush to a civil servant but simply to wonder, "Who could possibly hurt my baby?"
"I think the fact that they took the child in [to the doctor] was a very positive thing. If they wanted to hide something, they just could have waited for the bruises to disappear," Hopkins says.
"What bothers me more than anything else is what they do when they just whip a baby from a family. . . . Even if both of these parents didn't do it, for the rest of their lives, if they live here in Arizona . . . they could conceivably never have a child, because the state will keep taking them away."
CPS workers assigned to the case referred questions to the Department of Economic Security public information office, which did not respond to written inquiries.
The Larranagas had held out hope that CPS, after evaluating Raul's mother, Fulgencia Hanson, would give her temporary custody. But CPS officials tell Hanson that her lack of respect for authority would lead her to give Raul too much access to Sophia.
A trial for custody of Sophia appears inevitable; a pretrial hearing is scheduled for January.
"I've come to the conclusion that this is going to go hard and for a long time," says Raul Larranaga. "They're not planning on giving us back the baby soon."
"I feel like this is going to happen forever," Karla says. "I just want one person to believe us, just one person.