Indio teen testifies against mother in sickening murder case

INDIO, Calif. -

A teenage girl whose mother is charged in the death of her 3-year-old sister testified today that her mother would pepper-spray the toddler and poke her with hot needles as punishment.

Yolanda Guadalupe Pena, 43, faces charges of murder, torture and assaulting a child causing great bodily injury and five counts of inflicting injury on a child. She was arrested June 30, 2009, in her daughter's death.

Delilah Urrutia suffered head trauma, second-degree burns on her face, neck, chest, back and arms, and had other signs of physical abuse, according to police and prosecutors.

The toddler was dead when authorities arrived at her home in the 44000 block of Vista Dunes Lane in La Quinta about 10:15 p.m. on June 25, 2009,  Riverside County sheriff's deputies said.

One of Pena's two older daughters testified that her mother pepper sprayed Delilah if she did not eat what was put before her.

"How would Delilah react when she got pepper sprayed?" asked Deputy District Attorney Lisa DiMaria.

"She would scream a lot," the 16-year-old said.

On other occasions, the girl said, her mother would also heat needles on the stove and poke Delilah with them to punish her.

"How did Delilah react to this?" DiMaria asked.

"She would scream," the girl said.

She testified that she was staying with her mother's best friend the day Delilah died.

"I couldn't believe it. I started crying," she said when her mother's friend told her the news.

She testified that she didn't initially tell a police detective or a child abuse specialist about her mother's alleged abuse because she was scared of her mother.

She said her mother told her not to say anything to authorities. Later, she said, "I talked to my (older) brother, and he said I should tell the truth."

In her opening statement on Monday, DiMaria said Pena sent Delilah to live with a relative of her best friend when she about 2, then took her back several months later.

Pena allegedly physically abused Delilah and one of her two other daughters. Pena allegedly told the daughter who hadn't been abused that she would be punished, too, unless she reported her sisters' misdeeds to her, the prosecutor said.

DiMaria said the Delilah and an older daughter would sometimes sit in the bathtub while hot and cold water were poured over them. Other times, Delilah was tied up in a plastic bin and put in a closet, with her mouth duct taped, DiMaria said.

The day Delilah died, one of the older daughters -- who was about 11 -- was home with the girl, the prosecutor said.

DiMaria said the older daughter told their mother, who was at work, that Delilah was misbehaving.

"So the defendant ordered (her daughter) to get a cup of water and heat it in the microwave ... and pour it on her sister," DiMaria told jurors in her opening statement. "And she did that all day."

When Pena got home, she saw Delilah looking at her older sister, which wasn't allowed, "so the defendant started hitting Delilah in the head, hard. (The older daughter) says she did it more than 20 times, and that's supported by the massive brain bleed suffered by this little girl," DiMaria alleged.

Pena left to go to her best friend's house, after tying the toddlers' wrists and ankles, putting a sock in her mouth and a stocking over her head, DiMaria said. She was left in a plastic bin.

Later that night, once Pena and the older daughter came home, Pena untied Delilah and told the older girl to check her pulse. She didn't feel one and called her mother's best friend, then 911.

"The defendant also told (her daughter): `Do not tell police what happened. Tell them she poured water on herself and that she hits herself,"' DiMaria said.

The girl, now 15, testified on Tuesday that her mother hit Delilah daily, using objects like a tree branch, the heel of a high-heeled shoe, a cord from the television and a plastic hanger. Her mother sometimes kept Delilah tied up in the bathtub all day, she said.

Pena's attorney, Thomas Cavanaugh, told jurors his client was a "very conscientious, hardworking single parent" who struggled to support her family. Pena was a housekeeper at Eisenhower Medical Center.

He said Pena was a "very fastidious woman" whose discipline of her children "warped into abuse." She disciplined them when they didn't get good grades or did something wrong.

"This is a case of a struggling mother who crossed the line and became abusive, but with those goals in mind," Cavanaugh said.

Delilah, he said, was a "troubled child" who struggled in the strict environment and acted out. He said Pena was very upset and emotional when her daughter died.

"Despite the evidence of abuse ... Ms. Pena did not intend or cause the death of her child on the day in question," Cavanaugh said.

Pena was being held in lieu of $1 million bail.

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