Parents who housed children in shed say no abuse

Couple released from jail Tuesday morning

Joshua Tree parents who kept kids in shed for 4 years released

JOSHUA TREE, Calif. - The Joshua Tree parents who were arrested for keeping their children in a shed for 4 years have been released from custody.

Last Wednesday, 51-year-old Mona Kirk and 73-year-old Daniel Panico were arrested by San Bernardino County Sheriff's deputies after it was discovered that the couple had been housing their three children in "an approximately 20 feet long by 4 feet high by 10 feet wide" plywood shed for four years. 

They were charged with three felony counts of child abuse and pleaded not gulty to the charges on March 2nd. They were being held on $300,000 bail each.

Kirk and Panico were released on their own recognizance Tuesday morning after a judge decided they were not a flight risk, nor a risk to the high desert community, said San Bernardino County Public Defender Elizabeth Crabtree, who is representing Kirk. Panico has obtained a private attorney.

Both Panico and Kirk spoke to the media after their release for the first time since their arrests.

"I feel very fortunate, we found a good lawyer" Panico said.

"There was no abuse. No abuse," Kirk said.

The couple was arrested while the deputies were conducting an area check of the 7000 block of Sun Fair Road in Joshua Tree. They came upon the seemingly abandoned property which Kirk, Panico, and their three children were living, which they say lacked running water and electricity. 

Deputies found "several large holes and mounds of trash and human feces" throughout the property during their search according to the Sheriff's Department news release. 

Close friends of the couple told KESQ / CBS Local 2's Katie Widner that they returned to the property immediately after being released from jail Tuesday to collect some personal belongings before moving on to a friends house in the local area where they will stay until their court date next week.

"Mona misses her children. She's happy to be released today and expects to see them soon," said Elizabeth Crabtree, Deputy Public Defender for the San Bernardino County Public Defender's Office in Joshua Tree.

Crabtree says she believes it's a case of people being arrested for living a life that's different from the norm. 

"I think there is a good argument that they were arrested for being poor," Crabtree said.

It's a sentiment supporters have echoed as well.

"They're being punished because they're poor. It's not a criminal act. It's poverty. It's homelessness," said Marsha Custodio, who met the family in a scouting group.

"The kids are definitely taken care of," said Jackie Klear, who has known the family for 10 years.

The children are still in the custody of Child Protective Services. Klear said they had been placed with a local family that previously knew the couple. 

The couple is expected to return to court on Mar. 15th for a preliminary hearing on three charges of felony child abuse. Currently, there is a protective order barring them from communicating with their children. Crabtree said a hearing is set for Mar. 13th for a judge to evaluate the order.

A GoFundMe page that Klear set up to help the couple has raised more than $23,000.

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