By Mary Duan
Angelica Alcantar is one tough customer. Watching her testify in the double murder trial of Gonzalo Curiel, the man who moved in with her family at the age of 16 and quickly became her mother’s partner — in life and, allegedly, in crime — I was left with one overriding thought:
Had Alcantar been able to figure out a way to leap from the witness stand and get her hands around Gonzalo Curiel’s throat before the bailiff got to her, she would have.
Alcantar’s disdain for Curiel, and for her own mother, was palpable. As the first witness called on the second day of Curiel’s trial in the killings of 6-year-old Shaun Tara and Delylah Tara, 3, and the torture and abuse of the Tara’s 9-year-old half-sister, Alcantar testified she didn’t see ongoing abuse of the three children, but that she heard enough about their neglect to convince her grandmother to call Child Protective Services.
Alcantar, 23, moved out of her mother’s home for the first time at age 16, came back for a short while and moved out for good at 17. Under questioning from Deputy District Attorney Steve Somers, Alcantar described her relationship with her mother in the years before Huntsman’s arrest as estranged. But she she tried to maintain contact with her three younger half-siblings, as well as the her distant cousins — the Tara children and their older half-sibling, known in court as Jane Doe.
Confused yet? You’re not alone: It’s a complicated family tree.
There were nine people living in Huntsman’s tiny, filthy apartment at 501 Fremont St.: Huntsman; her husband, Cris Criswell; their son, Daniel; their twin children; known in court as Twin Boy and Twin Girl; Shaun, Delylah and Jane Doe; and Curiel, a friend of Daniel’s from Salinas High School.
The twins are not being identified because they’re still minors, while Daniel Criswell, who was 15 when the killings occurred, is now 18. And Jane Doe isn’t being identified because she’s a minor and the victim of horrendous abuse.
The Tara kids and Jane Doe joined the household in 2014 after their mother was killed in a car accident in Southern California and their father, long battling a drug addiction, was sent to prison. Huntsman was his first cousin, and he asked her to care for the children while he was locked up.
Curiel was raised alone by his father, who worked long hours in the building trades — he started spending more time at Huntsman’s house than his own in his junior year at Salinas High, then eventually moved in at the beginning of 2015.
“When she was there, she was a good mom,” Alcantar said of her mother, as Deputy District Attorney Steve Somers asked her to describe the household dynamics. “She worked a lot so she wasn’t there. She was a good mom for the most part.”
And it wasn’t unusual that her brother had a friend who moved in — it was that kind of a house, “always welcoming for neighborhood kids,” she said. Alcantar said the issues came later, when Curiel started putting his hands on Daniel.
She described an incident that happened shortly after Criswell discovered his wife was having sex with Curiel, then age 16. A fight ensued and the family, minus Criswell, fled for a time to the Goodnite Inn, all cramming into a single room. Alcantar went to the motel in the mornings to be with her siblings and help out with the little kids.
“I started hearing yelling…I think it was over a game system,” she said, adding that the twins told her Curiel had choked Daniel. “I saw Daniel laying on the bed and Gonzalo standing over him. And then I told Gonzalo not to be putting his hands on my brothers and I walked out of the room.”
After Criswell moved out, the family returned to the Fremont Street apartment and Alcantar stopped speaking to Huntsman altogether. She noted the affection between her mother and Curiel, and thought it was inappropriate.
“My general thought was that I knew her and Gonzalo were in a relationship and I didn’t want to be around it or see it,” Alcantar said. “I was used to having the kids in my life every day or every other day — to not see them was very hard.”
As for the Tara kids and Jane Doe: “We took them to the beach, we took them to Great America. The whole time they were staying with us, they went everywhere we did,” she said. “They were happy.”
Until they weren’t. A few months after Criswell moved out, Daniel was arrested and detained for six months at juvenile hall. And that, Somers has told the jury, is when things rapidly went south for the Tara children and Jane Doe. Based on things she heard from others in the family, Alcantar discovered that the kids were being left alone, often for days at a time, with her then-11-year-old sister left in charge. She went to her grandmother and urged her to call CPS, which she did.
It was one of perhaps a half dozen calls teachers, family members and neighbors made to CPS about the conditions at the home, and the obvious mistreatment of the Tara kids and Jane Doe.
Daniel Criswell and the twins also testified on the second day of the Curiel trial. He was still in juvenile hall when the Tara children were killed on or around Thanksgiving 2015, and he never saw the children being abused.
When he was still in the home, though, he said Shaun, Delylah and Jane Doe were treated equally to him and his siblings — they were well fed, wore clean clothes, were cared for and played with. And while he was incarcerated, he received phone calls, visits and notes and pictures from the family, with nothing to indicate there were any problems at the house.
Before he went into custody, Daniel Criswell also became aware that something was going on between his friend and his mother. He walked into his mother’s room and saw them holding each other — and he went off on them.
“I started saying, ‘What the hell are you doing? Get out of here, that’s my mom, you’re not supposed to be touching her like that,’” he said. “My mom said she wasn’t doing nothing and I believe her (but) I had a bad vibe.”
The last time he saw his mother was in December 2015 — after the Tara kids were killed and the family had decamped for Quincy, in Plumas County. Huntsman and, allegedly, Curiel, dumped the bodies in a blue Sterilite container and placed them in a storage unit in Redding. When they returned to Salinas in early December to retrieve more belongings and to visit Daniel, Huntsman told him she had moved because she wanted to take him out of Salinas and ensure he had a fresh start when he was released from custody.
As for the kids, Huntsman told him: “They’re OK. They’re at the babysitter. They’re fine.”
Testimony from the twins was somewhat of a dicier proposition. The boy, now 14, was 11 when the Tara kids and Jane Doe moved in, with Curiel moving in some months later. The boy said he would wake early in the morning, leave the house and stay gone until dark, either playing video games at friend’s homes, riding his bike around the neighborhood or hanging out at the city rec center. Curiel, he said, choked him once when he refused to go to school.
“I didn’t want to be around him because he would always yell at me about stupid stuff,” the boy said. And his mother never intervened in it.
When Somers asked him if things got better or worse after his father moved out and his brother went to juvenile hall, the boy said: Worse.
“They started hitting them (the Tara kids and Jane Doe) and stuff,” he said. “He would hit them a lot.” And, the boy said, the kids would also be placed in the bathroom, with the door locked from the outside so they couldn’t get out.
The boy was away at fifth grade science camp when the Tara children died. When he got back from camp, Shaun and Delylah were gone — his mom told him they had been put up for adoption.
When the family packed for the move to Quincy, he noticed a rotting smell in the car on the drive up there.
Twin girl took the stand after her brother. She was extremely close to Daniel, and when Somers asked her about life in the home after Daniel was incarcerated, she began to weep.
“It was just different in the house without him,” she said.
She testified she saw both her mother and Curiel hit the children, but wasn’t always clear on the reason why. Delylah and Jane Doe were hit for urinating in their pants, and she saw all three kids sometimes tied up, secured with zip ties around their hands.
She was once left in charge of the kids with Delylah zip-tied to her bed, an act she said both her mom and Curiel did. Her aunt came over, saw what had happened and cut Delylah loose before calling CPS.
The girl grew increasingly agitated as she testified, gnawing compulsively on her fingernails.
When the Tara children disappeared in the middle of the night after Thanksgiving, her mother told her they had gone to live with another family member.
She, too, noticed the smell of rot in the car as the family drove north to their new life.
Testimony in Gonzalo Curiel’s trial is expected to last through the week. If convicted, the 20-year-old faces life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Next: How Jane Doe was discovered, barely alive, in the backseat of a car in Plumas County. Deputy District Attorney Steve Somers says he can never explain why Shaun and Delylah Tara were killed, but images and video retrieved from a cell phone offer insight into Gonzalo Curiel’s mind.
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