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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – New allegations have come up of a massive Child, Youth, and Families Department cover-up after the death of four-year-old James Dunklee. Attorneys in a wrongful death lawsuit say CYFD destroyed evidence and forced caseworkers to hide how they handled his case. A new video shows how one case was handled and it is a video APD has refused to release.
Video from October 2019 showed a friendly James Dunklee chatting with an officer and nurse. He’s polite and concerned about a tired officer. James’ mother had taken him to a Duke City Urgent Care because his arm was hurting. But CYFD and the Albuquerque Police Department were called after James told a doctor about also having bruised genitals.
APD then did a thorough exam and found bruises all over Dunklee. He had a black eye, a cut on his face, a swollen hand, an arm injury, and was still in a diaper.
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A CYFD caseworker filling on the case that day told police he had a lot of marks and bruises on him. Meanwhile, James’s mother, Krista Cruz, had excuse after excuse. She told police she had no idea her ex-boyfriend, Arturo, was molesting her son.
Cruz and James were living with her friend, Pamela Esparza, and Esparza’s boyfriend Zerrick Marquez, in an apartment near the fairgrounds. The couple routinely babysat the boy.
Esparza showed up at the urgent care and they blamed the bruises on Esparza’s two-year-old daughter. CYFD would then send James Dunklee to a foster home temporarily, suspecting Marquez was behind the injured arm and cuts and bruises on his face.
“The only worker that had ever investigated the home where he was living with Zerrick and Pamela, was begging her bosses to do the right thing and take him into custody and they said no. They said calm down. That’s what they told her,” said Sara Crecca, attorney.
Attorneys Alex Crecca, Rachel Berenson, and Sara Crecca have filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of James’ grandfather. They say during a recent deposition, James’ CYFD caseworkers fought to keep him in CYFD custody, but her supervisors told her no. “They said calm down. That’s what they told her. Calm down. We’re going to send him home with his mom on a safety plan. Fifty-two days later he was dead,” said Crecca.
Cruz had promised she would not return to Marquez’s apartment. Less than two months later, James was found dead at Marquez’s home. Marquez told police that James went to the restroom, said he didn’t feel good, and hit his head on the wall.
Marquez had beaten James to death. He pled guilty to intentional child abuse resulting in death and is facing a life sentence. Esparza and Cruz are awaiting trial for allegedly knowing about the abuse and allowing it.
Those attorneys have amended the lawsuit to include allegations that CYFD tried covering up how they handled the case. “Her CYFD managers directed the investigator to erase her notes before entering them in the official CYFD system,” said Crecca. Those attorneys believe all the pictures were destroyed. “She had all of that evidence on her phone,” said Rachel Berenson, attorney.
Attorneys say the caseworker turned that phone in and it was reset to factory settings. Now, they are demanding change. “We would love to not have to be representing dead kids. We would love for CYFD to do their job,” said Alex Crecca, attorney.
CYFD responded multiple times throughout James’ life to investigate abuse claims. KRQE News 13 put in IPRA requests to several law enforcement agencies a year ago trying to get video. KRQE News 13 was denied. KRQE News 13 obtained video from the attorneys who were also denied but obtained it through the district attorney’s office.
CYFD released this statement:
“The Department will defend against these claims in court, including the fact that Mr. Zerrick Marquez has pleaded guilty to Intentional Abuse of a Child (Resulting in Death) in connection to the death of this innocent child.
Regardless of the circumstances that caused this child’s death, the Department remains committed to improving New Mexico’s child welfare system and preventing incidents like these from happening. We cannot comment on pending litigation.Charlie Moore-Pabst, CYFD Spokesperson