NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – A new federal lawsuit accuses the New Mexico Children, Youth, and Families Department (CYFD) of putting a little boy in danger. The danger ultimately cost him his life.

This is the second lawsuit filed in the case of four-year-old James Dunklee, who was beaten to death four years ago. 

Three people have been charged with the death, but attorneys said CYFD violated James’ civil rights. The lawsuit named CYFD and several employees for failing to protect the four-year-old from his abusers.

In 2019, four-year-old James Dunklee was allegedly killed at the hands of Zerrick Marquez. The lawsuit claimed Marquez was an abuser James specifically identified to CYFD on multiple occasions.

Attorney Alex Crecca said, “They didn’t do anything, and as a result of it, he was brutally killed, and it’s a horrific, horrific thing that happened here.” 

The 65-page lawsuit outlines more than 13 referrals of abuse or neglect that came from the community and at least nine separate investigations regarding James’ physical and emotional safety.

Crecca explained, “What we’ve done in the complaint is we’ve put together a chronological timeline of all of the abuses that CYFD did an initial kind of investigation of but failed to follow up on.”

According to the complaint, CYDS’s first investigation was just days after James was born, and there was a history of abuse and neglect in the family even before his birth.

Crecca said, “As far as CYFD is concerned, they know this is a family that has a history of violence and abuse towards children, James’s mother, her mother, so James’s grandmother had her parental rights terminated as to James’s mom.”

In 2019, James was treated at Duke City Urgent Care. In an interview, James told CYFD staff that his mom Krista Cruz’s roommate Zerrick Marquez was physically abusing him. At the time, Cruz was living with Marquez and his girlfriend, Pamela Esparza. 

James even told them another one of his mom’s friends was sexually abusing him. The lawsuit claimed, instead of initiating formal legal custody of the child, James was placed in a five-day respite placement.

“What they did is they told his mother that she needed to do certain things about keeping them away from people like Derrick and Pamela who have both Zerrick has been convicted,” explained Crecca. 

The lawsuit also stated, in the beginning of 2018, CYFD began a push to decrease the number of children taken into the legal custody of the state. The document said for four-year-old James, this change in policy led to his death.

Crecca continued, “I just can’t see how he would keep a little boy who’s covered in bruises and has a dislocated shoulder, including a bruise on his penis, with the very people that are abusing him.”

Attorney Alex Crecca said the whole purpose of this lawsuit is to hold CYFD accountable and get the department to make necessary changes.

“What we are really hopeful for is that this case is a hammer, so to speak, that will get them to stop ignoring their legal duties to protect the children of New Mexico, so that more kids don’t end up like James.”

Zerrick Marquez pleaded guilty back in March to beating James to death. The plea deal he agreed to was a life sentence for intentional child abuse resulting in death in exchange for avoiding additional charges. Last month Marquez tried to take back his plea deal but a judge said no. Marquez is scheduled for sentencing next week.

This young boy’s death, as any child’s death, is a tragedy. The man responsible for his death has pleaded guilty to abuse resulting in the death of this innocent child. The Department does not comment on pending litigation, but the Department is confident in its defense. An action was previously filed on the same matter in a state court, which is also pending. The Department also remains committed to continuously improving New Mexico’s child welfare system and making New Mexico safer for children.

CYFD statement by Spokesperson Charlie Moore-Pabst

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The federal lawsuit is asking for damages of at least $3 million. No trial date has been set for James’ mom, Krista Cruz