(Update: More testimony from afternoon session)
The Redmond woman accused along with her husband of intentionally starving their 5-year-old daughter to death took the stand in her defense Tuesday, acknowledging that withholding food “was not the best decision” and describing a battle of wills over the girl’s refusal to speak and sneaking out of her room at night to eat.
Sacora Horn-Garcia, 33, later broke down in tears on the witness stand as she recounted the events of the day her adopted daughter Maliyha died, despite medics’ and doctors’ efforts to revive her.
Horn-Garcia and her husband, Estevan Garcia, 36 face murder and manslaughter charges in the death of Maliyha a few days before Christmas 2016. She only weighed 24 pounds , officials said, and her cause of death was ruled to be starvation. Estevan Garcia testified last week about the troubled marriage and a home often in turmoil.
Horn-Garcia began by talking about her upbringing by an alcoholic mother, and a father with whom she didn’t get along. She told of moving to Redmond with her first husband and three children.
She said he took his own life shortly after they were separated in 2013, and that she began drinking “a lot” after his passing, at times in front of the kids, also using marijuana and cocaine when the kids were at a friend’s house.
Garcia testified last week he and a former girlfriend had agreed to care for Maliyha, the sixth child of Garcia’s sister, and they were granted parental rights. After they broke up, he continued to care for the girl, with family members’ help. He began dating Horn-Garcia, a recent widow with three young daughters, nearly a year later.
Horn-Garcia said she met Garcia in 2008 at Walmart and they began dating in 2014. She would watch the girl at times, while Garcia was working. She called Maliyha an “easy child” who began calling her “mommy” before the couple had been dating for a month.
But she said her relationship with her new husband turned sour, and that the couple would usually wake up when Maliyha went out into hallways at night, and her husband would give the girl whatever she wanted to eat.
Horn-Garcia said Maliyha would get into junk food, mostly at night, but she wouldn’t get what she want when she didn’t use her words. She also said she didn’t feel Garcia was always on her side, when it came to parenting.
Horn-Garcia said she had an emotional breakdown, got drunk and police were called, and she went into counseling for several months, to help her handle her first husband’s death. She said she wanted Garcia to go into counseling as well, but he didn’t want to.
The couple would argue in front of their children, arguments she said at times were fueled by alcohol.
Horn-Garcia said she decided if Maliyha was caught eating in the middle of the night, she wouldn’t get breakfast the next morning. That form of discipline, she admitted, “was not the best decision.”
She also said Garcia had an affair in February of 2016 , and that summer, Maliyha still left her room to eat at night, so the couple put an alarm on her door.
The couple’s frequent texts about the girl were again brought up, including a discussion about using soap as a punishment for lying. Horn-Garcia said her mother had made her eat soap, but she only put the soap in Maliyha’s mouth.
“I was a stay-at-home mom,” she said, and used the texts to her husband to “vent,” including swearing and calling their daughter names. When asked about a text referring to chaining the girl to her bed when she misbehaved, Horn-Garcia called it just a phrase.
“We tried everything with this child, and she was so resistant,” Horn-Garcia said, but she was never confined in a box or in a dog’s kennel, as some texts had discussed. She also said her husband put Maliyha into day care without consulting her.
When Maliyha refused to eat salad, Horn-Garcia said she’d punish her by not giving her the rest of dinner until she ate her salad.
“How do you feel about that?” defense attorney Aaron Brenneman asked.
“I feel not very good about that decision,” Horn-Garcia replied.
Asked by the attorney, “Do you think that was a good way to parent a child?” Horn-Garcia replied, ” At the time, clearly I did. But sitting here, going through these three years, and obviously replaying everything, no. ”
In mid-November, Maliyha wet herself, and the discussion of discipline continued. But she said nothing worked, not even spanking. And they continued to try to get the girl to “use her words.”
Asked about a text in which she chastised Estevan for feeding Maliyha after she got up during the night, Horn-Garcia said it was about what he fed her, not her getting food. She said she wouldn’t get up at night for a period of time , but when she did, it could be for several days in a row.
It was a battle over her behavior, Horn-Garcia said, and they didn’t want to let her “win.”
But she said she now feels her actions were inappropriate.
When Horn-Garcia returned to the witness stand in the afternoon, she discussed how she would use essential oils, instead of medicines, and that she wasn’t “big on going out and getting medicine.” She said she bought a kit of such oils at a summer fair.
She said she used tea tree oil, for example, to treat a sore on Maliyha’s lip. And when the girl was seriously ill and vomiting, she would do Google searches for which oil to use.
Asked about being upset in a text message about Garcia giving Maliyha a blanket, Horn-Garcia said she couldn’t recall the incident, but that the girls always had blankets, and it might have been about another blanket, or again Maliyha not using her words.
Doctor visits also were discussed, and a visit from a CPS worker who gave the girl some apple juice.
Family trips were up for questioning, such as a pumpkin patch visit that fall, when Horn-Garcia said Maliyha was “happy and excited,” picking out a big pumpkin and playing with her sisters and other children.
A dual-birthday trip to the coast, with cake, pizza and kids in the hot tub. Thanksgiving, with turkey and ham, a potluck, no behavior issues involving the girl, or anything concerning.
Less than two weeks before her death, after a big snowstorm, Maliyha fell while playing outside with the family, hit her head. But she said she was fine. But the next day, she said her stomach (her ” stummie “) hurt. and she vomited twice, the next day. By Dec. 18, she was clearly sick and complaining of being cold and stomach pains. But Horn-Garcia wasn’t concerned: “Kids get sick.”
She wasn’t hungry the next few days, and by Dec. 20, the couple was talking about taking her to the doctor, and she slept with the couple in their bedroom.
The next day, Horn-Garcia said she noticed the girl looked thin and was lethargic. She moved her from her bed to the couch, to watch TV.
Google searches were discussed, about concussions, pneumonia and child weight loss. The couple texted about taking Maliyha to the doctor.
Horn-Garcia cried as she recounted the final day, recalled trying to feed Maliyha Jell-O. She wet coughs, and it’s brown. Her head falls backwards, limp. “She was not responsive,” she recalled, though her eyes were open.
“I started to panic,” Horn-Garcia said, and called 911, and was advised to do CPR. Asked if she tried that, the woman cries for about a minute on the stand, hiding her head.
She then said she laid her daughter on the floor and tried CPR, but nothing happened when she did chest compressions. She tried mouth to mouth, but vomit and bile sprayed out of her mouth. She was instructed by 911 to clear her airway, and tells 911 Maliyha’s lips were turning blue.
Medics arrived and took over CPR. Horn-Garcia said she didn’t go with the girl to the hospital because she had to take care of the other kids. Eventually, a chaplain drove her to St. Charles-Redmond. By the time she arrived, Maliyha was dead.
Asked if she disliked Maliyha, Horn-Garcia said no, that she “loved her.” And denied wanting to harm her.
Under cross-examination by Estevan Garcia’s attorney, Shawn Kollie , Horn-Garcia said Maliyha was using her words when the couple married but stopped speaking and started “acting up” in 2015.
Asked about making the then-3-year-old wash the wall for more than an hour, Horn-Garcia acknowledged she was harder on her than the other girls (her biological daughters). But she later said she was never so mad at Maliyha that she “gave up” on her, and denied making her wash the floors every day. She said Maliyha had harsher punishments because she acted up more.
The several-week trial is expected to move to closing arguments and jury deliberations in coming days.