Schala died, but child-abuse campaign intends to save others
Chandler Detective Gary Fuller has investigated hundreds of murders, but he has only one victim's photo on his desk: Schala Vera, 3, whose brutal slaying a year ago Tuesday had a profound effect on police and medical staff.
Kepra Jack, one of the nurses at Mercy Gilbert Medical Center who tried in vain to save Schala's life, has never been so shaken. She just recently began sleeping through the night again.
It was the worst thing I have ever seen," said Jack, whose hospital is holding a memorial service Monday for the child.
"She was wet when she got here. She was naked," Jack said. There wasn't one part of her that wasn't bruised, Jack said.
The child was blue and purple from being whipped, police say, repeatedly by a belt. Her mother, Susan Joan Witbracht, 27, and her mother's boyfriend, Dauntorian Lydel Sanders, 24, have been charged with her murder and could face the death penalty. They are being held without bail.
In the year since her death, much has happened: Witbracht gave birth to Sanders' child, who she never held and who was immediately put into custody of Child Protective Services, the County Attorney's Office reported.
Sanders' attorney offered a plea deal of life in prison plus 30 years, which county prosecutors rejected, police said.
Perhaps most significant was the kickoff of a child abuse awareness campaign. Fuller and Jack belong to two of about a dozen agencies in the effort, which has this core message: If you think a child is being abused, report it.
"By the time it gets to me, it is too late," said Fuller, who has been investigating homicides for 16 years. " . . . I am trying to turn something very, very negative into something positive."
He said police would rather investigate 1,000 cases that go nowhere if it saves one life.
Schala had been living with Witbracht and Sanders for three months on Wildhorse Place in Chandler. Court records allege both adults beat her with a belt, and that Sanders tortured Schala, forcing her to stand for long periods of time holding water bottles over her head. He would hold her by her ankles on the second-floor balcony of his mother's home, according to records. And he threw shoes at her, records stated.
The worst thing Sanders did, Witbracht told police, was to pick up the girl at shoulder's length and drop her to the floor "like a rag doll."
She was punished, Fuller said, because "she didn't listen. What could a 3-year-old do to deserve getting killed?"
There were signs that Schala was abused, Fuller said. Neighbors told police after her death that she wore long-sleeved shirts and pants even in the summer.
"She's outside playing in long sleeves," said Chandler police Sgt. Joe Favazzo, a spokesman. "That's weird. All the other kids are wearing summer dress."
One neighbor said he had seen Witbracht spanking Schala on the bottom and yanking her by the arm.
"The suspect (Sanders) said, 'I wish someone would have called and reported us. She would still be alive,'" Favazzo said.
Four children were slain in Chandler in 2009, and Schala's death was the "straw that broke the camel's back," Favazzo said.
The anti-abuse campaign began right away. The Police Department produced two 30-second public service announcements urging the public to report their suspicions. Gov. Jan Brewer proclaimed every April to be Child Abuse Prevention Month, and Mayor Boyd Dunn did the same in Chandler. A rally was held on the Arizona Capitol lawn, featuring 51 empty chairs, each representing a child in Arizona killed from abuse in 2008.
Favazzo said the campaign has applied for a $469,000 grant from the Gila River Indian Community to be distributed over three years, which would be used in part to hire someone to run the campaign.
Other plans awaiting funding include running ads at movie theaters and billboards, and distributing thousands of cards showing the steps to take if a doctor, teacher or anyone suspects abuse.
Schala presumably wore the long sleeves in summer to hide bruises, which court records said bore patterns that match a belt of Sanders. At the hospital, Schala had "too many bruises to count," Jack said.
She died five days after her third birthday. That day, Sanders whipped her repeatedly with a belt, investigators reported.
Schala's face fell between her knees, then Sanders whipped her back, investigators said. He picked her up and dropped her, repeatedly, on the tiled bathroom floor, according to court records. While she was sprawled on the floor, a door was repeatedly slammed into her head, records stated.
The reason, Witbracht told police, was because "she was being a bad little girl," according to records.
"That little child was literally beaten to death," Favazzo said. "She had the strength to crawl between the toilet and the wall, between a sink and a toilet. A 3-year-old has to die alone."
Jack, the nurse, and the paramedics, social workers, law enforcement officials and others who were so profoundly moved by this case hope that the anti-abuse campaign Schala's death triggered will help save lives.