Seventeen-month-old Taegen McKinney took her first steps one month before she died.
Taegen was small for her age, 18 pounds, and barely reached her grandmother's knee.
Tubes placed in her ears in February 2007 alleviated a series of ear infections that plagued Taegen. By all accounts, she was an otherwise healthy, happy child, according to her mother, Jewel McKinney, who testified Thursday during the preliminary hearing for the man accused of the child's death.
Jose Garcia, 21, is charged with first-degree felony intentional abuse of a child resulting in death, negligent child abuse resulting in death, tampering with evidence and aggravated battery after he allegedly stepped on the child's chest while his girlfriend, Acacia Morriston, was asleep.
Although she was a healthy toddler, when Taegen's babysitter, Morriston, ran to her neighbor's home early in the morning hours of April 15, 2007, holding the baby wrapped in a green blanket, there was "a greenish, purple tint to her body" and she wasn't breathing, said Nathan Garcia, Morriston's neighbor, who performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation on Taegen.
Morrston reached out with Taegen in her arms and said "please help me, please help me," Nathan Garcia said.
Taegen died that day, a result of blunt force trauma to her head, legs, arms and face.
It was a death that raised outcry in the community because included in her injuries was a shoe impression left on her stomach that deputies believe was left by Garcia,
who was helping his girlfriend babysit the toddler.
"Do you have children?" the mother, Jewel McKinney, said to Frederick Jones, Garcia's attorney, as she sobbed in court during her testimony Thursday. "Do you know what it's like to lose a child?"
Taegen's mother testified for more than an hour during the two-day preliminary hearing for Garcia.
District Judge Sandra Price, following the conclusion of the hearing Friday, found that sufficient evidence existed to proceed to trial for the charge of negligent abuse of a child resulting in death.
Price granted in an earlier hearing in September only for the charge of negligent child abuse after the state Supreme Court granted Garcia a new trial in May. He pleaded no contest in 2007 and was sentenced to life in prison.
Garcia entered the courtroom Thursday, and after the bailiff removed his handcuffs, he looked toward his family, 15 of whom were seated behind the defense table, and smiled.
Taegen's family, who filled the other side of the courtroom, sat with their hands clasped, heads bent and tears periodically spilling down their faces as the hearing began.
McKinney took the stand first to testify about the last moments she saw her daughter alive.
She left Taegen with her friend's daughter, Morriston, who regularly watched the baby. Josť Garcia also was in the house at the time.
"He had been around the kids and done really well," McKinney said. She recounted a time when Garcia put Taegen to sleep by rubbing her back.
"It seemed like he cared," McKinney said, who characterized Garcia as "loving" toward Taegen.
McKinney brought beer to the house because she planned to come back with Morriston's mother after work. But she didn't, because in a phone call to the residence about 11:15 p.m., Morriston reported the kids were fine and sleeping. McKinney, Morriston's mother and a few other friends went to the Tap Room, a local Farmington bar.
Sometime after 3 a.m., McKinney learned her daughter was dead.
"I was in disbelief," she said through sobs. "It's still hard to believe. It's been three years and it's still hard to believe ... that my daughter is dead. It's sad. I can't think about how she died. I can't think about what she went through. I can't think about that stuff because it breaks my heart. She was just a baby."
"He had a drinking problem," Morriston testified Thursday of Garcia. "He had a pill problem too."
Garcia often helped Morriston babysit Taegen and her older brother, Connor.
He was "on and off upset all day," arguing with Morriston about her neighbor, accusing her of cheating on him and threatening violence, Morriston said of Garcia on the day Taegen died.
Morriston described their year-and-a-half long relationship as "rocky" and coming to an end.
"He was abusive and angry toward me and his family sometimes," Morriston said. "He was fine in the morning but as the day progressed he got more upset."
Garcia was drinking beer that day, something that was not unusual, Morriston said.
Garcia's family members adamantly deny Garcia had an alcohol or drug problem. He only took medication prescribed by a doctor, said his father, Steve Garcia.
"It's been so awful, everything being one-sided," Steve Garcia said. "We want the truth to come out."
Morriston caracterized Garcia as a violent, yet unpredictable, person when he was drinking and under the influence of drugs, a characterization his family denies.
Deputies believe Garcia was drinking the night of the incident, and although Garcia initially denied drinking alcohol, he told former Sheriff's Detective Marlyn Wyatt during the police interview that he had a few sips of beer, according to the interview video.
Morriston testified as the evening wore on that Garcia became increasingly agitated and a fight erupted between the two.
She stated he grabbed her by the arm and broke her phone when he threw it against the wall.
"He had taken his belt off and was repeatedly telling me he was going to break my window," she recalled of the fight. "He threw me on the ground and he was on top of me and he was choking me until I almost passed out. He was repeatedly telling me he was Lucifer and asking me if I wanted to die."
Defense Attorney Frederick Jones questioned Morriston about her possible role in the fight. Morriston reportedly has a history of suicide attempts and incidents where she physically hurt herself by banging her head or punching herself, Jones said.
Morriston testified she awoke later the evening of the fight by the light in her doorway. She saw Garcia leaving and Taegen was lying next to her.
She picked Taegen up out of bed and "her eyes were wide open. She was just still, there was no movement, no breathing," Morriston said.
There was a "weird look on her face like she was out of it," Garcia told Wyatt at the Sheriff's station during a police interview following the incident.
Garcia tried to jump over a pile of clothing, he said. Taegen "screeched," when he stepped on her.
Wyatt brought Garcia to the station to ask him questions and, although he was free to go, the two "talked like men," Wyatt said. He didn't make his decision to arrest Garcia until three-quarters through the interview after the "totality of the circumstances" led him to believe Garcia killed Taegen.
Wyatt's testimony echoed Morriston's and Nathan Garcia's that Garcia "never showed any emotion."
Garcia told Wyatt that Taegen was playing in the bedroom with a pile of clothes and tossing them into the air. Garcia attempted to jump across the baby when he accidentally stepped on her, according to the interview video.
He said he picked Taegen up and patted her back and she threw up, Garcia said during the interview.
Garcia's family expressed anger Friday about the characterization that he stomped on the baby.
"He did not stomp the baby," Steve Garcia said. "He did show remorse."
Clarissa Krinsky, the forensic pathologist, testified Thursday that Taegen died from the totality of injuries to her body and that she was "not breathing adequately for a period of time."
Garcia's family argued there was no evidence proving he did anything to Taegen.
"Where is the evidence?" Jones asked Price during closing arguments. "There is no evidence he caused the death."
"It's tragic for the victim's family. It's tragic for these people because of what Jose Garcia did," senior trial prosecutor Robert Gentile said during his closing remarks. "He shows no remorse, it's his shoe prints that are on Taegen, it is his statements he made to police...He admitted he stepped on the baby, she screeched, he picked her up and she threw up."
Garcia's statement to the detective was that he was "95 percent sure he stepped on her," according to the interview video.
"He didn't take her for medical treatment, didn't go to the neighbors, didn't do anything other than a pat on the back and gave her to someone else," Chief Deputy District Attorney Sarah Weaver said. "She was beaten from head to toe ...The pattern on her abdomen was similar to the pattern on his shoes."
Garcia's family members shook their heads throughout Weaver's statements.
"We are very, very sorry that they lost the baby, but he didn't do it," Steve Garcia said.
Silent tears flowed from Taegen's family, nearly 30 of whom sat in the courtroom for the two-day hearing. No one spoke when Price bound the charge over for trial, which is expected to begin Jan. 10 in Gallup.
Four years after the incident, Taegen's family members still look for closure.
On Thursday, Weaver asked Taegen's mother if she regretted not going home the night of her daughter's death.
Every day," McKinney said. "I wish I could have saved her."