Father pleads guilty in death of 2-year-old Kennewick son
Nicholas Torres was just 2 months old when he was treated in Spokane for a brain injury.
The baby’s wounds healed and he eventually was given back to his parents.
But 18 months later, he was back in the same hospital — with the same injuries.
This time, Nicholas didn’t go home.
Thursday, three years after the toddler died, Mario Torres took responsibility for the repeated abuse that killed his son.
Torres, 35, was watching his son in December 2014 shortly before the boy became lethargic and somewhat unresponsive. He claimed the toddler accidentally hit his head on a bed frame.
Nicholas died four days later.
A medical examiner ruled it a homicide from ongoing abuse resulting in extensive brain trauma.
Torres pleaded guilty in Benton County Superior Court to first-degree manslaughter, along with the aggravating circumstances of victim vulnerability and domestic violence.
He’s already served nine months in the Yakima County jail for the earlier abuse after investigators re-opened the 2012 case after Nicholas died.
The father also has served six months in the Benton County jail for encouraging an older son to “just make up lies” when investigators asked him what happened the day before Nicholas was hospitalized.
Nicholas was living with his mother in a Kennewick apartment at the time.
Now, Torres is facing a recommended 10-year prison sentence, though Judge Alex Ekstrom could order up to 13 years and two months. Sentencing is March 16.
After Thursday’s hearing, Prosecutor Andy Miller and Deputy Prosecutor Emily Sullivan explained how “extremely difficult” it is to prove abusive head trauma cases.
Typically, the person who causes the injury is with the child when they go into a seizure. But that didn’t happen in this case since hours passed before Nicholas was taken to the hospital to get checked, Miller said.
The prosecutors said it was more important for them and Kennewick police detectives to get a conviction for first-degree manslaughter rather than to take their chances at a trial.
Miller referred to the case of nanny Kelli A. Jacobsen, whose first trial in the death of a Richland 1-year-old ended in a hung jury and second trial resulted in her conviction for a lesser charge of second-degree manslaughter.
To be honest, a lot of prosecutor’s offices are not filing abusive head trauma cases, so we feel getting a 10-year sentence (for Torres will hold him accountable for his son’s death).
Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller
“To be honest, a lot of prosecutor’s offices are not filing abusive head trauma cases, so we feel getting a 10-year sentence” for Torres will hold him accountable for his son’s death, Miller said.
He added that Torres’ older son does not want to testify against his father, so the case would have depended partly on two witnesses who have changed their stories.
The mother and grandmother “have given numerous conflicting statements to the police department, and we don’t think they’ve ever told the truth,” Miller said.
“This was an extremely challenging case with the type of medical evidence involved, the conflicting statements and the timing of the injury. And we wouldn’t have been able to charge without the Kennewick Police Department tracking all of this evidence down.”
The toddler’s mother, Nicole Bernal, was in court Thursday with Torres, who has been out of custody on bail since April.
The judge granted his continued release until sentencing because Torres voluntarily turned himself in to police during the investigation and has come to all his hearings.
“I really want the court to understand that Ms. Sullivan and I put a lot of thought into this, and we do not have concerns about him not appearing for court,” Miller said.
Defense attorney Ryan Swinburnson assured the judge that there are no young children living with Torres.
It took Benton County prosecutors two years to charge Torres with manslaughter while they gathered all the police, medical and Child Protective Services reports.
One report from a Seattle Children’s Hospital pediatrician determined, based on Nicholas’ medical and autopsy records, the toddler suffered from “chronic and repeated child abuse.”
Nicholas was found to have older wounds, including a possible displaced shoulder.
Torres occasionally lived with Bernal in the Kennewick apartment, even though they were not supposed to have contact. She told investigators that after Nicholas’ first brain injury in June 2012, the boy was returned to her care in April 2014.
The boy was home alone with his father and older brother on Dec. 22, 2014, while Bernal went Christmas shopping. She was gone for about four hours.