3-year-old Genny Rojas spent only a short time on earth but during that short time, she endured more than most adults in their lifetime. She was passed around three homes and didn’t learn to properly communicate or use the potty. Sadly, she didn’t get the chance to reach those routine childhood milestones before she slipped through the cracks, into her early grave.
At around 9PM on the 21st of July, 1995, Veronica Gonzales ran from her Chula Vista, California, apartment with the lifeless body of her niece, Genny, in her arms. She took her to a neighbour’s apartment, who was a nurse, and asked her to perform CPR. The nurse tried to resuscitate Genny but it was already far too late. Genny was dead.
When asked what had happened, Veronica and her husband, Ivan Gonzales, said that Genny had drowned. However, Genny was riddled with burn marks and bruises and when questioned by the neighbour, Ivan claimed that they didn’t know how to control the water. The couple fell under an even darker cloud of suspicion when they asked the neighbour not to call police, saying that they would be blamed for Genny’s death.1
The neighbour, however, immediately called police. Following the phone call, Ivan ran back to the apartment and began to clean up. When police arrived at the scene, they described the apartment as filthy and roach-infested and said that the other children inside the apartment were covered with lice.
At the time of her death, Genny had been living with her aunt and uncle in their apartment on Hilltop Drivedue to the fact that her parents had abused her. She had been removed from the abusive situation when she was just 2-years-old and her birth mother, Mary Rojas, lived in Corona with her six other children while her birth father was in prison for child molestation. He had pleaded guilty to sexually abusing Genny’s 6-year-old half-sister.
Genny’s aunt and uncle were on welfare and addicted to methamphetamine. Nevertheless, they offered to “care” for Genny. When the young girl moved in, the two bedroom apartment was already crowded with two adults and six other children. From the moment she moved in, Genny fate was sealed and she suffered unimaginable abuse at the hands of those who she believed were there to care for her.
Genny was forced to sleep in a wooden box or behind a door on a blanket covered with blood and faeces. Veronica would often hang Genny in the closet by her hands “to scare her” and she would burn her cheeks with a blow dryer. She would often be held under hot water, burning her so badly that most of her hair fell out. The remaining hair that didn’t fall out was pulled out by Veronica. Genny would also be frequently beat and bound with handcuffs. In addition, Genny had been systematically staved. On the day she died, she was submerged in boiling hot water in the bath tub. The water had been so hot that Genny’s skin had peeled off her body. The couple waited for hours while Genny slowly died before seeking assistance.
The grim death of Genny Rojas reverberated in the community and led to many people questioning how could this happen? Were there no checks in place? As it turned out, there wasn’t. After being abused by her birth parents, Genny was placed in her grandmother’s custody in a guardian arrangement that did not require the supervision of a social worker. However, her grandmother decided to pass her off to Veronica and Ivan. San Diego County child protection officials announced that they only learned about Genny when she died and her case was brought to the county’s Child Fatality Committee. “We were never jurisdictionally involved in any placement or supervision activities. We’ve had no referral on the Rojas girl. There is no way anyone would know about it,” said Ivory Johnson, head of San Diego County’s Children’s Services Bureau.
California law favors placing abused children with family so strongly that sometimes, children can end up in even worse situations. Increased monitoring of families after placement costs money that lawmakers continually voted against spending, said the director of the western division of the Child Welfare League of America. “We want it all, we just don’t want to pay for it,” Eileen Mayers Pasztor said. “This little girl paid with her life.”2
Other than Genny’s family, few people even knew that she existed. In fact, the first time that most of her neighbours knew of her existence was when her lifeless body was carried outside by Veronica. One neighbour, Alicia Montes, said that the apartments had a real community feel and most of the children played together outside but those in the Gonzales household didn’t. Alicia told the San Diego Union-Tribune that she had met some of the Gonzales children when they came to her apartment and asked for milk and a light bulb. Another neighbour, Mercy Sanchez, said it was common to see the Gonzales children peering out the window.
Following the arrests of Veronica and Ivan, prosecutors announced that they would be seeking the death penalty. It was the first time in county history that a couple faces a death sentence in a child abuse case. Law enforcement officials said that the case was one of the worst that they had ever seen and during a court hearing detailing the evidence against the couple, some couldn’t fight back tears.3
During the preliminary hearing, the court room was horrified by the testimony of Genny’s 8-year-old cousin, who quietly recounted that he and his five brothers and sisters were also abused inside the dingy apartment. He described how they too were hit with belts, a metal bar, and a plastic bat. He confessed that Genny’s treatment was always far more brutal but said that he wasn’t sure why. He said that on occasion, he and his siblings tried to sneak Genny food but were beaten if caught. According to Genny’s cousin, he watched through the door as both of his parents took turns in pouring boiling hot water over Genny’s head as she screamed in pain.
Veronica and Ivan both turned on one another and blamed the other for Genny’s death. According to Veronica, she was a victim of spousal abuse and according to Ivan, he too was a victim of spousal abuse. Each one told the court that they were battered by the other and only partook in the abuse out of fear. However, these claims were contradicted by the testimony of their own son who witnessed the murder.4
Ivan and Veronica Gonzales were both found guilty and sentenced to death. They became the first married couple awaiting execution on California’s death row for the same crime. Genny was initially buried in an unmarked grave but when the case was documented in the media. Locals were so moved that they donated money for a headstone.
- The San Diego Union-Tribune, 11 November, 1995 – “Who Was Watching Genny?”
- The Press-Enterprise, 19 February, 1996 – “Throwaway Child”
- The San Diego Union-Tribune, 1 December, 1995 – “Death Penalty to be Sought in Toddler’s Slaying”
- The San Diego Union-Tribune, 17 March, 1997 – “ Two Blame Each Other in the Death of a Toddler Who Never Had a Chance”