Distress Signals: Did City Services Miss Calls For Help From Tiffany Toribio And Her Family?

Did City Services Miss Calls For Help From Tiffany Toribio And Her Family?

Marjorie Childress
12 min read
Distress Signals
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When the body of a young boy was found buried in a playground in May 2009, a shocked Albuquerque dubbed him “Baby Angel.” The search for his identity began. As the week wore on, it would gradually dawn on his aunt, Emily Apodaca, that the boy she was hearing about on the news was her own nephew, Tyrus Toribio.

The next two years would take an emotional toll on her family. Every day, Emily struggled with shame and sadness. And she was also angry—angry at her sister, who confessed to taking Tyrus’ life, and angry with the agencies on the front lines of child protection. They missed the distress signals from a severely depressed and homeless young mother living an unstable life, Emily says.

The trial of her sister—Tiffany Toribio—looms.

Emily says while Tiffany should be held accountable, she also deserves forgiveness. “I didn’t want anybody to judge me, to say, That’s not OK. That’s not right,” she says. “I told my counselor I was scared of telling anybody that I forgive her. That was the hardest for me.” She doesn’t condone what her sister did but insists it wasn’t a cold-blooded murder. Tiffany loved Tyrus, she says, but suffered from mental problems stemming from ongoing traumas that started when she was young.

Hours before Tyrus’ death, Tiffany tried to turn herself in at a police substation on a traffic-related warrant. She had Tyrus in tow. In the police record of the investigation, one of the officers at the substation, Nick Alarid, said both Tiffany and Tyrus appeared “clean and well fed.”

In a 2009 jailhouse confession, Tiffany told police she smothered Tyrus to death because she didn’t want him to grow up unloved and unwanted like she had. A police account of her confession indicates she was conflicted: She smothered him, then revived him, then smothered him again. It wasn’t part of a plan, either, she said during her confession. She awoke in the early morning hours in Alvarado Park where she slept with her son, and she did it “out of the blue.”

“Tiffany stated it was all her fault because nobody wanted her and since nobody wanted her, nobody wanted Tyrus,” the investigating officer writes.

She buried him, the police report states, and then stayed at the park for about an hour before leaving. She returned and slept next to the playground equipment, remaining there all day. That night she stayed in a storage shed behind some apartments, she told police. On May 14, she rode the bus all day, eventually returning to the park, according to the report. Days later, she was picked up Downtown.

A psychological evaluation obtained by her defense attorney indicates she was suffering from major depressive disorders, according to court records. Emily says she believes the evaluation’s results, that Tiffany wasn’t herself in the year leading up to her son’s death.

“I knew something was wrong,” she says. Her sister was depressed, she adds, homeless, and suffering from substance abuse issues and domestic violence.

The Missing Link

An account of Tiffany going to the Coronado Mall APD substation to turn herself in has been
well-publicized. She told officers at the substation that she and Tyrus were homeless. No one could find the warrant—although it did exist. Police Chief Ray Schultz told the press later that even if they had found it, they wouldn’t have arrested her for something as minor as a traffic warrant.

A police spokesperson says officers couldn’t have known what would happen a few hours later.

“I know that if Toribio were to have come into the police substation and would have stated that she was planning to harm herself or anyone else, including her child, police officers would have had grounds to react differently,” says APD spokesperson Tasia Martinez in an email. “But if she presented to turn herself in for a warrant and there was no warrant and she had no further inquiries, there was no way to know what she was about to do.” When news of her visit to the substation broke,
Chief Schultz said the only person responsible for Tyrus’ death was Tiffany herself.

But that wasn’t the first signal to APD that something was wrong—not even the first that week. Just five days before the toddler’s death, APD responded to a 911 call from Emily about Tiffany. The sisters had gotten into a physical struggle on the street outside their mother’s apartment.

In the transcript of the 911 call, Emily asks for the Children Youth and Families Department to intervene:

“I’ve been trying to find her for like so long just so CYFD could get ahold of her because she has been homeless with her child, and I have no idea where she’s been staying at.”

Instead of picking up Tiffany, the responding officers arrested Emily for domestic violence—charges that were later dismissed. And at the conclusion of the incident, Tiffany and Tyrus left.

That was the last time Emily saw her nephew alive.

Emily says she was told she couldn’t go near her sister until after her court hearing. As it turns out, Tiffany and Tyrus had been living with the sisters’ mother, Jacqueline Toribio, for a few months. On May 7, they were kicked out.

In an interview with police in October 2009, Emily states that the police officer who arrested her said Tyrus was going to stay with Jacqueline. But Emily’s younger sister, Kelly, who witnessed the events that day, had a different story. She told police that while Jacqueline wanted to keep the toddler, her mom’s partner Alex “wanted Tyrus and Tiffany out of the house.”

It’s unclear if police saw Tiffany leave with Tyrus. The police report doesn’t mention what happened after Emily was arrested.

In an interview with Jacqueline the week after the discovery of Tyrus’ body, she told investigators that on May 7 “the officers had Tiffany pack her things and leave the residence” because her partner did not want them to stay.

Tiffany and Tyrus stayed with friends for two or three days. On May 12 they slept in Alvarado Park.

APD spokesperson Martinez would not answer questions about whether the department acted appropriately on May 7. She also wouldn’t discuss whether officers are generally able to connect the dots when people show up on separate occasions within a week. So was there any way for officers at the substation on May 12 to have known about the trouble on May 7?

Martinez says the incidents are not connected. “As far as we know the two incidents—May 7 and the day of Tiffany’s crime—are not directly related,” she says.

The Path to Alvarado Park

Emily describes a childhood of abuse and neglect, as well as unresponsive institutions. She says the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department and the Albuquerque Police Department failed her family by not intervening when given the chance.

Emily has called CYFD multiple times over the course of her life, she says. The first time was when she was 12 and reported that a family member beat her with a stick. Most recently, she says she called CYFD in late 2008 to ask what she could do about Tyrus living a transient life with his mom.

Both times, she says, she was told there was nothing CYFD could do for her because she is Native American. Emily and Tiffany are members of Zia Pueblo, and CYFD doesn’t have jurisdiction on tribal land. Emily acknowledges that would have been the reason for a lack of intervention when she was 12, but she says later calls happened when both she and Tiffany lived in Albuquerque.

Tiffany’s attorney issued a subpoena on June 2, 2009 for all CYFD records pertaining to Tiffany and Tyrus, Emily, their mother and Jacqueline’s other children.

Tiffany’s attorney declined to comment on that subpoena and what it may have produced. CYFD spokesperson Enrique Knell says there were no investigations on Tyrus—something he was able to disclose, he says, because state law allows him to provide information about deceased children. He says regulations won’t allow him to talk about anyone living connected to the case.

A Sister’s Forgiveness

In a May 2011 letter Emily wrote to the prosecuting attorney, she describes her warring emotions about Tiffany:

“I buried my nephew in the ground at age 3. I laughed and cried with him as if he were my own. I saw his body black and cold. I held his hand that had no life. I deal with this tragedy every day, every minute and every second of my life. I can’t even have pictures around my house because of fear that my children will ask what happen[ed] to him, their cousin. How do I tell my 6 year old daughter and 8 year old son that Tiffany killed Tyrus. I feel sick every time I think of this. So no I don’t excuse what she did, I do forgive her. I love her and I have lost her as well.”

Emily was the first one to hold Tyrus when he was born, she says. Tiffany was overdue and ultimately had to have a cesarean section. “He was here, she was on the prep table, so they handed him to me,” she says. “I put him over, and she gave him a kiss on the forehead, and she told him she loved him. She was all crying and stuff.”

A scrapbook full of photographs shows Tyrus’ young life with a smiling mother. There are photos of happy times for Tyrus, playing with Emily’s children at family outings and on special occasions. When Emily first realized the baby found in the park was Tyrus, she felt a lot of anger—even hatred.

“I just felt so mad because the one time that she could have called me she didn’t,” she says. “I felt so much hate because I think, Why didn’t she call me, you know? I do still always have that: What if she had called me? I don’t think that’ll ever go away.”

But remembering the love her sister had for her son and believing that “something was wrong” with Tiffany, she’s learned to forgive.

“Tyrus was born, and she was just always happy,” she says. Tiffany wanted to know: How do I discipline him? How do I take care of him? “She was just always happy to be around him. She was never angry to be a single mom,” she says. “He was so spoiled.”

Emily didn’t talk to her sister for more than a year after the arrest. When she finally went to visit her in jail, she was scared at first.

“As soon as I saw her and talked to her, I knew. This is my sister that I’ve known forever,” she says. “I know she wouldn’t do this on purpose.”

The just punishment is prison, Emily says—for a period of time but not for life. Her family is a victim in this case and deserves a chance to heal, she adds, but that can’t happen if Tiffany is locked up the rest of her life.

Counseling is important for her, for her sister and for their younger sister, Kelly, she says. If the family can’t ever talk about it together beyond short prison visits with Tiffany, she says they’ll never recover.

The Law Is the Law

District Attorney Kari Brandenburg says her office has spent a lot of time working with the defense and understands the tragic nature of the case. But all cases are tragic, she says, and the law is the law. For Tiffany, the charge announced by Brandenburg’s office is “child abuse resulting in death,” which Brandenburg says the evidence supports. It carries a mandatory life sentence.

Brandenburg says for certain convictions, sentencing laws passed by political bodies—in this case, the state Legislature—dictate punishment. If Tiffany is convicted of the charge, New Mexico state law imposes a life sentence.

“This story ought to be about mandatory sentencing because it takes discretion out of the courts’ hands,” she says. If her office wins the case, Brandenburg says, the judge will not have the option for any less than life in prison.

“Judges don’t have leeway, and we don’t have leeway if we have facts that can substantiate first degree,” she says.

Her office will only consider a lesser charge or a plea deal if they are not certain they will win the case, she says. “If someone gets a deal it’s because we can’t prove something in court.”

Court proceedings show Tiffany’s attorney, Public Defender Lelia Hood, is pursuing a “not guilty by reason of insanity” defense, bolstered by a psychological evaluation that states she suffers from major depressive disorders. That evaluation is sealed and not available to the public. Hood declined to comment for this story.

Brandenburg says she doesn’t know what impact the psychological evaluation will have on the case.

Her team is moving forward to obtain its own psychological evaluation, a development that has delayed the start of Tiffany’s trial. Judge Stan Whitaker says he wants to get the case moving as quickly as possible.
Distress Signals

Emily Apodaca holds a picture of sister Tiffany Toribio and nephew Tyrus.

Sergio Salvador salvadorphoto.com

Distress Signals

Tiffany and Tyrus Toribio

Courtesy of Emily Apodaca

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