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‘The worst case I’ve ever been a part of’: Prosecutor disgusted with mom who allows 4-year-old to be beaten to death

Krista Cruz and James Dunklee (Bernalillo County District Attorney's Office)

Krista Cruz and James Dunklee (Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office)

A 26-year-old mom in New Mexico is facing decades behind bars after formally admitting to her role in the horrific death of her 4-year-old son, who was brutally beaten to death by her roommate in 2019. Krista Cruz on Wednesday conceded that she knowingly put her son in a deadly situation, pleading guilty to one count of abandonment of a child under 13 resulting in death, two counts of child abuse, and one count of failure to report abuse in the slaying of young James Dunklee, authorities announced.

In a press release, the Second Judicial District Attorney’s Office said that James in December 2019 was “severely beaten and did not survive his injuries.” Zerrick Marquez, who was babysitting James on the night he beat the boy to death, pleaded guilty in 2022 to intentional child abuse resulting in death and was subsequently sentenced to life in prison, prosecutors said.

During the proceedings, Assistant District Attorney Savannah Brandenburg-Koch told the court that young James was “severely abused, continuously leading up to the day of his death,” Albuquerque, New Mexico CBS/FOX affiliate KRQE reported.

“Child abuse is what I see all day, every day. I see the worst of the worst. And James’ case was the worst of the worst,” she reportedly told the court. “It’s the worst case I’ve ever been a part of. But the most important case I’ve been a part of.”

Cruz, who was initially arrested in December 2021, originally pleaded not guilty to one count of reckless abuse of a child resulting in death before pleading to lesser charges on Wednesday, court records show. She is facing a maximum sentence of 22 years in prison.

According to a previous report from KRQE, law enforcement authorities on December 10, 2019, found James dead in Marquez’s apartment, where he and his mother had been staying. Authorities said the boy had visible bruises and other injuries that appeared non-accidental.

In an interview with police at the scene, Marquez reportedly claimed that James went to the bathroom and “checked out his ear.” When he returned from the restroom, Marquez claimed the boy said, “I don’t feel good dad,” and then suddenly fell backward and struck his head on the wall.

However, an autopsy reportedly confirmed what investigators had been suspecting — that James had been the victim of physical abuse for months before he was ultimately beaten to death. He had reportedly suffered bruising and cuts all over his body, a lacerated liver and pancreas, bruised lungs, and large amounts of blood in his brain and abdomen. The boy also had multiple fractures to his jaw and chin that were in various stages of healing, a telltale sign of long-term physical abuse.

“[Cruz] knew about this. There was abuse going on that she was aware of that the state could prove, and she failed to report any of that abuse to anybody, to law enforcement or CYFD,” Brandenburg-Koch said

The presiding judge did not sentence Cruz on Wednesday or schedule a date for her formal sentencing hearing.

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.