STOCKTON, Calif. — A Stockton woman was sentenced to 15 years to life after she pleaded guilty Tuesday for killing her 4-year-old stepdaughter in 2018, the San Joaquin County District Attorney confirmed.
Zulma Chavez, 22, pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree murder and two counts of felony child abuse/endangerment to avoid going to trial, where she would have faced 25 years to life in state prison.
"This is a horrific, heartbreaking case of abuse and murder of an innocent, defenseless child," said District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar in a press release.
On Nov. 25, 2018, Chavez's stepdaughter, Serenity Moore, was sent to the local hospital in with "substantial traumatic injuries" to the head. A CT scan revealed past child abuse from "blood in the brain both new and old."
During an investigation, law enforcement officers discovered home surveillance video footage that showed Chavez's interaction with the child earlier in the day, according to Verber Salazar.
The video shows Chavez sitting on the couch and swearing at Moore and her two brothers, Verber Salazar said. The children then moved away from the couch when Chavez grabbed Moore by the hand and took her to a bedroom.
Verber Salazar said the video does not show what happened while Chavez and Moore were in the room, but audio revealed Chavez telling the victim, "You're gonna cry, you're gonna cry."
Moore's last words were a response to Chavez.
"I'm not gonna cry, I'm not," Moore said to Chavez, before the audio revealed her screams followed by "a horrific thud," Verber Salazar said.
Chavez then called the girl's father, 40-year-old Kevin Carames, who was not home at the time of his daughter's death. Carames told investigators that Serenity was injured by running into the ladder attached to the bunk bed.
Chavez later changed her story, saying that the little girl fell and hit her head after Chavez slipped backward trying to lift her over her head.
Verber Salazar said Chavez's guilty plea prevented her four- and five-year-old stepsons from having to testify in court.
"These young boys need to move forward and try to enjoy what is left of their childhood and not face the terrifying prospect of testifying in court," Verber Salazar said.
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