Before accused California child-torturer Tami Huntsman took in three little kids, their lives were marked with tragedy.
Little Shaun, only 3, and Frankie Tara, then 6, were in foster care while their mom was pregnant with their baby sister, Delilah. Their fathers were in and out of prison. Then, in December 2013, their mother, Vivian Saucedo, was fatally struck by a car as she went out for milk, relatives told The Daily Beast. She was only 33.
After Vivian’s death (PDF), Shaun Daniel Tara—the biological father of two of the kids—cared for all three siblings until he was arrested again in early 2014.
The 31-year-old dad knew he was heading to back to lockup, and according to Vivian’s kin, handed the children over to Huntsman—his cousin and a mother herself—without telling his in-laws.
How the youngsters ended up in Huntsman’s custody is as bewildering as it is heartbreaking, especially for Vivian’s family.
It took the Saucedo family a year to locate Huntsman, 39, whom they’ve never met. Huntsman often ignored their calls, they said, or told them the kids couldn’t talk because they were busy or in school. The Saucedos said they phoned police and social services many times, only to be assured the siblings were happy and safe.
“I would call her to bring the kids over,” said devastated grandma, Delia Saucedo, who tried to get custody of the children. “They were supposed to bring the kids over for my [oldest] granddaughter’s birthday. She said she had no gas.”
The grandfather offered to pay for travel and a motel, but Huntsman wouldn’t call the family back. “I never heard about her no more,” Saucedo told The Daily Beast.
Now Huntsman and her 17-year-old companion, Gonzalo Curiel, of Salinas, are being held on $1 million bail on charges of felony child abuse, torture, and mayhem. They could soon be charged in the murder of two of the children.
Last Friday, Plumas County sheriff’s deputies, responding to a citizen tip, discovered a 9-year-old girl lying in Huntsman’s car in Quincy, California. The girl was only 40 pounds, infested with lice, and had suffered unspeakable abuse: broken fingers and shoulder bones, a dislocated jaw and missing teeth. Relatives have identified the girl as “Frankie.”
Two days later, police in Redding, California, found the bodies of two small children stuffed into boxes in a storage unit rented by Huntsman. Police are awaiting autopsy results to determine their identities. But family members identified the young victims as Delilah, 3, and Shaun, 6, who were in Huntsman’s care and had been reported missing.
The children were last seen by Huntsman’s older kids on Thanksgiving, a family friend told The Daily Beast.
It was Huntsman’s own older daughter who repeatedly kept calling child welfare authorities on her in recent months, said Vivian’s best friend, Laura Garcia Miranda, who is close to the children.
“Tami’s own daughter called me on Saturday,” Miranda told The Daily Beast. “She said, ‘I’m going to tell you something. I’m so sorry. My mom is locked up right now, and Frankie is in the hospital.’”
Then the daughter told Miranda that Delilah and Little Shaun, nicknamed “the Papas,” were missing. “Supposedly the last time [Tami’s older children] saw them was Thanksgiving night.”
Miranda, who launched a GoFundMe page for the children’s funeral services, is shocked that the kids were in trouble. Nothing seemed wrong at first.
“The last time I talked to Frankie on the phone, I told her that I loved her,” Miranda cried. “I asked how she was doing. She said, ‘I’m doing good.’ Shaun [junior] put Delilah’s ear to the phone just so she could hear my voice.”
“I said, ‘I miss you. See you soon.’”
Miranda told The Daily Beast she kept in contact with the children by phone, up until five or six months ago, when Huntsman kept doling out excuses as to why the kids couldn’t speak.
She’s also never met Huntsman but said their mother Vivian and father Shaun would take the kids up to Salinas to spend time with her in 2012 or ’13.
“They did a lot of things, had barbecues, they took [the kids] to the fair,” Miranda said.
“I remember Vivian even telling me back in 2013, ‘Shaun’s family got us a cellphone. They’re paying the monthly bill.’ It was Tami and Chris [Huntsman and her then-husband].”
Miranda said that before Shaun’s 2014 arrest, he took the kids to his cousin Tami, thinking they’d be in good hands.
“The reality of it is, after Vivian passed away, he didn’t know what to do,” Miranda said. “He had no fight in him. He didn’t really know how to be a dad. He had to turn himself in to jail.
“Tami doesn’t have any prior abuse on her or anything like that,” she added. “She was a nice person to them in the past.”
Miranda said she wanted to adopt the children but had no idea of Shaun Tara’s plans.
“I remember having a talk with [Frankie] in my bathroom after her mom passed away, saying that she’s never going to get hurt again,” Miranda said through tears, “and I couldn’t stop that.
“My friend Vivian was not a perfect mom but she loved her kids,” she added. “Nothing like this, if she was still alive, would have ever happened.”
Precious Aponte, 17, who lives with the deceased children’s grandmother, Saucedo, and who is the kids’ half-sister, said she exchanged text messages with Huntsman, who claimed to love her adopted clan so much that she tattooed their initials on her body.
“She said the kids were her life, that they were being taken care of and that she works and everything,” Aponte told The Daily Beast. “[She said] she was their mom now, and she was a single mom doing it all on her own.”
Huntsman assured Aponte she didn’t drink, do drugs, or permit the children to be around anyone who did. She seemed totally normal, Aponte said.
“What angers me the most is that we tried to get custody of those children when my mother died,” Aponte told The Daily Beast. “[Social workers] swore up and down that Tami loved them. It’s a big shock when social workers tell you your sisters and your brother are OK... and then this happens.”
Aponte and Saucedo feel betrayed by authorities, who allegedly told the family it was best for the kids to stay with Huntsman.
“This justice system needs to be fixed. Something needs to be done about this,” Aponte said. “Children cannot speak for themselves. Nobody heard them. Nobody listened. For that, two innocent children are gone, and one is fighting for her life.”
Indeed, before the slayings, child welfare authorities visited Huntsman’s Salinas residence four times in the last year—most recently in August—to look into neglect allegations, KSBW reported.
Elliott Robinson, director of Monterey County’s social services department, said that investigators could not establish enough evidence to take the kids away, KSBW reported.
“This could have been prevented,” Aponte fumed. “Had they given us custody, this would have been prevented. We trusted the system.”
Huntsman, who called her job title “Being the Best Mom I Can Be” on Facebook, was a divorced mother with at least four children of her own.
On Oct. 31, 2011, her ex-hubby, Chris Criswell, wrote on Facebook: “Happy aniuersary sweetheart i love u with all my evil ass heart after all weve seen and done 4 kids later i still love like the day we were wed in vegas 8 yrs ago i love u tami criswell.”
After news broke of Huntsman’s arrest, Criswell wrote that he was going to pick up their twin children from Quincy. (Authorities said they placed Huntsman’s 12-year-old boy and girl twins in foster care.)
“So yes this is tami and I am sick and numb all the same for the loss of two beautiful baby’s,” Criswell wrote. “Shaun and delila tara I am so sorry for all your pain.”
He added, “Please prey for frankie see needs all your preys and thoughts I hope to get the twins wenesday please don’t call me I don’t want to talk I LOVE U ALL.”
Criswell apparently knew the Tara children and their father well. He is featured smiling in a Facebook photo with Shaun Tara in December 2013.
Jail records show Shaun Tara is in custody in Riverside County after being convicted in November of carrying a concealed dirk or dagger.
On Facebook, a heartbroken Tara appeared to be a good dad to the kids after their mother’s death.
He posted adorable photos of his children playing outside or at the beach. In January 2014, he wrote, “RIP.to my loving wife,best friend and mother of my beautiful children.dont worry baby i got this!” Criswell commented on the post, “Love u and the kids brother sorry for your loss see u siin brother.”
That month, he also announced, “just sent the kids off for there first day at a new school.they were excited:)”
In February of last year, Tara wrote, “Me and the kids were able to go to Disneyland today.my moms a Disney vet and was able to pull some strings to get me and vivs kids in for free.there happy.!!!”
Tami Huntsman commented on that post, “Glad you guys had a good day love you guys.”
A 15-year-old half-brother of Delilah and Shaun told The Daily Beast he took care of the siblings for a while when his mom went out partying. Frankie is his full sister, he said.
“I taught Delilah how to walk,” he said. “Frankie would say hi to everybody and was just really friendly. Shaun was really nice.”
The brother said his step-father, Shaun Tara, as well as his own father, were in and out of jail. Both are currently incarcerated.
Miranda told The Daily Beast Tara planned to get the children back when he got out of jail a few months ago. Instead, he got arrested shortly after.
“It’s not like Shaun left them to someone [he knew] was abusive,” she said. “He didn’t know.”
Now Miranda is trying to organize funeral services.
“These kids were human, they were here, they’re real,” Miranda said, her voice breaking down. “They wanted to be loved and obviously that didn’t happen toward the end of their life. They have family over here. We want them back. We want to do services here.”