Felony Child Abuse Charges Against Joshua Tree Couple Withdrawn

Daniel Panico, 73, and Mona Kirk, 51, will not be facing the felony child abuse charges that were lodged against them on March 2.
On May 2, Judge Joel Agron granted Deputy District Attorney Michelle Bergey’s motion to dismiss after hearing arguments submitted to the court by Panico’s attorney, Michael Kennedy, that the felony charges were unwarranted and unsupportable.
Upon being persuaded by Kennedy’s assertions, Bergey worked out a deal with Kennedy and Kirk’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Elizabeth Crabtree, in which three misdemeanor PC 273 A (4) child endangerment and three misdemeanor 270.1 failure to address truancy charges were filed against Panico in place of the three PC 273 felony child abuse charges that were withdrawn. Likewise Kirk was recharged, this time with three misdemeanor PC 273 A (4) child endangerment and three misdemeanor 270.1 failure to address truancy charges supplanting the vacated felony charges against her.
Overmatched and buffeted by financial circumstance while struggling to make ends meet, Kirk and Panico were arrested February 28 after they and their three children were found living within a 20-foot by 10-foot by 4-foot high plywood hovel on the couple’s forlorn property in the 7000 block of Sun Fair Road in Joshua Tree.
Deputies from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department’s Morongo Basin Station on February 28 were conducting an area check related to what was believed to be an abandoned trailer off of Sun Fair Road, an unpaved trail off Highway 62. While in the area, the deputies spotted a trailer which appeared to be abandoned, and a large rectangular box made of plywood on private property. Approximately 30 to 40 cats were located inside the trailer and roaming freely. Thereafter, the deputies came across the family, which included Kirk, Panico and three of their children, aged 11, 13 and 14, subsisting in what authorities called an “unsanitary, unsafe and unsuitable environment.”
According to the sheriff’s department, “During the investigation, deputies learned the three victims have lived in the large rectangular box (approximately 20 feet long by 4 feet high by 10 ft wide) for approximately four years. The victims were found to have an inadequate amount of food and were living in an unsuitable and unsafe environment due to the conditions located on the property. [The San Bernardino County Department of] Children and Family Service responded to the location and took custody of the three victims. The property had no electricity or running water. Several large holes and mounds of trash and human feces were located throughout the property.”
Kirk and Panico were arrested and booked into the Morongo Basin Jail for Penal Code 273 (A), willful cruelty to a child in lieu of $100,000 bail.
Panico and Kirk came before Judge Bert Swift in the Joshua Tree and both pleaded not guilty to the three charges of child abuse lodged against them. Swift set bail of $300,000 each, and they were whisked away to West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga.
The property where the five lived is less than three-quarters of a mile as the crow flies from Highway 62, also known as the 29 Palms Highway. Little of the property is visible to the outside world, as it is covered in creosote and sparse desert vegetation which hides it from the few passers-by traversing the area.
Media reports that reproduced verbiage in the sheriff’s department press report generated shock and hostility toward Panico and Kirk, but within a fortnight details emerged which indicated that the sheriff’s department’s characterizations were less than completely factual.
Panico had moved with his family into an eight-foot wide, 24-foot long Prowler trailer on the property after a home he had been paying token rent on was no longer available following the death of the owner who was allowing the family to stay there. Initially, the family had been living in the trailer, but at some point left it to take up quarters in the structure Panico had constructed, using various types of plywood for its sides and tarps for a roof. Though unheated, insulation from the ground was provided by means of mattresses and blankets. At least 30 cats, which the family had adopted, were living on the property, as well. Panico had allowed the cats to live in the trailer to shelter them from marauding coyotes, feral dogs and other predators.
The report that the children were undernourished proved to be a fabrication. Panico regularly ventured into the town of Yucca Valley on a bicycle, where he purchased food for his family. Locals said they had never seen Kirk or the children with him. Moreover, though there were no utilities on their Joshua Tree property, the family had access to showers and kitchen facilities at vacation homes that Kirk and Panico were caretakers on.
Within two weeks, the couple was released but was initially prevented by Child Protective Services from having any contact with their children. The children were removed to a home nearly 150 miles distant from Joshua Tree. More recently, Panico and Kirk have been allowed to have three to four hours of contact with the children on Saturdays.
It was determined that the children were not enrolled with the Morongo Unified School District.
In the deal brokered between Kennedy, Crabtree and Bergey, there was no agreement that Panico and Kirk would concede guilt on the misdemeanor charges, and Kennedy and Crabtree remain purposed to exonerate their clients. Meanwhile, friends and family members have arranged for Panico and Kirk to move into a house, which is large enough and suitable to accommodate their family if the parents are reunited with their children.
Kennedy said, “I have not gone along with this reduction in the child abuse allegations as a prelude to bargaining for a plea to misdemeanor child endangerment, because there simply was none and I’m not a plea-bargain mill. Reducing the gravity of the accusation should assist in speeding up reunification, which is the sole goal the able public defender and I have in this matter. Every day of disruption in this family unit by government is an ambulating outrage by a government that pretends to care about people but which increasingly cares only about itself and its turf, which is closing in on the precincts of liberty.”
Sheriff’s Captain Trevis Newport, who heads the Morongo Valley Sheriff’s Station, attempted to justify the misrepresentations contained in the press release relating to the Panico and Kirk arrests and the investigative tactics used by the deputies who interrogated the arrestees when they falsely told them that their children had claimed not to have eaten in a week. Transcripts of what the children actually said show they truthfully told the sheriff’s deputies they had eaten that day. Newport acknowledged to Jené Estrada, a reporter with the Hi-Desert Star that the sheriff’s department prevaricated when it claimed the family was homeless, conceding Panico and his wife and children were “not necessarily a homeless family. They had a home. They had a trailer.”
Nevertheless, Newport said the department had erred on the side of protecting the children. “For us, they had a home. How they choose to live was the issue,” he told Estrada. “When we have children living in an environment like that and we’re being told certain things, it is our responsibility to protect those children.”
-Mark Gutglueck

Leave a Reply