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Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Neighbors said 5-year-old Sarah Dubois-Gilbeau had a smile that just wouldn’t quit. She loved Tingley Beach and had once won a fishing contest there.
Most kids have a favorite color, Sarah had three: pink, purple and blue.
They also said her father, Brandon Reynolds, was “very strict” with the girl and had recently begun home-schooling her. They could hear everything through the walls.
They heard her last cry for help Thursday night.
Police say Reynolds, 36, beat his daughter to death because she refused to finish the homework he had assigned her.
Sarah was pronounced dead at University of New Mexico Hospital on Friday morning.
Reynolds is charged with child abuse resulting in death. He was booked into jail Friday evening.
According to a criminal complaint filed in Metropolitan Court, around 1 a.m. Albuquerque Fire Rescue was called to Reynolds’ apartment in the 1400 block of Amherst SE, near Gibson and Carlisle, for reports that the little girl was having a heart attack.
When they arrived they found Sarah was unconscious and not breathing, and she did not have a pulse. Her father stood by “emotionless.”
Then, firefighters noticed she had a “large amount of bruising” on her body and called the police to investigate.
Reynolds initially told police a couple of different stories about what had happened, including that Sarah “suddenly stopped breathing” while drifting off to sleep, that she had come into the bedroom while he was smoking marijuana, and that she said she needed to use the bathroom and then began to spit up.
But one of the neighbors had a different story to tell.
She told police she overheard Reynolds yelling “get up” followed by sounds of someone or something being struck, as if with a shoe.
Police say the bruising on the child’s body stretched from her neck to her buttocks, much of which was consistent with “the tread of a shoe.”
At the police station, Reynolds told detectives the little girl refused to do her homework around 8:30 p.m., which “triggered” him and “that’s when the discipline came in.”
Police say Reynolds told them he hit the girl with a green water shoe “all over her body” until “she wasn’t mobile.”
“Once he realized she was lethargic he cradled her on the floor of the living room,” a detective wrote in the complaint.
Reynolds told police he didn’t call rescue for hours, and instead had put ice on her bruised back. He also put her in bed and listened to her heartbeat.
Hours later, after realizing Sarah’s heartbeat was faint and her breathing shallow, Reynolds called 911 and attempted to render aid.
In a news conference, Police Chief Michael Geier spoke about the investigation, calling the little girl’s death a “heartbreaking tragedy.”
“Our officers and detectives are working diligently at this time to bring justice to this little girl,” Geier said.
Court records granting Reynolds full custody show he had a tumultuous relationship with the little girl’s mother, Chantel Smith.
In a petition to establish parentage and determine custody, Smith, now 38, wrote that “Brandon Reynolds has PTSD which causes him to not be able to handle or care for a child properly. He also has a history of abandoning the mother and that may follow through with the child.”
However, a court hearing officer decided Sarah should stay with Reynolds due to concerns about her mother’s marijuana use.
“Since her birth, the child has been in the custody of the father since the child tested positive for THC at birth and contrary to instructions from the birth hospital, mother was observed breast feeding the child when she was positive for THC. He has been her primary caregiver and remains the sole legal and physical custodian of the child.”
Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department, confirmed that investigators contacted the family about possible drug exposure after Sarah was born.
“CYFD investigated the potential of drug abuse by the parents,” Stelnicki said. “It was not substantiated and the case was closed at that point.”
He said since then the department hasn’t had any further contact with Reynolds or his daughter. There were no other children in the household.
Reynolds does not have a criminal history in New Mexico, according to online court records.
Smith couldn’t be reached by the Journal.
By Friday afternoon, the police tape and investigators were gone.
A little memorial had sprung at the gray concrete outside 1414 Amherst; some flowers, a candle, teddy bear and stuffed Ninja Turtle piled beside the door.
Neighbors Evelyn and Karen say they never saw this coming.
The sisters went back and forth talking about Sarah; her beautiful curly hair, big brown eyes. They provided a photograph that showed her smiling with her hair in big, poofy pigtails.
“We would celebrate our birthdays together, with a little cake and a little candle,” Evelyn said with a smile. “She was a Cancer like me.”
The sisters said they lived next to Reynolds for five years. They would see Sarah twice a month and she would play with Evelyn’s nephew from time to time – when Reynolds would allow it.
They said Sarah’s father home-schooled the girl and was very strict with her.
“She never went anywhere,” Evelyn said. “He didn’t believe in school because he didn’t want her to grow up in this society. I don’t disagree with that, but she didn’t have no friends.”
The sisters say they also suspected abuse for a long time, though there’s no record of them ever reporting the suspected abuse to police.
“You can hear everything through the walls,” Karen said.
On Thursday night, Karen said, she heard Reynolds yelling and Sarah crying.
“Sadly, she heard her last cry for help,” Evelyn said. “The walls aren’t too thick here.”
When Karen went outside, she saw an ambulance and asked if she could help but was sent away by rescue crews.
“You don’t think stuff like this happens, and then it happens right next door,” Karen said. “You don’t know how to react. The little girl you just saw a couple days ago, you’re not going to see her again.”
Other child abuse cases:
Sarah Dubois-Gilbeau’s death is the most recent in a long line of brutal child abuse cases around the state.
The investigation comes on the heels of a case out of Farmington, where police say Fernando Azofeifa smothered his 5-year-old son to death with a pillow on Sunday after a fight with the new boyfriend of the boy’s mother.
In November 2017, 13-year-old Jeremiah Valencia was found buried in a shallow grave in Santa Fe County. Prosecutors say his stepfather kept him locked up in a dog cage and tortured him, and his stepbrother killed him. Jeremiah’s mother has taken a plea deal for her role in the case and his stepbrother’s case is pending. His stepfather committed suicide in jail.
In Albuquerque, the deaths of Omaree Varela and Victoria Martens shocked the community.
Omaree, 9, was kicked to death by his mother in December 2013, prompting scrutiny of CYFD and reforms at the agency. And 10-year-old Victoria was found dismembered and on fire in a Northwest Albuquerque apartment in August 2016. Her mother, her mother’s boyfriend and her mother’s boyfriend’s cousin were arrested in the crime, although prosecutors now say another person actually killed Victoria.