SANTA FE – In one of a series of cases that has provoked questions about New Mexico’s child protection system, a Pojoaque mother charged with causing the death of her son in 2011 pleaded guilty to two abuse counts Wednesday afternoon.
Under an agreement with prosecutors, Tabetha Van Holtz, 25, entered guilty pleas to one count of child abandonment resulting in great bodily harm and one count of abuse of a child in the death of her 3-year-old son, Leland Valdez.
Under her plea deal, Van Holtz faces a maximum prison sentence of 9 years and a fine of up to $10,000.
She is scheduled to be sentenced the first week in August.
Van Holtz and her boyfriend, Steven Gallegos, told authorities in January 2011 that Leland had fallen off a kitchen chair and had “seizures and convulsions.” But his fatal injuries were inconsistent with that version of events and his body was covered with old injuries, a hospital doctor told authorities.
The state Office of the Medical Investigator later determined the boy had been beaten to death and died from “homicidal violence.”
Only after Leland’s death did details surface about a previous incident during which he allegedly had been abused. August 2010 – just five months before Leland was killed – his father reported that his son had been abused when the boy was in Van Holtz’s custody.
The state Children, Youth and Families Department failed to substantiate the abuse. But after Leland’s death, two CYFD employees were disciplined for their handling of the father’s report. One was fired and the other suspended.
Also, the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office acknowledged it had not filed a timely report on the father’s abuse report, which could have affected Van Holtz’s custody of the boy in the month’s leading up to his death. The report about bruises on Leland wasn’t filed until after he was killed.
And during the same period, his father missed a crucial child custody hearing.
Gallegos, Van Holtz’s boyfriend in 2011 and whose case was separated from hers, rejected a plea agreement in January and is scheduled to go on trial July 28. He’s charged with three counts of negligent child abuse and one count of intentional child abuse resulting in death.
As part of her agreement, Van Holtz is required to testify truthfully against Gallegos if his case goes to trial.
Van Holtz originally was indicted on a more serious charge of child abuse resulting in death. Also as part of her plea deal, a child abuse charged filed after Leland died – but which was based on what happened when his father reported abuse five months earlier – has been dropped.
Her pleas were entered at a hearing in state District Court in Santa Fe before Judge Francis Mathew. Leland Valdez’s father, Andrew Valdez, and stepmother, Angela Valdez, attended.
“It’s a surreal experience,” said Angela Valdez afterward. “Nobody ever expects something bad to happen to a child and to hear Tabetha actually say she is guilty of both charges … for her to actually say she did that to her own child, I don’t have words to express it.”
Leland Valdez died Jan. 26, 2011, at the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque, two days after he was airlifted there from Santa Fe for treatment of severe head and body injuries.
Van Holtz and Gallegos had brought him to Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe and made the assertion he’d fallen from a chair.
Within days of the Valdez boy’s death, Gov. Susana Martinez, a former prosecutor who was in her first month in the Governor’s Office, got personally involved in the case and said errant CYFD employees had been “protected” because of the flawed policies of the agency. She said she feared children were being put at risk.
CYFD supervisor Gabrielle James was fired over the Valdez case – her lawyer said in January that she is continuing with a court appeal of her dismissal – and another CYFD employee was suspended for 15 days.
A wrongful death lawsuit filed by Leland’s father against the sheriff’s office and county government also is pending.