A U.S. Navy sailor father and his girlfriend face multiple possible charges, including torture, after an alleged case of child abuse in Murrieta left a 5-year-old boy hospitalized in grave condition, police said Wednesday.
Police and fire personnel were dispatched to an emergency call at 24001 Verdun Lane shortly after 10 a.m. Tuesday in reference to a child in medical distress, according to a Murrieta Police Department news release.
When first responders arrived, they located a 5-year-old boy with "severe" injuries, police said. He was rushed by ambulance to a local hospital before being airlifted to another medical facility in San Diego County.
A neighbor of the couple said she saw paramedics pressing on the boys chest, "trying to get him to breathe."
As of noon Wednesday, the unidentified boy was listed in grave condition. Neighbors held a vigil outside the home Wednesday evening.
Officers determined the boy received his injuries from an apparent case of child abuse, and detectives were called out to the home to investigate further, according to the release.
The biological father, 33-year-old Benjamin Whitten, and his live-in girlfriend, 25-year-old Jeryn Johnson, were both interviewed by police, the release stated. A search warrant was also issued for the home.
Johnson is the person who called 911 about the child's condition, according to Murrieta police Lt. Tony Conrad.
Officers who responded described the boy as frail and extremely malnourished, Conrad said.
Based on the information gathered from the interviews and evidence obtained after the warrant was served, investigators determined Whitten and Johnson were responsible for the child's "dire condition," police said.
The search also revealed the boy had been living in "extremely unsanitary" conditions. Riverside County animal control responded and removed 11 dogs, four cats and two fish from the residence.
Administration code enforcement violations have occurred at the home, but no emergency calls have been made since the family moved there in April 2016, Conrad said.
Whitten and Johnson were arrested and booked into jail on suspicion of willful harm to a child, infliction of great bodily injury, and torture, according to police.
The U.S. Navy confirmed that Whitten serves a machinist's mate nuclear first class stationed at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Detachment in San Diego. A biographical data sheet provided by the Navy indicated he enlisted in 2009; his home state of record was listed as Texas.
In September 2016, a woman by the name of Jeryn Johnson posted in a Facebook group for those seeking child care in the Temecula and Murrieta area. She said she wanted to help other mothers by providing child care out of her Murrieta home.
"I'm a military wife and stay at home mom to a 4 year old boy," Johnson wrote, in part. "I'm not licensed but I am cpr and 1st aid certified. Please private message me if interested!"
The Riverside County District Attorney's Office has been called in to help with the investigation "due to the severity of the injuries sustained by the juvenile," the police news release stated.
A spokesman for the DA's office said the couple had not been charged and the case was still under review as of late Wednesday afternoon.
Both Whitten and Johnson are due to appear in court at 8 a.m. Thursday, county inmate records indicate.
Anyone with information about the case is urged to call police Detective Sgt. Spencer Parker at 951-461-6364.
Neighbors gathered for a vigil Wednesday evening.
Claudia Vega-Romero, a neighbor, said she and her family were “heartbroken” over what happened to the boy.
“It just touches home. He’s 5, and it’s just so sad. He’s helpless,” Vega Romero told KTLA.
Jalayne Benton, another neighbor who was wearing a “baseball mom” cap, said the news was “devastating.”
KTLA's Melissa Pamer, Cindy Von Quednow and Nidia Becerra contributed to this report.