The San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office on Friday announced charges against a homeless couple after their three children were found living in a plywood box near Joshua Tree amid filthy conditions.
Mona Kirk, 51, and Daniel Panico, 73, were each charged with three felony counts of child abuse, the DA’s office tweeted late Friday morning.
They pleaded not guilty to all charges during their arraignment at Joshua Tree Superior Court in the afternoon, according to Press-Enterprise reporter Brian Rokos.
In the courtroom, family and friends defended the couple, with one individual telling Rokos that the parents were “being punished for being homeless,” he tweeted.
At one point, Panico even told the judge he was “wondering why all this is happening,” according to the reporter.
Kirk and Panico were arrested after the couple’s children — ages 14, 13 and 11 — told authorities they’d been living in the makeshift structure outside a trailer just east of Joshua Tree, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department said Thursday.
Deputies were patrolling the 7000 block of Sunfair Road around 11 a.m. Wednesday when they came upon a property containing what they thought was an abandoned travel trailer and a rectangular box, the release stated.
While investigating, they learned that the three young victims had apparently been living in the box for about four years, officials said. They hadn’t been properly fed and were found to be living in an environment that authorities deemed “unsafe” and “unsuitable.”
The children weren’t being held captive, according to sheriff’s Capt. Trevis Newport. “Rather, the entire family was living a very confined area,” he said in a tweet.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Newport also clarified that that while the news release characterized it as a box, it was actually more like a shelter.
“They’re homeless,” he said of the family. “It’s a shelter, the shape of a box … nowhere near what it sounded like when it came out.”
The makeshift structure — which measured about 20 feet long, 10 feet wide and 4 feet high — appeared to have been constructed of several pieces of plywood, photos showed. A plastic tarp hastily covering the alleged living quarters seemed to serve as its “roof,” shielding the children from harsh elements such as rain.
San Bernardino sheriff’s spokeswoman Cindy Bachman told CNN that Panico resided in the trailer while Kirk lived in the box with the three children.
Bachman added that the children did not require any medical attention and deputies were not aware of any other abuse.
The family had no access to running water or electricity, according to the officials.
Deputies who surveyed the unkempt area found several large holes on the property, as well as mounds of trash and human feces scattered throughout the dirt lot. The desert landscape was littered with broken furniture and plastic storage boxes, some empty and others filled.
Children’s toys and bicycles were also visible among the filth, mixed in with trash and other debris, the photos showed.
About 30 to 40 cats were discovered in the trailer and roaming loose around the property.
A neighbor told the Desert Sun the family purchased the land about four years ago, recalled Panico talking about building his dream house there.
“He was a regular retired guy, and an intelligent man,” Mike Reynolds said of the father.
After their arrests, Kirk and Panico were both booked into jail and are each being held in lieu of $100,000.
The three children have been placed in the custody of San Bernardino County Children and Family Services, according to the release.
An investigation is ongoing.