November 27, 2013

Half sister’s suspicion led to arrest in Fort Worth toddler’s 1991 death

Oklahoma woman’s email to Fort Worth cold-case detectives led to the re-opening of a 1991 homicide and the arrest of a child’s stepmother this week.

The death of her younger half sister had gnawed on Mary Champlain for years.

The child, Anna Marie Gonzalez, 4, was living with her father when his wife called for an ambulance on the afternoon of Oct. 14, 1991, saying she had found Anna unconscious in the bathtub, face down in about a foot of water.

Anna died the next day at Cook Children’s Medical Center.

An autopsy by the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office determined that the child had not drowned but died from head injuries. Her death was ruled a homicide.

The main suspect, Anna’s stepmother, Juanita Gonzalez, was never arrested.

“I was either nine or 10, so I couldn’t do anything,” Champlain said. “I was mad all these years but I couldn’t do anything.”

Now an adult with children of her own, Champlain decided to reach out to the Fort Worth police cold case unit to push for justice in a case long forgotten.

“I have a 5-year-old little girl. About the time my girl was 3, almost 4, I really started thinking about it,” Champlain said. “What would happen if someone did that to her and if nobody ever did anything – it just slipped through the cracks?”

Detectives reopened the case and, on Wednesday, called Champlain with the news that Gonzalez, now 48, had been arrested the day before on a murder warrant.

“I was fully prepared for him to tell me, ‘I’m sorry. We did what we could. We know what happened but we can’t prove it,’” Champlain, who has the same mother as Anna, said in a phone interview from her home in Locust Grove, Okla.

Gonzalez was in the Mansfield Jail on Wednesday with bail set at $180,000.

Relatives of Gonzalez did not return messages seeking comment.

According to Fort Worth police, officers were called to Gonzalez’s home in the 5100 block of Pamela Drive on Oct. 14, 1991, in reference to an apparent drowning.

They found Anna, who was taken to Cook Children’s where she was pronounced dead the next day.

Doctors told police they had found bruises on the back of Anna’s head and on one of her ears, according to the 1991 Star-Telegram article.

Champlain said family members believed Gonzalez was responsible yet watched helplessly as the woman skirted arrest.

“Everyone else had just pretty much accepted it,” Champlain said.

Champlain praised cold case investigators for reopening this case after receiving the email she had sent earlier this year.

“I just said in my email my sister was killed and nothing ever happened,” Champlain said. “That started the ball rolling.

“I don’t think Juanita banked on big sister because I was just a kid. I don’t even think she knew I existed.”

In a statement released Wednesday, police said a murder warrant was obtained for Gonzalez on Tuesday.

“During the investigation, homicide cold case detectives learned that Anna was being abused by her stepmother, Juanita, during the short time she lived with her father and stepmother,” the statement said.

Champlain said she keeps a Miss Piggy stuffed animal that belonged to Anna in her bedroom to remind her of her half sister, whom she described as a beautiful girl who loved to laugh.

“It’s on a little shelf. The kids don’t play with it,” Champlain said. “They know that’s Aunt Anna’s. That’s Aunt Anna’s little Miss Piggy.”

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