Weeping uncontrollably, a teenage mother was sentenced Friday to 24 years in prison for failing to intervene in what a judge called one of the worst cases of child abuse to come before his court.
Samantha Salaz, 19, pleaded guilty to felony child abuse after ignoring her 20-month-old daughter's cries last April as a family member allegedly bound her with electrical tape and left her incapacitated under a running shower.
The toddler nearly drowned, authorities said. She was pronounced dead, revived and placed on life-support in a vegetative state.
“The horrendous abuse this child suffered was really beyond comprehension,” said 4th Judicial District Judge Thomas L. Kennedy, likening the child's treatment to "torture" during an emotionally charged hearing in which even he was overcome by tears.
Salaz’s aunt, Mary Horsley, 50, is due for trial in November on charges of attempted first-degree murder and felony child abuse.
Among those in attendance at Friday’s sentencing was Joseph Saunders, the 22-year-old Colorado Springs man who realized he was Alexis' father after seeing news reports about the arrests of Salaz and Horsley.
Salaz broke off their relationship while pregnant and later lied about having a miscarriage, Saunders told The Gazette in May.
Now married with a newborn baby and two stepchildren, Saunders and his wife took Alexis into their home in June and have nursed her through steady progress. Once described by doctors as a “vegetable,” Alexis now smiles and laughs at her new siblings, and she recently began talking — pronouncing “dad,” “doll” and “dog,” according to the Saunders family.
Kennedy called the couple's intervention a “miracle.”
“To take on the responsibility that you have taken on to raise this child…” he said, before his voice trailed off and grew silent.
After a lengthy pause to regain his composure, he continued: “It really restores a person’s hope in human kind.”
Kennedy said he keeps a picture of Alexis on his office desk — both as an example of the cruelty people inflict on each other and a reminder of the Saunders’ kindness.
Salaz had faced 14 to 28 years in prison under an August plea deal with prosecutors in which she agreed to testify against Horsley.
Her sentencing came after a plea for leniency by Salaz's public defender Cynthia McKedy, who said that Salaz's life, once filled with promise, took a sudden turn when she was raped as an adolescent by her mother's boyfriend. He was recently sentenced to 12 years to life in prison. Salaz's parents didn't attend her sentencing.
Police say Salaz tried to "zone out" rather than confront her aunt, who made her agree to live by her rules before she and her daughter moved in.
Horsley is accused of twice dropping the girl on her head before leaving her in the shower in a rage over a spilled drink.
In a brief address to the court, Salaz sobbed uncontrollably and said she wished she could change what happened that day.
"I never meant for any of this to happen," she said, her body shaking in an orange jail jumpsuit.
"I will always carry her in my heart, and my love for her will never stop growing."
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