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NY Times: Family Saga, and Skeleton, Uncovered

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Oct 16, 2005, 3:24:53 PM10/16/05

October 16, 2005

Family Saga, and Skeleton, Uncovered

WEST NEW YORK, N.J., Oct. 11 - About a year ago, a girl was born in
this working-class town and was promptly flung out of a third-floor
window. She tumbled down a thin air shaft, naked, her umbilical cord
still attached. Her head smashed into the concrete 31 feet below. She
died instantly. And there she lay, unnamed, buried in a grave of
garbage and cigarette packs.

The story gets worse.

On the morning of Sept. 13, another baby was born and he, too, was
shoved through the same window, splattering blood through neighbors'
window panes as he fell, landing with a thud near the decaying body of
his sister. His screams cut through the walls, and neighbors called the
police. His skull cracked, and his eye was blackened, but he lived.

The story gets worse.

The authorities soon learned that the mother of the two children was
Lucila Ventura, an 18-year-old immigrant from El Salvador. Their father
was a 44-year-old named Jose Julio Ventura. But he is not just the
father of Lucila's children, the police say. He is also their

This tale of incest, abuse and murder has shaken nearly everyone
involved here. Edward J. De Fazio, the Hudson County prosecutor, has
called the case a "vivid explosion of family dysfunction."

"I've never seen anything quite like this," Mr. De Fazio said in an
interview. "And I've been involved in this kind of work for some time."

As many try to make sense of the horrific events here, so much remains
a mystery. And like all mysteries, there are questions and

"Everyone was saying, 'How could the mother not know what was going
on?' " said Maria Ortiz, 40, who lived above the family and yet knew
next to nothing about them. "It's sad, very sad." She paused. "And

Ms. Ventura has been charged with murder, attempted murder, endangering
the welfare of a child and child abuse. If convicted, she could be
sentenced to up to 40 years in prison. The authorities say she threw
both of her babies out the window shortly after giving birth to them in
the tiny apartment she shared with her mother, father, four brothers
and uncle. Prosecutors have not decided whether to try her as an adult
in the death of her first child. Her lawyer says that her father had
possibly been abusing her for several years.

Mr. De Fazio suggested in an interview that he was trying to pry
information from Ms. Ventura so that he could charge the father with a
more serious offense. "In order to pursue the case against the father,
Lucila would need to be a state's witness," Mr. De Fazio said.

She is undergoing a psychiatric evaluation, according to the
authorities. Mr. Ventura is charged with aggravated sexual assault,
endangering the welfare of a child and child abuse, though the results
of a paternity test for the babies are not back. He has not been
implicated in the killings. He pleaded not guilty at his arraignment,
with bail set at $500,000. If convicted, he could face up to 20 years
in prison.

Mr. Ventura's public defender, E. Carl Broege, said his client is far
from the "beast" portrayed in media accounts. Instead, he said, his
client was a "pathetic little man" who seemed "scared and subdued, and
he seemed not to comprehend what was happening."

Both father and daughter are now being held at the Hudson County
Correction Center in Kearny.

The young life of Lucila Ventura is one that has been lived out of
sight, behind closed doors, away from others. Though her family has
lived in New Jersey for some time, she joined them about six years ago,
after living with a grandmother in El Salvador, according to a person
involved in the investigation.

For at least six years, she has lived in a two-bedroom apartment on
64th Street with her family, relatives and neighbors said. But she was
never seen outside hanging on the stoop, like other teenagers in her
neighborhood, many say. She slept in a room with her parents and a
younger brother, according to relatives. Her parents said little more
than "hello" to neighbors in the building. Even cousins of Ms.
Ventura's who live in the same building say they had no idea that she
had ever been pregnant, or that her father had been abusing her.

"I couldn't believe it," said Aleyda Romero, 15, a cousin of Ms.
Ventura's who lived a floor below and saw her two days before the birth
in September.

She said of her uncle and cousin: "They got along with each other. We
never saw him doing something to her." She added: "We couldn't believe
he was the father."

Ms. Ventura's lawyer, Anthony J. Fusco Jr., said in a news conference
last month that the abuse might have lasted for several years.

"We are now learning that this abuse may have started to occur when she
was 13 or 14 years old and continued on multiple occasions each week
for years," he said. Through a secretary, Mr. Fusco declined to comment

Nearly every weekday, Mr. Ventura, a cook who worked the night shift at
a local restaurant, put his daughter in a green minivan and drove her
13 blocks to Memorial High School, according to relatives and
classmates. Often, he would pick her up during lunch. And when school
was dismissed at 3 p.m., he picked her up again and took her back home.
The mother had worked as a laborer in the jewelry business during the

While she was in school, Lucila never did much to distinguish herself
to classmates.

"She would walk down the hall with her head down," said one of those
classmates, George Triantafyllopoulos, 18, "like she was invisible."

Even now, a month after the news broke - during which students at
Memorial High School have been lectured about their options for
unwanted babies - many students and teachers responded to the mention
of Lucila Ventura's name with a puzzled expression and a one-word


Classmates said that Ms. Ventura was an enigma: a loner who was never
picked on, a girl who never had a boyfriend and who never seemed able
to connect with other students. When he was a freshman, Mr.
Triantafyllopoulos said that he and another friend approached Ms.
Ventura in gym class. "Me and a girl would try to talk to her and she
would just walk away," he said.

She had been a student in the English as a Second Language program
since starting high school four years ago, said the principal, Matthew

Another classmate, Kayla Rivas, 16, said that while Ms. Ventura "was
always a quiet person, shy," they would sometimes talk about "girl
stuff" in gym. She did not mention any problems with her father, Kayla
said. When asked what, exactly, they would talk about, Kayla shrugged
and said, "You know, girl stuff."

In this tightly packed, 1.3-square mile working class city of
immigrants from Cuba, Mexico, Colombia and Ecuador, children play on
the sidewalk and the streets teem on a weekday afternoon. Its luxury
high-rise apartments face Midtown Manhattan.

West New York also suffers with a poverty rate of 19 percent. Students
say that the high school has grappled in the past with MS-13, the
Central American gang. Some students said teenage pregnancy is not
considered unusual.

Amid this, Lucila Ventura had seemed like a "good girl," according to
Ms. Ortiz. No one - teachers, neighbors, even relatives - seemed to
notice that she had twice been pregnant. She was heavyset, Ms. Ortiz
said, and no one noticed a protruding belly.

According to a person familiar with the situation, Lucila Ventura might
be mentally "limited" in some way. The source did not want to be named
for fear of compromising the investigation. Prosecutors are awaiting an
assessment of her mental condition. Ms. Ventura's lawyer, Mr. Fusco,
has said in newspaper interviews that his client might have been insane
when she threw the babies out the window, a defense that, if
successful, could result in her release, supervision or commitment to a
psychiatric institution.

The cousin, Aleyda Romero, said that she saw Ms. Ventura in the hallway
of their building Sept. 11, two days before the birth, and she asked
her if she would be in school on Monday, since she had not seen her on
Friday. "And she said, 'Yeah.' "

Though she said she did not notice anything unusual, she nonetheless
asked Ms. Ventura what was wrong. "She said she ate something and she
felt bad after," Aleyda said.

She said she did not see her cousin in school on Monday. On Tuesday,
the baby was born.

After the most recent baby was found, The Jersey Journal interviewed
Ms. Ventura's mother, Maria. "We had no clue she was pregnant. She hid
it from us," Maria Ventura told The Journal. "She wore loose, baggy

She said she had assumed that her daughter had a stomachache and she
made her cinnamon tea before leaving for work on the morning her
daughter gave birth.

For now, the month-old boy who survived the plunge into the air shaft
remains in the care of the state's Division of Youth and Family

He has recovered from his fractured skull, and is in a "special medical
placement" in Hudson County, awaiting a transfer to a foster home. He
has been named David, said Andy Williams, a spokesman for the agency.

Relatives had expressed interest in caring for the baby, but Mr.
Williams and others deemed that scenario "highly unlikely."

"Family members have to be considered," he said. "But our
recommendation to the court, based on circumstances in the house, we'd
need more clarity before placing the child with someone from that

Initially, as the police responded to reports of a crying infant, they
found only David, with no clue to how he got to the bottom of the
3.5-by-5-foot shaft. But as they looked up, they saw blood on the
windowsill of the Venturas' bathroom window. Once inside the apartment,
the police said, investigators found blood everywhere.

A day later, as maintenance workers cleared the garbage that had broken
the newborn's fall, they found what they thought was a doll. It turned
out to be the mummified remains of his sister.

Mr. De Fazio, the prosecutor, said that Ms. Ventura's mental state will
play a significant role in the case, but noted: "It should never lead
to these babies being thrown out the window, like they were some piece
of garbage."

He, too, was having a hard time explaining what had happened. "I don't
think you can understand it," he said. "It's complete dysfunction. It's
a complete breakdown of the family."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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