Details of Disappearance
Justina was last seen in New York City borough of Brooklyn sometime in November 1995. She lived in an apartment on Halsey Street in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood at the time, and attended Public School 1. She was frequently absent and one of her relatives reported her truancy to the Bureau of Child Welfare (BCW), and the agency opened a file for Justina. The caseworker couldn't find any evidence of abuse, however.
After Justina had gone three months without attending school even once, the school principal asked Justina's mother, Denise Solero, for an explanation. She claimed they were moving to another neighborhood in Brooklyn and withdrew her P.S. 1 in November 1995; she'd said she would transfer Justina to P.S. 93. The family did in fact move out of Justina's previous school district, but the child was never re-enrolled in school. Solero told the neighbors she had sent Justina to go live with her father out of town, but this wasn't true either. The BCW closed her file in February 1996, without realizing no one had seen her in months.
In February 1997, a friend of the family went to police and said Justina had been killed. Solero's live-in boyfriend, Luis Santiago, was later charged in her death. Solero claimed Santiago had been physically and sexually abusing Justina for years and that he also beat her. Solero was living in a shelter for battered women when Justina was reported missing. She pleaded guilty to hindering prosecution and agreed to testify against Santiago. In return, she was sentenced to probation instead of a prison term. Solero depicted herself as a "terrorized" victim of Santiago's abuse and said she was too frightened to protect her daughter from harm.
According to her Solero and Santiago, Justina died on December 31, 1995. Santiago made a videotaped confession to causing Justina's death, saying he had unintentionally killed the girl by beating her with his fists and a metal pole; he stated he was attacking Solero and the child got in the way. Solero disputed Santiago's version of events, however. She said he had become enraged when Justina refused to take a bath. Over the course of about two hours, Santiago tried to drown her in the bathtub, punched her in the face, threw her against a wall, and then tried to suffocate her with a pillow. Justina finally died after Santiago wrapped duct tape around her nose and mouth while Solero held her hands.
At his December 1997 trial, Santiago was acquitted of murder, but convicted of second-degree manslaughter and evidence tampering. The manslaughter conviction indicated the jury believed his version of events rather than Solero's. He was sentenced to the maximum term of six to nineteen years in prison for manslaughter, as well as 1 and 1/3 years for evidence tampering. A murder conviction would have carried a twenty-five year term.
Solero pleaded guilty to hindering prosecution and was given a five-year probationary term for her role in her daughter's murder. Her probation requirements were stringent; among other rules, she was forbidden to have any contact with her other children without approval by both child welfare officials and the probation office, and she had to notify her probation officer if she became pregnant again. Many people criticized the deal as being too lenient, but the prosecution said that without Justina's body, Solero's eyewitness testimony was crucial in the case against Santiago. They also stated it wasn't until they'd agreed to the deal that they learned just how complicit Solero had been in Justina's death.
After her conviction, Solero reverted to her former married name. In 1999, she requested supervised visits with one of her daughters, who lived with Solero's sister, but her application was denied. The presiding judge commended her for complying with her strict probation requirements, but denied her visition request and said, "At this point, I see no basis to allow her to visit with any child, particularly her own child."
Santiago and Solero said they wrapped Justina's body in a trash bag and dumped it in a vacant lot in the 400 block of St. Marks Avenue in Brooklyn. Authorities searched the lot thoroughly, but could find no evidence; they believe her remains were hauled away with the garbage when the lot was cleared. Her body has never been found, but foul play is suspected in her case due to the circumstances involved.