Details of Disappearance
Tyler lived in Tucson, Arizona with his three-year-old sister Ariana Socorro Payne; his father, Christopher Mathew Payne; and Christopher's girlfriend, Reina Irene Gonzales. They lived in an apartment at Portofino Apartments on west 36th Street in Tucson, Arizona.
Tyler and Ariana's mother, Jamie Marie Hallam, had full custody of them. Christopher and Gonzales have a son, Christopher Mathew Payne Jr., who was born in 2004; Hallam has two additional children by other men. Photographs of Hallam, Christopher Sr., Gonzales and Ariana are posted with this case summary.
Hallam and Christopher married in 2002, when Tyler was two months old, but they separated after only a year. Christopher was supposed to pay child support for the children, but by 2006 he was about $19,000 behind in his payments. He had a criminal record dating back to 1994 for misdemeanor offenses including domestic violence and drug- and alcohol-related charges, and he had no custodial rights towards his children.
Beginning in December 2005, however, Christopher had wanted to be involved in the children's lives, so Hallam allowed him to visit them. In late January 2006, she permitted Christopher to take Tyler and Ariana for a weekend visit. He never returned them, kept making various excuses to extend their stay, and eventually stopped answering her phone calls. In March, she called 911 to ask for help in recovering her children.
In 2005, Child Protection Services (CPS) had gotten an anonymous complaint that Hallam and her boyfriend were abusing methamphetamine and neglecting her children. They investigated and found the complaint unsubstantiated, but the case on Hallam wasn't actually closed until the following year. She has a history of drug abuse but maintains that by 2005, she'd been substance-free for two years.
After Hallam sought help from the authorities to get her children back from Christopher, presenting the court documents that proved she had custody of them, the police asked CPS for advice.
A caseworker, Cindy Graupmann, told them Hallam was under investigation and being uncooperative. This was incorrect; Hallam had cooperated fully with the CPS investigation and the case had been closed.
Christopher had called CPS himself in February to say Hallam had "left" the children with him but was now trying to take them back. Graupmann encouraged him to apply for temporary custody, although she'd never met him, never checked into his criminal background and never asked him to do a drug test. She and her supervisor told the police Ariana and Tyler were better off with their father.
After speaking with CPS, law enforcement elected to take no further action, and so Tyler and Ariana remained with their father, although Hallam still had full custody, the drug abuse and neglect case against her had been closed, and there is no record that Christopher even applied for custody. A police officer did see both children and they appeared happy and healthy at the time. Hallam never saw them again.
Ariana's body was found inside a U-Store-It storage locker in the 500 block of east Prince Road in February 2007. Christopher hadn't paid the rent for the locker in months and the facility's manager opened it in early 2006, but was so repelled by the rank odor that she didn't attempt to clean it out until February 16.
She found a very heavy 25-gallon plastic tub with bugs flying around it. When she dumped it in a trash bin, the lid came off and some liquid drained out. A duffel bag was visible inside the tub. That night, the manager told a friend about the tub and tote bag and the smell and the flies. Her friend suggested there might be a dead body inside.
On February 18, the manager called the police, who came over to look and found Ariana's corpse wrapped in a black garbage sack and stuffed inside the duffel bag. The police didn't search the rest of the dumpster and would later conclude that Tyler's body was hauled away with the garbage after they retrieved Ariana's. It has never been found.
Authorities thought the cause of Ariana's death was starvation, but her body was so decomposed that a formal autopsy couldn't take place. She had many broken bones, including twelve ribs, a vertebra, her forearm, her jaw and one of her shoulder blades. Her fractures were all in various stages of healing; some had happened as long as six weeks before her death.
It took several days to identify the body and link it to Christopher. Police arrested him on March 1 and charged him with his daughter's murder. Subsequently they charged him with Tyler's murder as well. Gonzales was also arrested on one count of child abuse in Ariana's case. In May, she was additionally charged with murder and child abuse in both children's cases.
Investigators believe the children were killed sometime during March and September 2006. It was on September 6 that Christopher rented the storage unit where Ariana's body was found later.
A roommate who moved into the Payne home in June later testified that she never saw Tyler or Ariana and believed they were with Hallam, but she did hear noises coming from the bedroom closet on at least one occasion. The family's neighbors at Portofino Apartments saw Christopher Jr. often, but they never saw Tyler or Ariana and didn't even realize two other children were living there.
By the time the police searched the apartment, no one was living there anymore. The Payne family had been evicted in September, and the residence was in such poor condition and smelled so bad that the building's management had been unable to rent it to anyone else.
Authorities found bloodstains on the walls and floorboards of the closet and hair and feces hidden inside a hole cut in the closet wall. The closet was full of trash from floor to ceiling. There was more blood in a small storage shed on the balcony.
Prosecutors sought the death penalty against both suspects, identifying three aggravating factors: multiple victims, the fact that the victims were children, and the "cruel, heinous and depraved manner" of the crimes.
Gonzales initially maintained her innocence and stated she'd gone away for a week and when she returned, Tyler and Ariana were gone and Christopher told her they were back with Hallam. In August 2008, she pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder and received a 22-year sentence.
She testified against Christopher and stated Tyler and Ariana were confined to a closet 24 hours a day, beginning in June. At first, she said, Christopher fed them sandwiches once a day, but then he stopped feeding them entirely. Gonzales also witnessed Christopher beat the children, and admitted she'd never contacted the authorities or done anything else to help them.
At his trial in 2009, the prosecution stated Christopher was addicted to heroin and permitted Tyler and Ariana to starve to death rather than spend money on food for them, although Christopher Jr. was fed and cared for and was in good health at the time of his parents' arrests.
Christopher initially claimed he hadn't seen the children in years, then said they were with Hallam, then finally admitted they had died in his home. He said their deaths were suicides; they had deliberately starved themselves to death after they found out they weren't going back to live with their mother.
Christopher stated Ariana died first, in July, and he spent an entire day performing CPR in an effort to revive her. He then put her body in a garbage bag and put it back in the closet with Tyler until his death about a week later. Christopher had no explanation for Ariana's broken bones and said he'd never hit his children.
Christopher's defense asked the jury to convict him of second-degree murder rather than first-degree murder, alleging it was Gonzales who had starved the children and he was guilty only of failing to protect them from her. The couple allegedly had a "toxic" relationship and Gonzales also had a drug problem.
The defense cited seventeen mitigating factors, mainly Christopher's drug addiction and dysfunctional childhood, in an effort to avoid a death sentence. His mother died only about a year after he was born, and he began using drugs in junior high school and could not stay clean in spite of several stints in substance abuse treatment. By the spring of 2006, he was using heroin four or more times a day, and he had also used a number of other illegal drugs.
In March 2009, the jury convicted Christopher of two counts of murder, three counts of child abuse and two counts of concealment or abandonment of a body. He was sentenced to death and is awaiting execution.
Hallam filed a wrongful death lawsuit against CPS and the Tucson Police Department, alleging their negligence contributed to her children's deaths. CPS admitted mishandling the Payne case, citing a staff shortage as the reason. They settled the lawsuit for one million dollars.
The suit against the police department was dismissed in October 2010; the court decided there was insufficient evidence that the police knew or should have known that Tyler and Ariana were not safe in their father's custody.
Tyler's body is believed to be in the Los Reales Landfill in southeast Tucson. Michael Orozoco, one of the investigators in the case, wrote a book about it, titled Investigating the Death of Innocents.