2 Charged With Murder in Day Care Death of 1-Year-Old

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By usawebstories

A day care center operator and her tenant were charged with murder in the death of a 1-year-old boy who had just started at the center and was exposed to fentanyl there, the police and his family said.

Grei Mendez, 36, who ran Divino Niño from an apartment in the Bronx, and Carlisto Acevedo Brito, a 41-year-old man who lived in the apartment, were both arrested Saturday evening on a count of murder showing “depraved indifference” in the death of the toddler, Nicholas Feliz Dominici.

Ms. Mendez was arraigned Sunday night in Bronx Criminal Court on charges that also included four counts of endangering the welfare of a child, criminal possession of drugs and 12 counts of assault. She was ordered held without bail.

She had been renting a room to Mr. Acevedo Brito, who is her husband’s cousin, for $200 a week, her lawyer said. Mr. Acevedo Brito had not been arraigned as of Sunday night.

Karl Miller, a Bronx County assistant district attorney, said a kilo of fentanyl was found in a hallway closet outside Mr. Acevedo Brito’s room. Ms. Mendez, he said, had participated in a “reckless, depraved act.”

Ms. Mendez’s lawyer, Andres Aranda, said there was no indication she knew anything about the drugs. “Her only crime is renting a room,” he said during the arraignment.

Nicholas had appeared to be adjusting well at the center, a small, cheerful place that was affordable and had a good reputation, said his mother, Zoila Dominici, who toured it on her son’s first day.

“I didn’t see anything that looked out of the ordinary,” she said in an interview on Sunday. “Just little beds and toys.” She said Ms. Mendez appeared to be a responsible woman who played soothing music to get the children to nap.

“God gave him to me, and now he’s gone,” said Ms. Dominici, a 34-year-old caregiver for older people who has four older children. “I have to thank God for the time we had with him.”

On Friday, emergency medical workers arrived at the six-story brick building in the north Bronx around 2:45 p.m. A neighbor said one of the women who worked at the center ran out, screaming that she could not wake the children from their naps.

Emergency workers found Nicholas, who would have turned 2 in November, unconscious. They also found a 2-year-old boy and an 8-month-old girl, both “unconscious and unresponsive,” the police said.

All three children showed symptoms of opioid exposure, the police said.

Zoila Dominici with her 1-year-old son, Nicholas Feliz Dominici.

They gave the young children the overdose-reversal medication Narcan and took them away. Another 2-year-old-boy, who had left the ground-floor day care center shortly after noon, was taken to a hospital after his mother noticed that he seemed lethargic.

Nicholas was later pronounced dead at Montefiore Medical Center. By early Saturday, the other three children were in critical or stable condition. After an autopsy on Saturday, the New York City medical examiner’s office said that further examination was needed to determine Nicholas’s cause of death.

Joseph E. Kenny, the Police Department’s chief of detectives, said at a news briefing on Friday that police suspicions about opioid exposure were prompted by the children’s symptoms and by the discovery of a so-called kilo press — commonly used by drug dealers when packaging large quantities of drugs — during a search.

One kilo press was found in Mr. Acevedo Brito’s bedroom, according to a detective’s report filed in court. Two additional kilo presses were found in the closet where the fentanyl was found, the report said.

The detective wrote that firefighters who responded to the scene found no traces of carbon monoxide or other “environmental toxins,” strengthening the conclusion that the children had been sickened by fentanyl. Traces of fentanyl were also found in a urine sample taken from the 8-month-old girl, the report said.

Mr. Aranda said Ms. Mendez had no idea how the children could have been exposed to fentanyl. She has a young toddler who was at the day care center the day before, and immediately called 9-1-1 when she noticed something was wrong with the children, he said.

“Why would someone who knows they have fentanyl in their apartment call the police?” Mr. Aranda said in an interview after the arraignment.

Fentanyl, a highly potent drug used to treat moderate to severe pain, can be fatal in small doses if ingested or injected, said Dr. Paul Christo, an associate professor and pain specialist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Two milligrams, the equivalent of 10 grains of salt, are enough to kill an adult who ingests that amount.

But simply inhaling or touching fentanyl is “highly unlikely” to be fatal either to an adult or a small child, Dr. Christo said.

Ms. Dominici learned what happened to her son when she arrived at the day care at 3 p.m. on Friday to pick him up, she said on Sunday.

She saw the police surrounding the building and Ms. Mendez inside crying, she said.

Then she got a call from a coordinator of the program telling her Nicholas was in the hospital.

Nicholas was very intelligent, his mother said Sunday. “When he saw I was sad, he said, ‘Mommy, what’s wrong?’ He would look at you with these eyes like he understood. He was very special.”

Ms. Dominici said her son had been a healthy child who never even had the flu. His 7-year-old sister and three older brothers, 13-year-old twins and an 8-year-old, doted on him.

“He was the little prince of the house,” she said. “They took such good care of him.”

Ms. Dominici said that her daughter and 8-year-old son were with her when she arrived at the hospital and that they saw doctors surrounding her son, trying to save him. They wept as it became clear that Nicholas would not survive.

Ms. Dominici said she had to call her husband, a groundskeeper at a golf course, to tell him what happened.

The family is struggling with what comes next, she said. Ms. Dominici described looking at Nicholas’s crib, new clothes he had not worn and toys she had been waiting to give him. She said she wondered what she would do with them now.

“He shouldn’t have died like that,” she said.

Christopher Maag and Jefferson Siegel contributed reporting.

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