Editor’s note: This story contains information that some readers might find unsettling or objectionable.
It was a crime that rocked Plumas County residents and drew national attention when a starved and abused 9-year-old child was found in a Toyota located in East Quincy.
That discovery led to the arrest of a Salinas couple and later to the bodies of two dead youngsters discovered in a storage facility in Redding.
Tami Joy Huntsman, 42, pleaded guilty Feb. 28 in a Salinas courtroom to two counts of murdering two young children placed in her care. She also pleaded guilty to abusing and torturing those two children plus a third.
The third victim, a 9-year-old girl, was the one discovered in a car outside an apartment complex in East Quincy on Dec. 11, 2015.
Trials for Huntsman and her boyfriend, Gonzalo Curiel, 20, have been scheduled and rescheduled over a two-year period as the defense sought time for further investigation.
Finally, it was set for March 5, but Huntsman and her attorney decided to offer a deal that would save her own life. A preliminary hearing was set for Feb. 28 and that’s when Huntsman opted to make her plea.
Curiel’s trial is now set for April 2. According to one legal source, Curiel isn’t eligible for the death penalty because he was a minor at the time of the charges. He has pleaded not guilty.
The woman, then 39, and her 17-year-old boyfriend were arrested that same December day and charged with child endangerment by Plumas County Sheriff’s deputies.
Huntsman was then the guardian of the 9-year-old and two younger children.
It took just over two years, but when faced with the death penalty versus life in prison, Huntsman decided to plead guilty. In doing so, she accepted two life sentences in prison without the possibility of parole, according to the Monterey County Weekly.
“Tami Huntsman pled guilty to all charges. She’s going to die in prison,” said Monterey County Assistant District Attorney Berkeley Brannon on Feb. 28. “There will be no further appeals, no further litigation. And we were able to save the [surviving] children in this case from having to testify in two separate [trials]. Justice has been done.”
“That was an incredibly tragic and vicious case. I am pleased we were able to assist Monterey County in achieving justice and am grateful for their outstanding efforts,” said Plumas County District Attorney David Hollister.
The unnamed child found in the Toyota is now 12, said her attorney, Alice King of Quincy. Although King could provide no information about the child, she did say she is doing very well.
That girl is still connected with Plumas County, but is being cared for in an undisclosed county.
A roundabout route took a pregnant Huntsman and her under-age lover from their shared apartment in Salinas to Dunnigan, Redding, Shingletown and then Quincy between Nov. 27 and Dec. 7.
Arriving in Quincy on Dec. 7, they had the abused 9-year-old girl and Huntsman’s 12-year-old twins. They reportedly stayed with someone local in an apartment on the corner of First and East Main streets, until they found their own place.
A call from an unnamed source tipped off Child Protective Services that a young girl was lying on the floorboards of a Toyota 4-Runner in East Quincy.
That tip started Plumas County’s involvement in what would develop into a double murder and child torture case.
After receiving the report, someone from CPS contacted the Sheriff’s Office and requested that a deputy assist with a welfare check on the Toyota.
When the deputy arrived he discovered an injured and emaciated girl.
At that time, Plumas County Sheriff Greg Hagwood said every responder that saw the girl’s condition was emotionally shaken.
“They were shaken to the core,” Hagwood said. “I have no doubt, based on what I have seen and what befell the other two children, that this little girl likely would have been dead in a matter of days.”
Hagwood said the child weighed about 40 pounds, had broken bones in her shoulder, broken fingers, a dislocated jaw, and teeth that were missing or loose. She also had open sores and was infested with lice.
The little girl was taken to Plumas District Hospital for treatment, and then transferred to a Sacramento hospital. There she underwent five hours of surgery to repair a shoulder fracture that had begun to heal.
Within an hour of their arrival on scene, officers arrested Huntsman and Curiel. They were initially charged with felony child endangerment, torture and mayhem. And they were booked into the jail with bail set at $1 million.
Because Curiel was a minor he was transferred to the Butte County Juvenile Detention Center.
Huntsman’s twins were turned over to CPS and placed in foster care. Allegedly, they both showed signs of neglect, but no injuries.
It was Dec. 13 when the Sheriff’s Office contacted the Salinas Police Department. Local investigators learned that some of the children initially reported in Huntsman’s and Curiel’s care were unaccounted for.
When police checked the couple’s previous Salinas apartment they were unable to locate any of the family members reported to have been living there.
Under questioning by local sheriff’s investigators, Huntsman proved uncooperative and would reveal nothing about the other children. Curiel, however, eventually told investigators about a storage unit in Redding.
It was then that Plumas County involved the Redding Police Department. That night police officers cut the lock on the unit. Inside they discovered Shaun’s and Delylah’s bodies. They had died and their remains were stuffed inside plastic containers.
Because the bodies were found in Redding, that police department announced it was launching its own homicide investigation into what happened to the two children, according to the Washington Post on Dec. 16, 2015.
An autopsy conducted in Redding concluded that the cause of death of the youngsters was ongoing, long-term physical abuse, according to KSBW news.
Because it was believed the children were allegedly murdered in Salinas — quite probably on or around Thanksgiving — the case then became Monterey County’s.
By Dec. 16, neither Huntsman nor Curiel had been charged with murder, according to the Washington Post. It was determined that because of the significance of the crime Curiel would be tried as an adult. Curiel would turn 18 in February 2016.
But they faced up to life in prison if convicted of initial charges of child abuse, torture and mayhem relating to the discovery of the 9-year-old girl.
By this time, Huntsman’s estranged husband, Chris Criswell, began sharing information about Huntsman and Curiel.
According to Criswell, Curiel was initially the friend of Huntsman’s 15-old-son. According to some reports, Huntsman took Curiel into her home and then started a relationship with him.
Criswell told KSBW that Huntsman “used to be a good mother, but she changed when she began dating Curiel.”
In fact, Criswell was quoted by KSBW as saying she “was the perfect mother, the perfect housewife, the perfect person, up until the point she met that kid.”
“She was never a vindictive person. She wasn’t evil. I don’t know what flipped her switch [and] what made her do what she did,” Criswell told KSBW on Feb. 22, 2016.
Dismal childhood years
There is evidence that the two Tara children and their older half-sister never had good childhoods.
According to the Monterey County Weekly, their mother’s house was described as chaotic. Once she had to seek a restraining order against the two younger children’s father because he allegedly beat her.
And then she was dead — killed when a car hit her. The father of two of her three children cared for the children until he was arrested and sent to prison on an undisclosed crime. He turned them over to Huntsman’s care. That was prior to Curiel’s arrival at Huntsman’s apartment.
It was Monterey County prosecutor Steve Somers who provided information about Shaun’s and Delylah’s deaths, according to the Washington Post.
It was Thanksgiving and a service group provided food for the family. Reportedly everyone shared in it but the three children in question. At some point the 9-year-old stole a bagel and they were all beaten, according to the Washington Post. It is believed that Shaun and his little sister died and Huntsman and Curiel fled with the bodies and the three living children.
At Huntsman’s preliminary hearing a judge read her written statement.
She confessed to not providing adequate food to the three children resulting in near starvation condition. She didn’t provide adequate shelter “causing them to suffer hypothermia from being confined in a wet cement shower for extended periods of time.”
She also admitted to beating them and allegedly allowed Curiel to participate. “I intended to kill Shaun and Delylah for a sadistic purpose,” she wrote.
The two children died during a crime of torture, she confessed.
Huntsman was pregnant at the time of her arrest. Presumably the father was Curiel.
According to the Monterey County Weekly, Huntsman gave birth July 22, 2016, at Natividad Medical Center. The infant was immediately placed under the jurisdiction of Monterey County’s social services. Although many pregnant women retain contact with their babies and help raise them in prison, that wasn’t the case with Huntsman.
According to the Monterey County Weekly, Curiel’s family waited to take the new baby home, but the newborn was immediately placed in protective custody and then into foster care.
The Sixth District Court of Appeal is reviewing that decision. Public defenders are representing the parents who stipulate their rights were denied when the infant girl was placed in foster care.