HOUSTON – A Houston man who worked to hide the body of his girlfriend’s dead 5-year-old daughter has been sentenced to 40 years in prison, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg announced Wednesday.
“The suspicious circumstances surrounding this little girl’s death warranted a full investigation, and every possible effort was made to find out exactly what happened,” Ogg said. “Even though we may never know how little Sierra Patino died, she and her family got justice with the jury’s verdict and the resulting 40-year prison sentence.”
Santiago Esparza, an alleged documented gang member, agreed to a punishment of 40 years on Tuesday as prosecutors and jurors geared up for the second week of trial.
Esparza, 32, was convicted of tampering with evidence on Friday. Because of his prior convictions, he was facing a sentence ranging from 25 years to life in prison.
Esparza was arrested in September 2019 along with his girlfriend, Priscilla Torres, after authorities discovered the 5-year-old dead. Investigators said the child’s body had been wrapped in blankets and hidden in a closet with the air conditioning set so high that the temperature in their Houston apartment was a frigid 45 degrees.
Investigators learned that Sierra had attended her first day of kindergarten on Aug. 21, 2019. The girl and her mother moved in with Esparza the following day, and Sierra was sick and stayed home from school.
Torres, whose case is still pending, has allegedly told different stories about what happened to her daughter on Aug. 23. Court documents show that she first told authorities that she was bathing the girl and had stepped out for a few minutes. When she returned, she found toilet-bowl cleaner floating in the tub with the girl. She later said that she let her boyfriend bathe the 5-year-old and found the girl with chemical burns on her limbs and redness or bruising on her head.
The child’s skin began peeling, and she was vomiting, not eating and drifting in and out of consciousness, prosecutors said. Torres later said she did not call an ambulance because she feared Child Protective Services would take her child away.
Sierra was alive for several days before dying on Aug. 27, 2019.
After she died, court documents state that Esparza directed Torres to dress the girl in a green jumper. Then, investigators say Esparza wrapped the child in one of his blankets, which had a depiction of the poster from the movie “Scarface,” and put her in the bedroom closet. The couple also allegedly lit candles and used air fresheners to mask the smell of the decomposing body. The couple then sneaked out of the apartment, with Esparza locking the door from the inside and climbing down from a balcony. They stayed away for three nights and when they returned, Torres called the police.
Because her remains were so badly decomposed, the medical examiner could not determine the cause of death, which meant that murder charges could not be filed. But because they allowed the body to decompose, they were both charged with tampering with evidence, a charge that meant Esparza would face a minimum of 25 years in prison and a maximum life sentence.
A judge is expected to decide on punishment for Torres on Aug. 5.
Assistant District Attorney Gilbert Sawtelle, who prosecuted the case and is a chief in the DA’s Child Fatality Section, said it was clear to jurors that Esparza was the mastermind.
“They concealed the body through a variety of different ways, like sight, smell and physical access,” Sawtelle said. “They worked together for six days, but he was the one calling the shots and she was easily manipulated.”