After all the torment and torture, Nubia Barahona could still flash a smile. It was radiant and confident, set off by blond bangs and big hazel eyes. She smiled like a girl with her whole life ahead of her.
It showed no trace of her personal hell.
She was born to a drug-abusing former prostitute, removed from the home after her father was accused of improperly touching another child, then sent by the state's child protection agency to live with a couple who, police say, bound and tortured both her and her twin brother, Victor.
The abuse was habitual and savage, Victor later said. And yet, so many of the family photos of Nubia show a girl with a sunny disposition, wrapping her arms around siblings, blowing out candles on her birthday cake, sporting a cake-frosting goatee. She splashes in an above-ground pool in the backyard. She grins at animals she can see through the car window at Lion Country Safari. On Halloween, she goes trick-or-treating in a pink princess costume, topped with a frothy pink headband and with a pink fan in her hand.
How it all ends has been reported at length. On Valentine's Day one year ago, Nubia's decomposing body was found stuffed inside a black trash bag in the back of her adoptive father's pest-control truck along Interstate 95 in West Palm Beach. She was beaten to death and soaked, police said, in a stew of Pine-Sol, gasoline, liquid chlorine, chlorine tablets and Drano.
She was 10.
Jorge and Carmen Barahona are awaiting trial. Both are charged with murder. The Department of Children & Families, which received numerous calls about Nubia to its child abuse hot line but did not protect her, has been flagellated for failure to do its job.
That is the story of Nubia Barahona's death.
This — from voluminous court records, audio recordings, hundreds of family photos released by prosecutors, interviews and DCF documents — is the story of her life.
Born into a troubled household
Before they became a symbol of the failures of Florida's child protection system, before they were Barahonas, the twins were Nubia and Victor Docter, born to Victor Bustillo and Sandra Docter, a fisherman and a one-time prostitute with a drug problem.
She was named Nubia after her father's sister, Bustillo said. Her middle name, Kay, came from her birth mother, who had the same one. Victor was named after his father.
Their mother, who had already given up four children, gave birth on May 26, 2000, at Jackson Memorial Hospital. From that point on, the children's lives would be heavily chronicled by DCF.
Nubia was born with congenital adrenal hyperplasia, which meant her body couldn't make two key hormones: the one that helps the body retain salt and another, called cortisol, that helps the body deal with physical stress. Being born with it required both her parents to carry a recessive gene, and even then, there was still a good chance she could have been born without it, like Victor.
Dr. Janine Sanchez started seeing Nubia after her birth. A pediatric endocrinologist with the University of Miami Health System, she would years later explain cortisol to lawyers during a court case involving the twins:
"You remember the fight or flight response? That's what is responsible for that. So it's responsible for gearing up your body to deal with the stress. Making sure your heart is pumping enough, your lungs are pumping enough, everything is moving as it should to deal with a stress on the body," she said in the transcript.
April 10, 2008: Carmen and Jorge Barahona take their other son, the first they adopted, to the fair. Jorge Barahona is a little doughy. He sports stubble and curly, black, slicked-back hair, but not enough to hide the early signs of a bald spot. He is laughing, smiling and mugging for the camera, even when they wait in line.
May 26, 2008: The twins turn 8. They share a cake, decorated in yellow and blue with SpongeBob SquarePants. They pose with their presents, neatly wrapped boxes spread across a decorated counter-top with the cake in the middle. Mylar balloons dangle nearby. Nubia grins for the camera.
She leans back, then forward, her cheeks puffed with air, ready to blow out a flame and make a wish.
A few months later, Nubia and Victor are promoted to the second grade.
* * *
July 5, 2008: It's dark and all the children are outside in the family's above-ground pool. Nubia, in her striped bathing suit, looks thinner. Nubia, Victor and their older brother are all there. They float with neon inner tubes. They throw their hands in the air. Nubia still smiles.
Aug. 1, 2008: Today is someone else's birthday, another girl in the house. There's a cluster of cupcakes, frosted over the top to look like a cake decorated with Disney princesses. But Nubia is there, her hair pulled back with a white bow, smiling and still thin.
Oct. 31, 2008: Nubia is a princess, at least for today, in a shiny pink gown with cap sleeves. She carries a pink fan in one hand, a trick-or-treat bag decorated with Disney princesses in the other. She lines up against a wall with a mix of other children, all dressed up in the usual Halloween tropes: a pirate, a skeleton, another princess and Wonder Woman.
Her ears are pierced, with what look like the traditional little gold balls found at every piercing station in any mall.
She smiles, at first. It only lasts for a few snapshots and fades away. Even in her close-up, she won't turn up her lips. She just stares.
Dec. 25, 2008: Christmas morning. Her bangs are shorter, her arms still thin. The children are surrounded by boxes, wrapped in bright blue wrapping paper. Behind them, the tree is decorated in red and gold. Nubia gets a Hannah Montana activity kit and a painting set. Later, there's a pink blanket with a light blue trim and three Disney princesses on the front: Belle from Beauty and the Beast, Aurora from Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. She also gets a purse with two of the Bratz girls on the front. She holds it up for the camera and grins, her tiny feet lost in a sea of torn wrapping paper.
* * *
March 5, 2009: Her school's social worker goes to the house to talk to the Barahonas because all their children are missing a lot of school. By now, the house has a tall wooden fence in the back and an electronic metal gate in the front. Eventually, bushes on each side of the front door will reach the roof, keeping neighbors from seeing who comes and goes.
The metal gate is left open that day, Jody Schenk later tells police. Jorge Barahona's pest control truck is there, but nobody answers the door. She leaves a letter in the door.
She talks to Carmen Barahona four days later, who says Nubia had needed a procedure.
April 3, 2009: It's another trip to the fair with their oldest son. They ride the merry-go-round. Carmen goes inside a giant plastic bee. Before one ride, they lock in the protective harness and Jorge reaches his hand over to his son.
April 28 and 29, 2009: Their oldest son turns 10, and he gets two cakes. One is traditional, the other more a collection of frosted-over cupcakes. Both times, Nubia stands next to him and smiles. She wears her hair in braided pigtails now. She has Little Mermaid pajamas. But most of the time, she doesn't smile.
Schenk would say later she heard from a school counselor that Carmen Barahona brought cupcakes to school for the oldest son's birthday, but not the twins'.
And with the youngest adopted child, a girl, also now in school, people notice differences. The twins are dirty. The other two are clean, Schenk later says — though the girl sometimes has lice.
Cakes, field trips
and morbid fears
May 21, 2009: The children are in the pool, again, at night. But there are no swimsuits, no water. Everyone is in street clothes in an empty pool. They keep putting their hands in the air, as though being told to, with three fingers in the air. In a few pictures, Nubia smiles.
May 25, 2009: Another birthday cake for the twins. No presents can be seen on the table near the cake. A bundle of Mylar balloons float in the air.
Jorge is in the pictures this time. He's a little older and slimmer. He's trying to smile, but his lips won't turn up all the way. They pose, a cluster of four children and Jorge, smiling and with hands in the air, holding up three fingers.
The cake has three candles, including one shaped like the number nine. One more time, Nubia pulls in her breath, ready to make a wish and blow.
This will be the last picture of her with her own birthday cake.
May 29, 2009: The adoption of the twins by the Barahonas is finalized. The Barahonas and all their children go to the courthouse for the day. Nubia wears a pink dress, white sandals and a forced smile.
July 31, 2009: A family field trip to Lion Country Safari in Palm Beach County. Nubia wears a pink polo shirt, striped shorts, flip flops and dark sunglasses. She poses for pictures with her siblings in front of a welcome sign, a waterfall and from atop a fake lion. Later, she wears an orange bathing suit and gets drenched at a water park, her face bright with laughter, her arms and legs noticeably gaunt.
That summer, Victor goes with Carmen's son from her first marriage on a vacation with his family to the Florida Keys. Victor tells Rene Armesto, who later tells detectives, that he is afraid of Jorge Barahona because he used to box and worries about getting punched.
Oct. 31, 2009: Halloween. Nubia poses with the other children in her costume, a pink and purple ensemble with a silver vest and purple skirt. The two boys next to her are dressed up as Mario and Luigi. Later they smile and pose inside what looks like a mall food court. They hold styrofoam cups, the kind used for ice cream, with orange balloons floating nearby.
Nubia's cup is from Chick-fil-A. Her eyes are huge, her cheek bones prominent.
This is the last time, in all the pictures released by prosecutors, that one will show Nubia's face.
* * *
Dec. 25, 2009: Christmas Day. There's another Christmas tree, again draped in red and gold. There are more presents, the kind with brand names and popular cartoon characters plastered on them. My Little Ponies, Dora the Explorer and lots of dolls.
Only three children pose with the tree.
Jan. 10, 2010: By now, the twins are being repeatedly beaten, punched, and bound with clear tape, police say, by Jorge and Carmen Barahona. They are left for days on end in the home's only bathroom.
April 2010: A teacher tells school counselor Karole Peña that Nubia smelled very strongly, the other children were complaining and she needed help handling it.
Peña starts meeting with Nubia for a half hour or 40 minutes near the end of the school day a few times a week. And though it is near the end of the day, she can still smell traces of the odor Nubia carries to school. Pungent old urine.
Peña and Nubia talk about home. Nubia says she is OK with the other children using up the hot water before her or getting more Coke and cake than she does, especially since her two adopted siblings are disabled.
While Nubia and Peña are meeting, Nubia gets caught stealing chocolate from a teacher's jar. When asked why, she says she's hungry. So Peña arranges for Nubia to get milk and fruit at school twice a day, and she sees Nubia every day.
Carmen, she says, seems annoyed at her work with Nubia.
By now Nubia's hair is long and thin. She steals money from another student for ice cream. She says she does her homework but "forgets" to turn it in. She misses two weeks of school in May, another week in June. She tells Peña the June days were because the family went to Disney World, but to the counselor, she didn't look like a child back from the Happiest Place on Earth.
In about 20 meetings with Peña, she never discloses problems at home, never shows fear. She says he loves her mother. She talks about weekends with dad.
She also talks about a dream.
"It was a combination of things from 9/11, where she says the buildings are on fire," Peña recalled, "and then in the dream her father is shooting people, and he shoots her."
Then Nubia wakes up.
April 29, 2010: Another set of two cakes comes for their oldest son. Jorge and Carmen both get in a few pictures. Carmen, slimmer, tries to smile. Jorge just frowns, with eyes wide and mouth shut. He looks scared.
"He was either high or something because he was always jerking around, his hair was always a mess, his eyes were always glazed, and he was always talking about conspiracy, about people breaking in or keeping your gates locked," neighbor James Sheppard later tells police. "He was really paranoid, super paranoid."
By the end of the school year, both twins have done well on the state-mandated FCAT test, with one school employee saying they score 4 out of 5.
One teacher says Victor stutters.
Protectors who chose not to intervene
June 9, 2010: The elementary school calls the abuse hot line. Nubia has uncontrollable hunger. She's jittery.
Her hair falls out. Peña tells police they gave DCF her entire history from first grade through that moment, including notes to "excuse" absences that weren't from the specialist who oversaw Nubia's treatment.
DCF tells her, Peña says, "they could not accept the report, but it was a special-conditions case, and they would make record of it."
June 24, 2010: The case is dismissed with no services recommended.
Summer 2010: The twins are removed from public school. The Barahonas say they plan to home-school them.
Victor would later tell another foster parent that the home schooling lasted two days.
* * *
September 2010: The twins are home 24-hours a day, a police search warrant says. The beatings, hitting, punching, and bindings continue, with greater frequency.
Victor would later describe the torture to another foster parent like this:
Ice water is poured on them. They are bound, hand and feet, in different positions, including hog-tied. Their mouths are taped. He is hit with a mop, leaving a scar on his head. He is punched by Jorge, leaving a scar on his lip. A lash is left across his back from being whipped.
He is choked and his eyes are once closed with Krazy Glue. He remembers being forced to eat a cockroach.
Carmen Barahona knows of the abuse, he would explain, but rather than defend them would call them awful words.
* * *
At the same time, Carmen's coworker notices a change. Carmen Barahona loses a lot of weight, maybe 35 to 40 pounds. Trujillo notices Carmen wearing less makeup. She looks ill.
Trujillo jokes with her, saying how she, not Carmen, used to be the skinny one. Carmen brushes it off. So she asks what is wrong.
Carmen says, "I'm very tired."
Dec. 25, 2010: Another big Christmas, with presents scattered across the floor. A Nintendo DS. LeapPad in pink. The Chipmunks. Toy Story 3. A replica of Cinderella's chariot, the one that carries her to her prince.
Jan. 23, 2011: There are only two children in the picture. The Christmas tree is still up, and they stand on their knees in front of a Santa statue.
That month, police later say in a search warrant, the twins continue suffering through beatings, torture and cruel punishment. They are battered all over their bodies with multiple objects, bound with clear sealing tape and left for days on end, locked inside the home's only bathroom.
At times, Carmen would later tell police, the twins are punished by being left outside in county garbage or recycling bins.
When their 6-year-old relative visits, she sees the twins in the tub and is told to keep it a secret.
About Feb. 11, 2011: Police say Jorge Barahona plucks Nubia from the bathtub. With her feet and hands still bound, he carries her to the bedroom. There, she is beaten. She screams and cries, and it doesn't stop until she dies. Victor, police say, stays in the tub and hears her screams.
Carmen, according to a police warrant, says she gives Jorge money to help him escape later that day.
* * *
As part of the investigation, police find and release a letter signed by Jorge and dated Sept. 4, 2006, written to explain a possible death due to a pill overdose.
"I [take] 10 pills in one shot in the afternoon and about five pills, or seven pills, in the evening," he wrote at that time.
Excedrin P.M., Advil P.M. and Tylenol P.M. are all listed in his drug cocktail. Further down, he adds more to his recipe: "about eight little bottles" of Benadryl and a blend of body-building supplements: Orstan-A, Novedex XT, and Halodrol-50.
He says he knows all about overreacting detectives, doctors and prosecutors who might abuse their power. He wants to shield his wife from them. He wrote the letter, he says, to keep anyone from blaming Carmen.
The twin who must relive the horror
Feb 14, 2011: A Florida Road Ranger notices the truck about 5:15 a.m. on the side of Interstate 95 between the exits for Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard and 45th Street. He can't stop in time, so he loops back around to get to the maroon pickup. Thomas Butler finds Victor in the truck, awash in chemicals and shivering.
He asks Victor, a few times, where are his mommy and daddy. Victor points, and Butler finds Jorge Barahona passed out on the ground. Nubia's body will be found, but hours later.
That afternoon, Carmen is seen in the office of Blue Lakes Elementary, crying.
* * *
May 26, 2011: Victor celebrates his first birthday without his sister. This day is particularly hard. He tells his new foster mother that he misses Nubia and he thinks about her. He cries a few times.
In his time with this foster home, when his sister comes up, he stutters. His foster mother tells police he stalls. He stops. He can't complete a sentence. He has nervous twitches. He's angry.
"He doesn't want to remember it.," Katia Garcia says to detectives.
But many people do. A bill winds its way through the state capitol with Nubia's name on it. DCF and the groups it works with pledge to make changes, including new databases to better track measures of how children are doing and emails to notify caseworkers when children miss school.
Jorge and Carmen Barahona sit in jail, held without bond.
And Victor faces the prospect of reliving his ordeal at least one more time, as a witness at their trial. Their next hearing, in what will be a long process, is scheduled for Friday. If it goes to trial, one question jurors probably will ask is: Why did it have to happen? It's an answer, Garcia says, that Victor wants, too.
"He would ask me at times: 'What do you think he did that for. Why?' And I would tell him: 'That's unknown.' "