Friends Defend Joshua Tree Couple Accused Of Child Cruelty, Abuse

A Southern California couple was arrested on suspicion of child cruelty after deputies found them living in a cramped and filthy desert shack with their three kids and dozens of cats, authorities said Thursday. MORONGO BASIN SHERIFF STATION

JOSHUA TREE, Calif.  (CBS/AP) — The mounds of trash, old toys and furniture caught the attention of a Southern California sheriff’s deputy passing through the desert Thursday (Mar. 3). As he approached, he spotted a hovel cobbled together with plywood and plastic sheeting.

And then came the shocking discovery that a couple and their three children — ages 11 to 14 — had been living there for four years without running water, bathrooms or electricity.

The children’s mother, Mona Kirk, 51, would sleep alongside them in the ramshackle dwelling, which is only about 4 feet high and 10 feet wide, said Cindy Bachman, spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. Their father, Daniel Panico, 73, slept either in a trailer on the property with dozens of cats or in another vehicle, she said.

“They were scraps of plywood that were put together and then they had a tarp over it to keep out the rain,” Bachman said of the makeshift shelter on the lot near Joshua Tree, about 125 miles east of Los Angeles.

Friends outside a courtroom Friday said the couple were good parents. They described them as poor, not neglectful, CBS Los Angeles reports.

“I don’t think they are guilty of anything other than being poor,” said Leanna Monroe. “This family is a giving, caring, loving family.”

She said when the kids come over to her place “they are always happy. They’re well dressed. They’re always polite. They’re very smart. They’re always clean.”

Inside, blankets were strewn everywhere and chairs were used to try to hold up the tarp ceiling. A makeshift kitchen was littered with empty bottles with cans of corn, peas and soup stacked on wooden shelves. Several holes on the property were filled with feces, officials said.

The children didn’t appear to have any obvious injuries and showed no outward signs of malnutrition but were undergoing medical evaluations, Bachman said.

“It was apparent they had not bathed in days,” she said. “There was no running water, no electricity, no bathroom facilities.”

The parents pleaded not guilty Friday to three counts of felony child abuse and were each being held on $300,000 bail. A telephone number listed for the couple in public records was not in service Friday.

“I am wondering why all this is happening,” Panico said during the brief court appearance.

The children were not enrolled in public school and deputies are still investigating whether they were considered enrolled in a homes chool, but there was no evidence they were being educated, Bachman said.