In letters to her mother from jail, a woman accused of starving three of her children in a hotel bathroom for at least nine months says she felt so hopeless and ineffective that she was willing to endure "a thousand beatings."
Ruth Leon said she began receiving the letters from her daughter, Abneris Santiago, shortly after her daughter's arrest earlier this month in Texas. The letters, Leon said, offer a glimpse at what became of her daughter and grandchildren after they left Florida without word and headed west with her daughter's boyfriend, Alfred Santiago.
"I got a letter from her and she said, 'Mom, you just don't know a lot of things,"' Leon said by phone from Fort Myers, Fla. "You don't know how many beatings a mother is willing to take when she feels hopeless and she can't do much. A mother will take a thousand beatings." Leon read from her daughter's note.
"Mom, there's a lot of things you don't know. But I do love my kids," Leon read.
The couple, who were born with the same last name, are accused of keeping three of Abneris Santiago's children -- two boys ages 5 and 10 and their 11-year-old half sister -- in the bathroom of the Budget Suites of America hotel near downtown Dallas. Police found the children in the bathroom July 2, emaciated, dirty and bruised.
The three children have different fathers. A fourth child that the couple had together, 1-year-old girl, was not made to live in the bathroom and was found healthy, authorities said.
Authorities believe Alfred Santiago repeatedly sexually assaulted the 11-year-old girl.
Abneris Santiago is in Dallas County Jail, charged with injuring a child. Alfred Santiago is charged with aggravated sexual assault and continuous sexual abuse. Bail was set at $50,000 and $125,000, respectively.
Abneris Santiago's attorney, James Jamison, blamed the abuse on her boyfriend.
"She was pretty much emotionally and also physically held captive by this guy," he said. "For whatever reason she got into a relationship with this man, they had a child together and then this man basically stayed there, did drugs, sent her out to bring home a paycheck, and abused and confined the children."
Richard Carrizales, an attorney for Alfred Santiago, did not immediately respond to a phone message Friday seeking comment.
Abneris Santiago's family members say she met Alfred Santiago about five years ago in Florida, and that he didn't make much of an impression.
"He was a guy," said Sonia Santiago of Lorain, Ohio, and Abneris' sister-in-law. "He didn't seem like this monster at the time. He didn't seem like a nice outgoing gentlemen. But it was a brief meeting."
Leon said she made twice-monthly visits to Fort Myers to visit her grandchildren until late 2006, when she discovered the family had packed up and left without word. Eventually, her daughter called to say they had moved to Texas so Alfred could care for his ailing mother, Leon said.
Sonia Santiago said her sister-in-law said the children were doing well in school, but that turned out to be a lie because they hadn't been to school since leaving Florida.
The only hints that there was something wrong came in infrequent phone calls, Leon said. When her daughter did allow her children to speak, they hardly talked and sounded as if they were being coached, Leon said.
A desperate phone call four weeks ago from Abneris to her mother triggered the rescue of the children. Sonia Santiago and her husband, Abner, drove about 1,200 miles from the Cleveland area. They were on a rescue mission.
"We were going down there to pick her and the kids up and bring them back to Ohio and help them get settled out here," Sonia Santiago said. "Obviously, when we got there it was not the case at all."
According to the arrest affidavit, when found it was apparent the three older children suffered from "serious physical, emotional and mental neglect." The 10-year-old was covered in bruises.
The 11-year-old told authorities that their mother left them with her boyfriend while she worked. She said they were allowed to leave the bathroom only when he took a shower and that they were regularly beaten and rarely fed.
The girl also told authorities she had been sexually abused by her mother's boyfriend for at least three years. She described numerous rapes and said she was forced to perform oral sex on him. She also said the boyfriend threatened to kill her if she told her mother.
After being hospitalized for 10 days, the four children were placed together with a foster family in Texas. The 10-year-old boy was later returned to the hospital where he remains. Officials declined to discuss his condition. Their mother's family is seeking custody of the children.
"For a mother to allow her children to go through what those kids did is inexcusable," Sonia Santiago said.
Jamison, Abneris Santiago's lawyer, said its hard for people who haven't endured abusive relationships to understand the predicament his client was in.
"Obviously people are going to believe she should have done something," he said. But, Jamison said, she was trapped and there was "nothing she could do."