A man accused of keeping three emaciated children locked in the bathroom of a Dallas hotel for as long as nine months told a jury Monday that the starving youngsters refused to eat the meals he prepared for them.
The children were gaunt and filthy when they were found by police in July 2009 in a hotel alongside a busy Dallas highway. A doctor who treated them described the children as having sunken cheeks and flaky skin and said they emitted a repugnant odor.
Alfred Santiago, who took the stand in his own defense, said he gave the children breakfast and lunch each day.
"I know that I fed them," Santiago said. "Whether they ate or not, I could not force them."
Santiago, 38, is on trial on charges of injury to a child and continuous sexual abuse in relation to the girl, who was 11. If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison. Charges involving injuries to the boys, who were 5 and 10 when rescued, are pending.
Santiago also told jurors he never physically or sexually assaulted any of the children.
When repeatedly asked by prosecutor Carmen White why he told police he had awakened from a nap to find himself having sex with the girl, Santiago said he didn't remember making such a statement. The reaction from those watching in the courtroom to Santiago's repeated denials led the judge to admonish the audience to "curb any snickering and laughter."
Throughout his testimony, jurors were able to see crime scene photos pinned to the courtroom wall just above Santiago's right shoulder. The photos showed each of the children, their ribs and spines visible through their skin. Another photo showed the stopped-up toilet in the bathroom where prosecutors say the children were confined.
The three children share a mother, Abneris Santiago, but each has a different father. Alfred and Abneris have a daughter together who was 1 at the time of their arrest. She was healthy and unharmed.
Alfred Santiago said his former girlfriend repeatedly told him that she was responsible for her three children. He said he was "careless" in not notifying authorities of their condition. He also said it was Abneris' idea to keep her children locked in a bathroom.
Her trial is scheduled to begin after his ends. The former couple share a last name but were not married.
"I'm sorry I saw what I saw and didn't stop it," he said.
The girl, who is now 12, told jurors earlier in the day that Santiago forced her to place her brother's excrement in her mouth. The girl, wearing glasses with her hair pulled back into pigtails, also said he had sexually assaulted her and beat her brothers.
Santiago denied each of the allegations.
"I feel that he's sick," the girl said. "He's done so many bad things -- worse than anyone can imagine. He's horrible."