Police: 5-year-old niece might have been dead for four weeks

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

PHOENIX -- Phoenix police have a man in custody in connection with the death of his 5-year-old niece.

According to Officer Luis Samudio of the Phoenix Police Department, Leonard Orta Jr. has been booked into Maricopa County Jail on first-degree murder. Investigators believe Orta deliberately withheld medication and proper nutrition from his little niece, who suffers from a disease called Rett Syndrome, a rare genetic neurodevelopmental disorder seen almost exclusively in girls. Early symptoms are often similar to autism.

Samudio said Orta was the little girl's guardian and caregiver. The child is from Hawaii, which is where her biological parents are. Orta had been caring for the girl since the beginning of August because the treatment she needed was not available in Hawaii.

According to Samudio, police were called out to an apartment complex in the area of 28th Street and Indian School Road Wednesday afternoon in connection with a domestic-violence situation.

When officers arrived on the scene, they spoke with Orta's father, who lives in the apartment with Orta and Orta's disabled sister. Orta's father said he noticed a foul odor coming from a bedroom and became concerned because he had not seen his granddaughter since mid-January.

Orta's father said he confronted Orta, but it got physical and Orta left. That's when his father contacted the police.

Officers found the little girl in a bedroom. She was dead and had been for possibly four weeks.

Samudio said in an interview with police Orta admitted withholding medication and food from the child.

Also during police interviews it was revealed that Orta lied to his father about the little girl's whereabouts the past few weeks. Orta told his father the girl had been admitted to St. Joseph's Hospital for treatment. Orta's father became suspicious and called the hospital only to find out it was a lie. That led to the confrontation and call to police.

While there is no cure for Rett Syndrome, people who suffer from it can live well into middle age although they likely will need constant care. As the syndrome progresses, a girl would lose her ability to perform motor functions, as well as the ability to speak. It's estimated that the syndrome affects one in every 10,000 to 15,000 girls born worldwide. Treatment generally focuses on the management of symptoms.

Orta's neighbor's are stunned by the arrest. Mark Sommer is friends with Orta's father and  lives in the same apartment complex. He said the men were doing everything they could for the little girl.

"She couldn't swallow. She couldn't eat properly," he said. "They had to hand feed her liquids. ... [T]he child would never grow to be normal, but they were helping to do everything they could for her.

"I can't believe either of them are involved in anything wrong. ... I'm stunned. I'm shocked beyond belief."

The investigation is ongoing.