The Death Of Little Elisa

It's the kind of call that, even in busy New York, gets a split-second response. A little girl, 6 years old, had stopped breathing, the man said. Minutes after the 9:24 a.m. report, police, firefighters and paramedics arrived at apartment 20A at the Rutgers House housing project in lower Manhattan.As rescue workers pulled Elisa Izquierdo from her bed, they found deep-red blotches--welts? cigarette burns?-pocking her entire body. On her right side, near the kidney, was an enormous bruise, and she had more bruises on her face and around her temples. There were ghastly wounds around her genitals. The bone of her right-hand pinkie was jutting through the skin. Fireman Michael Brown began CPR, but it was hopeless. "In my 22 years of service," said police Lt. Luis Gonzalez, "this is the worst case of child abuse I have ever seen."

New Yorkers sometimes seem inured to urban horrors. But Elisa' death the day before Thanksgiving shattered that indifference, at least for a moment. It's not just how Elisa died-the autopsy found her head had been hit so hard that her brain hemorrhaged-but how easily this sad end could have been prevented. While many kids fall through the cracks, Elisa was, for a time, protected. She had a father who loved her, teachers and relatives who fought to keep her away from Awilda Lopez, 29, the apparently deranged mother indicted for her murder (she pleaded not guilty). Even a prince-- Michael of Greece--promised to pay for her private education in 1992, and kept up with her after being charmed by Elisa when he visited her school. But something went wrong. "Something like this shouldn't happen," said New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. "We're all accountable."

Elisa's parents met in a shelter for the homeless in 1987. Gus Izquierdo, a Cuban immigrant, cleaned and served food. Lopez, a Puerto Rican raised in Brooklyr,, landed there, with two children, after breaking up with a boyfriend. The two had an affair, but Izquierdo broke it off when Lopez began using crack. When Elisa was born addicted to drags, social workers took her away and gave custody to Izquierdo.

He was, by all accounts, a dedicated, doting father. He dressed her like a doll, enrolled her at the Brooklyn YWCA Montessori Day School, even rented a banquet hall to celebrate her baptism. "How many men brush their little girl's hair and part [it] in a perfect straight line?" asks Barbara Simmons, one of Elisa's teachers. Most of all, he tried desperately to keep Lopez away. But she entered a drug-rehab clinic, married and in November 1991 won the right to have Elisa every other weekend. Both Izquierdo and Elisa's teachers told authorities that the child often returned from the visits bruised and upset. Alicia Stultz, a friend of Izquierdo's, says that whenever Elisa returned from her mother's house, she would throw up and refuse to walk into the bathroom. Simmons says that Elisa herself told a city social worker that Lopez hit her. Even after more than a year of these disturbing weekends, the court allowed the visits to continue-but with the proviso that Lopez not slap or spank Elisa.

Temporary custody: Then the little girl lost the one stable thing in her life. In May 1994, Izquierdo checked into the hospital complaining of "bad lungs." He was diagnosed with cancer and died on May 26. Lopez-who now had five other children, no job and a husband who went to prison after stabbing her 17 times with a pocket knife-won temporary custody, despite considerable opposition. Elsa Canizares, a cousin of Elisa's father, went to court seeking custody of the girl. The head of Elisa's school wrote family court Judge Phoebe Greenbaum in support of Canizares, and to attest to the abuse. Even Prince Michael wrote letters backing Canizares. "There was a solution. There were people ready to take this child, to love this child," he says. But Greenbaum ruled in favor of Lopez, who came to court armed with a Legal Aid lawyer, a social worker and laws that favor reuniting even the most unsuitable of biological families.

Elisa's decline began immediately. Despite the prince's offer to pay the tuition, Lopez pulled the girl out of Montessori and enrolled her at the local public school, PS 126. Concerned about her refusal to play with other children, an uneven walk that suggested some sort of injury and, later, a braise on her head, officials at PS 126 called the state and city child-welfare offices-the fifth time someone reported that Elisa had been abused. Andrew Lachman, a spokes-man for the school, says the state refused to investigate because there wasn't enough evidence. Kathryn Croft of the city's Child Welfare Administration won't say what action, if any, was taken, because of confidentiality laws. In any event, Lopez withdrew Elisa from school.

And then Elisa virtually disappeared. Lopez did not enroll Elisa in another school and very rarely let her out of her room. She wasn't allowed to watch TV or eat with her half siblings, who inexplicably showed no signs of abuse. She urinated and defecated either in her bed or in a pot in her room that overflowed so much it leaked into the apartment below. Few people saw Elisa in the last year; when they did, she was almost completely mute. Neighbors confessed they had frequently heard screams of "Mommy, please stop! I'm sorry" coming from apartment 20A. A few said they called child-welfare authorities, but nothing happened. Most neighbors simply hoped the noise would stop. On Nov. 22, it did.

As she was taken into custody that afternoon, a ranting, wild-haired Awilda Lopez screamed, "I didn't do it!" in the street. Police say she's shown little emotion since then, but she has made some disturbing statements. The New York Daily News reported that Lopez admitted hitting Elisa so hard on Nov. 20 that the child flew head-first into a concrete wall. Elisa did not walk or talk after that. She probably died the next day, though Lopez waited until the day after that before asking a neighbor to call for help. But Lopez believed Elisa was possessed by the Devil, and that evil caused Elisa's death. Lopez reportedly told friends she once slid snakes down her daughter's throat to exorcise the demons. Lopez also would hold Elisa upside down, using her curly brown hair as a human mop. The autopsy revealed that what first appeared to rescue workers to be cigarette burns now seem to be the mark of a ring worn by someone who hit Elisa repeatedly. And two of her step siblings have reportedly told a grand jury that the genital abrasions were caused by a hairbrush, which Lopez used to torture her.

The girl whom no one could save in her last, desperate year of life got tremendous attention once she died. At her funeral, 400 mourners filed by her white casket. The politicians circled, too. Giuliani formed a task force to investigate the city's Child Welfare Administration. A bill in the New York state Senate-- already dubbed "Elisa's Law" -- would allow agencies to more readily disclose whether they have opened an abuse case. (Currently, agencies often don't share information on abusive parents, which may have made tracking allegations against Lopez more difficult.) The reform would last longer than the city's grief. The day after the funeral, as the flowers wilted around her grave, the visitors had stopped coming to see Elisa Izquierdo.