Police alerted Arizona child protection officials about mother accused of murder

SUPERIOR, Ariz. (AP) - Police say they alerted Arizona child protection officials about a 20-year-old mother now being held on suspicion of killing her toddler son and infant daughter, but the state department says it did not find evidence of neglect or abuse.

Brittany Velasquez was arrested after her two children were found dead in car seats inside a vehicle late Monday, parked outside the family's home in Superior, a historic hardscrabble mining town of about 2,900 people about 60 miles (97 kilometers) east of Phoenix. Bond for Velasquez was set at $2 million.

Autopsies were being conducted to determine causes of death of the 2-year-old boy and 10-month-old girl. The Pinal County Sheriff's Office did not immediately disclose what evidence was found.

Superior Interim Police Chief Christian Ensley said that members of his department had called child protection officials in early January because of concerns about the two children.

Responding to a query from The Associated Press, the state Department of Child Safety said Tuesday that it had received two calls about the boy and the girl, including the one in January, but "the children showed no visible signs of abuse or neglect. There were no legal grounds to remove the children from the parent's custody."

"The Department acted in good faith based on the information we received and exercised our due diligence during these prior investigations," it concluded.

Velasquez was jailed and authorities did not know whether she had a lawyer who could comment on the allegations, sheriff's spokeswoman Navideh Forghani said. The children's names were not immediately made public.

The $2 million bond for Velasquez was set during a Tuesday hearing at the Pinal County Adult Detention Facility. She is scheduled to appear before a judge on April 30.

Ensley provided few details during an afternoon news conference, including how the children may have died.

Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb, whose office is helping the small town police department with the investigation, said he was unaware of any stab or gunshot wounds to the children. Lamb said Velasquez had called police.

Some of the children's relatives were inside the home when authorities arrived at the crime scene late Monday, but Forghani said she could not provide information about how the children were placed or left in the car.

The sheriff's office said in its initial statement that evidence "indicated foul play," but during the news conference, both Ensley and Lamb declined to discuss a possible motive.

Ensley said the children's father had died last year and he personally knew many members of the Velasquez family in the small, tight-knit community.

"This is a real blow," he said.

Ensley said his officers were called to the home where Velasquez was living in early January to investigate a theft and contacted the state's Department of Child Safety to report possible child abuse or neglect. He did not elaborate.

Lamb said there are numerous small, economically depressed mining towns like Superior around central Arizona's Pinal County.

"Jobs come and go, so the economics obviously have an effect on families," the sheriff said.

No one answered the door Tuesday at the run-down, one-story brick house in the neighborhood where the car containing the children had been parked. Ensley confirmed that Velasquez's grandparents lived there and the children were found in a car parked outside.

Broken wooden furniture, cardboard boxes and a rusted barbeque grill littered the brown, dried up grass in the front yard. Two pickup trucks and a car with its hood up sat at the end of a dirt driveway, but authorities said the car the children had been in was towed away earlier.

The community was established in the 1800s to support a copper mine that is currently closed. But a multibillion-dollar project known as the Resolution Copper Mine project aims to restart the operation.

Today, retired miners and other people living on fixed incomes make up much of the community, said the Rev. Samuel Jandeh of the St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, where most parishioners are elderly.

"All the young people have gone to work in Mesa and in the Valley" to the West, Jandeh said. "There isn't much for young people here."


Associated Press writer Paul Davenport reported from Phoenix.