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California couple charged after their three children lived for years in ‘plywood box’ in desert

Daniel Panico, 73, was living in the trailer while Maron Kirk, 51, was living in the box with the three children, according to police. Panico and Kirk have been charged with child abuse

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 March, 2018, 1:37pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 March, 2018, 6:24am

A California couple has been accused of forcing their three children to live for years in a hovel that police described as a large “plywood box” on a remote desert property without running water or electricity or adequate food. 

Maron Kirk and Daniel Panico were arrested by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department on Thursday, and charged on Friday with three felony counts of child abuse.

Panico, 73, was living in the trailer while Kirk, 51, was living in the box with the three children, said Cindy Bachman, San Bernardino Sheriff spokeswoman. They are being held in the Morongo Basin Jail on US$100,000 bond.

Deputies discovered the trailer home and plywood hovel while conducting routine checks in the area around 11am Thursday on the 700 block of Sunfair Road, in a remote area of Joshua Tree, California, according to a news release from the sheriff’s department.

At first, deputies thought they had found an abandoned trailer home and a large box in the desert. The box was about six metres long, three metres wide and 1.2 metres high.

Then they found the children. According to the sheriff’s department, the youths – ages 11, 13, and 14 – had been living in the rectangular plywood hovel for about four years.

Captain Trevis Newport of the sheriff’s Morongo Basin Station later clarified that the children were not being held captive in a confined space like the Turpin children in Perris, California.

“They’re homeless,” Newport said of the Joshua Tree family. “It’s a shelter, the shape of a box … nowhere near what it sounded like when it came out.”

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There were mounds of trash and human faeces and holes in the ground that appeared to be used as toilets.

Bikes and broken swing set pieces, old furniture and a stray punchbag were strewn about the property. Between 30 and 40 cats roamed around the squalid desert property and inside a nearby travel trailer.

A plastic tarp appeared to be draped over the roof, taped onto a wall of plywood. Toys and bicycles, along with furniture, containers and other debris, were strewn across the dirt.

“This time of year, it’s very cold at night,” said Cindy Bachman, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Department. 

“When that wind blows, it is freezing. … These kids are living in a shelter made of wood and tarp and it’s 20 to 30 degrees [Fahrenheit; minus-1 to minus-6 Celsius] at night.”

The Sheriff’s Department said the children did not have enough food and were living in an “unsuitable and unsafe” environment. But investigators don’t believe they were malnourished, Newport said.

“It’s just tragic that these children were being raised in conditions like this,” Bachman said. “There are services available to help these folks, and clearly they chose not to ask for any help.”

The children are not enrolled in public schools, and it’s unclear whether they were being home-schooled. Officials with the county’s Children and Family Services took custody of the three children, who Newport said were in “good spirits.”

“When it comes to raising children, we have a standard we have to live by,” Newport said. “In this case, we decided, let’s pull the kids from the residence, we don’t want them living in that environment.”