A Southern California couple who pleaded not guilty to child abuse after authorities found them housing their three children in a makeshift plywood shack in the desert were freed from jail on Tuesday.
Daniel Panico, 73, and Mona Kirk, 51, were released after their attorneys argued they aren’t a flight risk and couldn’t afford their $300,000 bail.
Kirk’s attorney, Elizabeth Crabtree, said she and Panico’s attorney will argue next week that the couple deserves to be reunited with their children, ages 11, 13 and 14. Eventually they will argue for the charges to be dropped.
Daniel Panico, 73, and Mona Kirk, 51, pictured in Joshua Tree Court on Friday, were freed from jail on Tuesday following their arrest for on suspicion of child cruelty
This photo provided by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office shows a ramshackle structure where authorities say Kirk and Panico, their three children and dozens of cats were living in filthy conditions in Southern California’s Mojave Desert
This aerial photo from video provided by KABC-TV shows the family’s filthy desert shack
Deputies went to a property in the 7000 block of Sunfair Road in Joshua Tree for an area check and found an apparently abandoned travel trailer and a large rectangular plywood box
‘I don’t think there’s anything at this point that substantiates abuse,’ Crabtree said, adding that the couple should never have been arrested.
At the time of the couple’s arrest last week, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department said their children had been living in the shack without running water, bathrooms or electricity for four years near Joshua Tree, about 125 miles east of Los Angeles.
The makeshift shelter, measuring about 4 feet high and 10 feet wide, was cobbled together with plywood and plastic sheeting, and chairs were used to hold up a tarp ceiling, Several holes on the property were filled with feces, the sheriff’s office said.
Sheriff’s spokeswoman Cindy Bachman said last week that the children didn’t appear to have any obvious injuries and showed no outward signs of malnutrition but ‘it was apparent they had not bathed in days.’
Not criminals: Attorneys for Kirk (left) and Panico (right) plan to in court that the low-income couple deserve to be reunited with their children, ages 11, 13 and 14
The family had been living without running water, bathrooms or electricity for four years
Piles of trash and debris, mixed in with old furniture, are seen on the family’s property in the California desert
Children’s toys are pictured scattered on the property, not far from the plywood box the kids called home for years
A friend said the couple are poor but they are not criminals and did nothing to harm their kids
The children were not enrolled in public school and there was no evidence they were being educated, Bachman said.
Dozens of people rallied in support of the couple outside their court hearing on Tuesday, holding signs that read ‘Being homeless is not a crime.’
In a jailhouse interview with The Los Angeles Times, Panico said his family has been torn apart and that he and his wife did nothing wrong.
Mona Kirk is pictured in an undated photo that was shared on a GoFundMe page started by her friend to help raise money for the family
‘We are just minding our own business, trying to raise our three kids on little money,’ he said.
Crabtree said that rather than arrest the couple, deputies should have called Children and Family Services and allowed the matter to proceed through dependency court, rather than criminal court.
‘Miss Kirk misses her children very much,’ Crabtree said. ‘But she’s keeping her head up knowing she’s going to see them again.’
A GoFundMe account started by a friend of the couple’s has raised more than $20,000 as of Tuesday afternoon.
Panico and Kirk had planned to build a home on five acres of land they owned, but ‘as time went by, they had used all the money they had for living expenses,’ wrote Jackie Klear, the family friend who started the fundraiser.
‘Any money they got from side jobs and such was spent on their kids. Food and the basic necessities,’ she wrote. ‘The kids were fed, healthy and were part of just about any activity or group that was available to the community.’
Klear, who is the leader of the Phoenix Scouts scouting group in Joshua Tree, told the LA Times that Kirk, who had operated a Mommy and Me class for babies and toddlers, home-schooled her three children, and she described the kids as extremely well-read and educated.
She went on to say that Panico was a genius and that his eldest son was the smartest child she has ever encountered.
Panico and Kirk, pictured in court last week, want to be reunited with their children, according to the woman’s lawyer