Christopher Payne starved kids to death, prosecutor says; defense blames ex-girlfriend
Prosecutors say Christopher Mathew Payne was more concerned with his drug habit and his new family than his two older children, who he is accused of keeping in a closet and starving to death.
Almost two years after Ariana Payne’s decomposed body was found in a plastic bin in a storage locker, testimony began Tuesday in the capital murder trial of her father, who is also accused of killing Ariana’s brother, Tyler.
Payne, 30, was arrested after Ariana’s remains were found in a North Side storage locker Feb. 18, 2007. Tyler’s remains have never been found.
Ariana and Tyler would have been 3 and 4 when they were killed months before Ariana’s remains were found, prosecutors say.
“He abused these children and in the course and in furtherance of that child abuse, the children died,” Deputy County Attorney Bunkye Chi said in her opening statement.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty if Payne is convicted on either of two first-degree murder counts.
Defense attorneys say Payne was a doting father who took his older children from their mother, Jamie Hallam, for their protection and didn’t realize that he put them in the hands of another woman, Reina Irene Gonzales, who abused them and who is responsible for their deaths.
Gonzales is Payne’s former live-in girlfriend and the mother of his surviving child.
“We’re not asking for absolution, but asking for a fair and factual assessment as to Chris Payne’s responsibility,” Assistant Public Defender Rebecca McLean said in her opening statement.
McLean asked the jury to find him guilty of second-degree murder and reckless child abuse for failing to see that his children were properly cared for.
“Even the state will say that there’s evidence Reina is not a great person,” Chi said in opening statements. “Reina is lazy. Reina did not like these kids. Reina was addicted to drugs.
“Reina quite frankly didn’t care what happened to these kids,” Chi said.
“In fact, she admits she sat around all day smoking heroin, getting high and not paying much attention to the children,” McLean said.
Gonzales often complained to Payne that she didn’t know how to handle the children and said at least once that if he didn’t come home from his drug-dealing job, she would kill them, McLean said.
Gonzales also was indicted on first-degree murder charges and would have faced a possible death sentence if convicted.
However, in May she accepted a plea deal for second-degree murder and a 22-year sentence in exchange for her testimony against Payne.
Gonzales’ attorney, Brick P. Storts III, said in an interview in August that he believes Payne manipulated and abused Gonzales, putting her in a vulnerable position.
“Still, she was aware of what was going on inside that apartment and did nothing to stop it or to rectify it and seek help.
“And that’s what she pled guilty to,” Storts said.
Body in storage locker
Pima County Superior Court Judge Richard S. Fields told jurors the trial is expected to run until March 27.
Jurors will hear testimony about the lives of Payne, Gonzales and the Payne children that few may be able to relate to in their own lives.
Though no outsiders will know exactly what happened in the last months of Ariana’s and Tyler’s short lives, some details have been revealed in court records, pretrial hearings and testimony, related documents, interviews and trial testimony and show what jurors can expect to hear over the next month.
Tuesday’s testimony included gruesome details about the discovery of Ariana’s remains.
Chi told jurors that when police searched an apartment where they believe Ariana and Tyler starved to death, they found Tyler’s blood in some carpeting and in a small closet.
“They saw signs of death in that closet,” Chi said.
Gonzales is expected to testify that Payne forced her to lock Ariana and Tyler in the closet, where they were kept until they died.
Chi said the children likely died in late August or early September 2006.
On Sept. 6, 2006, Payne rented a rental unit at U-Store-It, 519 E. Prince Road.
Three months later, when rental fees weren’t paid, the manager of the rental units placed an eviction lock on Payne’s locker.
Diana Hanselman, who managed the U-Store-It then, opened the locker early in 2007, but was repelled by a strong, foul odor, she testified Tuesday.
She procrastinated cleaning out the locker until Feb. 16, when she opened it along with another woman to learn whether there were any contents suitable for auction.
The locker contained a blue plastic tub, Hanselman testified. The tub reeked and there were bugs and flies surrounding it.
Hanselman hauled the tub to a trash bin, where she dumped it. Later that night, a friend advised calling police, which Hanselman did on Feb. 18, 2007.
Tucson Officer Ben Soltero arrived to find the remains of a girl wrapped in a black garbage bag inside a designer tote bag that had been placed in the tub.
Testing later showed it to be Ariana’s remains.
Officers didn’t think to search the entire trash container at the facility, unaware that another body might have been there.
Once Payne was identified as the owner of the locker and became the primary focus of the investigation, officers also learned he had a daughter who might have been the same age as the crumpled body that was found. They were shocked to learn Payne had another child, a boy, who was missing.
By that time, days had passed and the garbage bin from the storage unit had been emptied.
Police searched the West Side apartment where the children apparently died, which also reeked of a foul odor and still had personal items of Payne’s and Gonzales’ strewn around the one-bedroom unit.
In a tiny bedroom closet, police found traces of blood, body fluid seeped into the floorboards and blood splatter on the walls. A hole was cut into the wall, with hair and what appeared to be feces stuffed inside.
In a small storage shed on the balcony, police also smelled a foul odor and found blood on the walls and body fluids soaked in the floor.
The apartment smelled so bad that even half a year after Payne and Gonzales moved out, the management hadn’t been able to clean it well enough to rent.
Parents’ life together
Payne, 30, met Jamie Hallam when she moved here full time to live with her stepfather, Richard Barcalow.
Barcalow, who lives in Catalina about 15 miles north of Tucson, told the Tucson Citizen he raised Hallam from the age of 3, when he married her mother, Linda, in New Jersey. They have since divorced. Linda remarried and lives in New Jersey, he said.
Hallam, who now lives out of state, came to Tucson to stay with Barcalow after bearing a son in New Jersey, Barcalow told the Citizen. The boy, a preteen, lives with his father in New Jersey.
Payne and Hallam met when he helped repair the trailer Barcalow gave her, Hallam’s stepfather said.
Eventually, the couple moved together to a Tucson apartment. Early on, there were signs of strife as Hallam once asked her stepdad to help her move after Payne allegedly hit her.
Yet the couple remained together.
Tyler was born Nov. 15, 2001, about two months before his parents got married. By May 2002, Arizona Child Protective Services visited the Payne household after hearing allegations of “low-risk” physical abuse. A CPS worker visited the family but didn’t report any concerns.
Ariana Socorro Payne was born Oct. 12, 2002. By mid-2003, Chris and Jamie Payne had separated and divorced.
Hallam was granted primary custody; Payne was denied visitation.
At different points, each accused the other of using drugs and mistreating the children, but Hallam never lost legal custody.
McLean told jurors the children saw abuse and domestic violence “before they even reached Chris and Reina’s house.”
Payne, Gonzales, deaths
Payne and Gonzales, 24, met through her brother, whom she was living with around 2003. Within two months of meeting Payne, Gonzales became pregnant with Christopher Mathew Payne Jr., who was born in 2004.
Gonzales’ life wasn’t just on a downward spiral – court records indicate that her family history basically left her with nowhere to go.
As Gonzales’ attorney, Storts said during a pretrial hearing that Gonzales is a woman who never should have had children and who was born to a woman who never should have had children.
Gonzales’ relatives characterized her as the “caretaker” of the family who adored and cared for her father, who died from the effects of alcoholism when she was a teenager, and her mother, who neglected her own children.
Though Gonzales has said she was self-sufficient, records indicate that she was unable to find a job or housing on her own, that she never lived on her own – moving from her parents’ house to boyfriends’ homes to living with Payne – and was unable to keep a job, due to chronic tardiness.
A teacher helped Gonzales move into government subsidized housing, but after Payne moved in with her, she was evicted for violating housing rules.
Over the course of her four-year relationship with Payne, Gonzales’ life was one of constant change – a string of dead-end jobs that always ended in unemployment due to her absences, continuous housing moves and chronic abuse of heroin and cocaine.
One of Gonzales’ cousins helped her and Payne obtain an apartment at the Portofino Apartments on West 36th Street, which is where Ariana and Tyler died.
Relatives sometimes brought food to the apartment and voluntarily cleaned up what seemed to be a constant mess, which they said was unusual for Gonzales.
In early 2006, Payne told Hallam he wanted to be involved in Tyler’s and Ariana’s lives.
Hallam agreed to let the children visit with Payne in January, which would be the last time she saw her children alive.
By February, Payne refused to let Hallam see the children. He threatened to get custody, with CPS backing him.
On March 9, at Hallam’s urging, police visited Payne, who convinced them he had legal custody of the children. CPS advised police to leave the children with their father until the custody issue was settled.
On April 14, 2006, CPS closed the case on the Payne children, leaving them with Payne.
After Payne and Gonzales were arrested, neighbors told police they couldn’t remember ever seeing Tyler and Ariana, though Chris Jr. was a common sight.
McLean said when Ariana died, “(Her father) was horribly, horribly surprised and distraught. He was saddened. The whole day, he gave her CPR. He kept her in bed with him.”
McLean said Payne didn’t know why the children were “wasting away” and died.
“Reina just wanted to throw the kids away. Chris couldn’t do that, so he kept them in the storage bin,” McLean said.
An autopsy on Ariana’s remains, which were so badly decomposed that a formal autopsy couldn’t be conducted, showed 12 broken ribs in various stages of healing, along with a shoulder injury, Chi said.
The rib fractures showed evidence the girl had been picked up and squeezed so hard her bones broke. The shoulder injury was inconsistent with a fall, Chi said.
In addition, Ariana suffered a compressed vertebra, Chi said.
Confession an issue
Payne’s fate could be sealed not only by Gonzales’ testimony, but by his own words.
On March 1, 2007, police found Payne, Gonzales and their son at a South Side motel. Payne was arrested on outstanding warrants and taken to the main station downtown.
Payne apparently took a liking to Detective Mike Walker and appeared eager to talk to him.
“Tell these guys I ain’t gonna answer no questions unless they hurry the (expletive) up, man!” Payne told Walker.
Payne said Walker was “the only person I’ll talk to.”
Payne tried to “control the pace and direction of the interview by continually asking on at least 10 occasions for the detective to “get to the point,” prosecutors said in a motion to allow his statements.
Payne also asked to speak to his father, who was unavailable, detectives said.
“Well, let me call my sister, and then my stepsister, just to let them know that, what the (expletive) is goin’ on’ and then I’ll talk, man,” Payne said.
Payne’s attorneys strenuously argued against allowing the jury to hear a confession and other statements he made after his arrest. The judge has said they may be used.
Defense attorneys said Payne was too ill from the effects of heroin withdrawal to make his statements voluntarily and his right to have a lawyer with him during questioning was violated.
Prosecutors said the statements show how Payne consistently tried to manipulate police officers, bargaining with them for food or a blanket in exchange for telling them where Tyler’s body was. They also said Payne didn’t complain of any ailments until after he knew officers knew the children were dead.
Detective Mike Orozco told grand jurors that Payne admitted the children starved to death in his care. Ariana died first, according to the confession.
McLean told jurors Gonzales will testify that Ariana’s body was put into the garbage bag, then a tote bag and placed in the closet with her brother, who died several days later.
TIMELINE FOR THE CASE
Jamie Hallam moves to Tucson full time to be with stepdad in Catalina, meets and moves in with Chris Payne.
Nov. 15 – Tyler Christopher Payne born
Jan. 26 – Christopher Payne and Jamie Hallam marry
May 2 – CPS visits Paynes’ home on allegations of “low-risk” physical abuse. The CPS worker had no concerns.
Oct. 12 – Ariana Socorro Payne born
December – Jamie Hallam Payne gets order of protection against Chris Payne
March 16: Payne and Hallam are divorced. Hallam is granted primary custody and Payne weekend visitation.
Christopher Payne Jr. born to Chris and Reina Gonzales
October – CPS caseworker reports neglect of kids and meth use by Hallam and her boyfriend, finds claims of child neglect unsubstantiated
January – Hallam leaves kids with Payne for visit, but he doesn’t return them
Feb. 14 – Payne calls CPS, saying Hallam wants to take children, CPS tells Payne to seek custody
Feb. 21 – Caseworker sees kids with Payne and says they’re OK, but electricity turned off
March 1 – CPS closes neglect case on Hallam, calling it “unsubstantiated,” but kids stay with Payne
March 9 – Police tell CPS Hallam wants kids back and proves she has custody. TPD officer goes to Payne’s home and calls CPS when Payne shows application for court order. CPS says to leave children there until hearing to decide custody
April 14 – CPS closes case involving children, but leaves kids with Payne
Sept. 6 – Payne rents storage locker
Dec. 6 – Payne defaults on storage locker rent
Feb. 18 – Ariana’s body found in plastic tub in storage locker at U-Store-It, 519 E. Prince Road
March 1 – Payne arrested, charged with first-degree murder, child abuse, abandoning or concealing body parts. Bond set at $1.5 million. Police search Los Reales Landfill for Tyler’s body.
March 8 – Reina Gonzales arrested, charged with child abuse. Chris Jr. is given to CPS, eventually to Payne’s sister.
May 18 – Gonzales indicted on two counts of first-degree murder, three counts of child abuse
Nov. 1 – State releases outside review of CPS Payne case that says CPS failed multiple times to ensure safety of the Payne children
Feb. 15 – Hallam files $12 million wrongful death lawsuit against CPS
June – State agrees to pay Jamie $1 million
Aug. 25 – Gonzales pleads guilty to second-degree murder