Mother pleads guilty in role of 4-year-old child’s death

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – James Dunklee Cruz was just four years old when he was brutally beaten to death in 2019. It was at the hands of his own mother’s roommate, Zerrick Marquez.

Marquez is now serving life in prison for his role in the little boy’s death. But Marquez did not act alone – James’ mother is owning up to her role in his death. 

On Wednesday, Krista Cruz reached a deal with prosecutors. She pled guilty to four different charges related to his death, admitting that she failed to do what mothers are supposed to do – protect their children.

This deal increases the possible prison time Krista is facing.

The district attorney’s office says it’s been a long time in the making and should absolutely send a message that child abuse is taken seriously.

Krista was in court Wednesday where prosecutors outlined her role in her own child’s horrific death. 

“He was severely abused, continuously leading up to the day of his death,” said Savannah Brandenburg-Koch, prosecutor. 

James was found beaten to death in December 2019 when he was left alone with Marquez.

Marquez admitted to killing him just last year.

“Clearly, it was Mr. Marquez who caused James’ death. I think the state’s theory in this case is she knew or should have known what was going on, and we agree,” said Edward Bustamante, defense attorney. 

Just months before James was killed, he was taken to an urgent care where he disclosed abuse at the hands of his mother, her best friend, Pamela Esparza, and Marquez.

The New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department told Krista they could not go back to that home – but they did. James was killed a short time later.

“James’ case was the worst of the worst. It’s the worst case I’ve ever been a part of, but the most important case I’ve been a part of,” said Brandenburg-Koch. 

The prosecutor says this plea deal is a reflection of that.

Krista pleaded guilty to four different charges – lesser charges than indicted, but charges that could actually result in more prison time.

“Nothing is ever going to be enough for the brutality that James went through. His mom was supposed to protect him,” said Brandenburg-Koch. 

Krista is facing anywhere between 0 and 22 years in prison. Sentencing is set about 60 days out. 

In the meantime, the trial is set for next month for the third and final defendant in this case.