Originally Published: May 2, 2008 9:34 p.m.
PRESCOTT VALLEY - Eight-year-old Alex Herrera sank into the big witness chair in Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Thomas Lindberg's courtroom where her father, 26-year-old Jesse Herrera,is on trial. Jesse faces charges in the death of his girlfriend Stephanie Gardner's 5-year-old son Caelob Gardner.
Alex was living in the couple's home on the morning of Feb. 12, 2005, when Herrera has admitted he knocked Caelob unconscious while the two were "wrestling." Caelob suffered a brain injury and was taken off life support less than 24 hours later.
Herrera has called his actions "roughhousing that went bad."
The county prosecutor has charged Herrera, of Prescott Valley, with one count of first-degree felony murder, one count of second-degree murder and two counts of child abuse against Caelob. In addition Herrera faces one count of child abuse against Stephanie Gardner's other child, daughter Kailee, who was 2 at the time the abuse is alleged to have occurred.
Alex has lived with her grandparents in Idaho since shortly after Herrera was arrested.
Assistant Yavapai County Prosecutor Ethan Wolfinger had the child return to Prescott to testify in the
case. Police say Alex may have witnessed her father abusing Caelob and Kailee.
However, her testimony Friday painted a picture of a loving father who sometimes played too rough with his children.
After agreeing that she was "scared" about testifying, Alex politely - and happily - answered questions from both Wolfinger and Defense Attorney Craig Williams.
"Was your daddy nice to Caelob?" asked Wolfinger.
"Yes," she replied.
She said she never saw her father hurt Caelob or say bad things about him or punch him.
When Wolfinger asked how her daddy played with Caelob, Alex responded: "He would kind of play rough. He would kind of pretend to punch him."
She said she couldn't remember telling Stephanie that her Dad had hit Kailee, something Prescott Valley police say she did tell Stephanie.
Alex said she did remember her Dad getting arrested because it made her sad and because she was scared when the police came into the motel room where Jesse Herrera had taken the couple's children after Stephanie rushed Caelob to a nearby fire station.
Asked if Caelob and her daddy were fighting that day, Alex said, "No, I don't think so."
Asked if she remembered that Caelob had rubbed "poop" on one of the walls of the home early that morning, she giggled that she had seen poop on the wall and on Caelob's shirt.
Asked if her father was angry about that, Alex said, "He got upset, but he didn't do anything to him. He only told him to go and clean it up."
She did say she remembered her father making "an angry face."
"He kind of went like this," she said, gritting her teeth so that both the top and bottom rows showed.
When she was asked again if her daddy was rough to Caelob she said, "Sometimes. He would pretend to punch him, but not really hit him."
Asked by Wolfinger how Stephanie treated her, Alex responded, "Not very good. She would lock us up in her room until it was lunchtime."
Then, Alex continued, Stephanie would let the children out if they knocked on the door to feed them cold hotdogs.
Once, Alex recalled, Stephanie hit Caelob when he bit Alex's finger.
"She hit him on the nose ... really hard and his nose started bleeding," Alex said.
Asked again how her dad treated Caelob, Alex said, "I don't know."
"Was he good to him?" Wolfinger asked.
"Yes," Alex grinned, suddenly bouncing up and down in the big chair.
During Williams' questioning, Alex drew laughter from the jury when she was asked if her father's tendency to drag the children around the house was for fun.
She thought about that for a minute before she said carefully, "I wouldn't say it was for fun."
Later in the questioning, Alex said Caelob told her the week he died that he had headaches that week.
Alex also told the jury that her father drank beer and that she had seen him drunk "a couple of times" but not the day Caelob was hurt.
She also said that the morning that Caelob was hurt she didn't see or hear her father being mean to Caelob or wrestling with him.
She also said that she didn't see any bruises on Kailee that week, either.
The trial will resume at 9 a.m. Tuesday.
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