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Three-Year-Old Girl, Used As Panhandler’s Prop, Dies

April 9, 1988

NEW YORK (AP) _ A panhandler who used a dying 3-year-old girl and her brother to win sympathy has been charged in her beating death, and police appealed for further help from the passerby who tried to save her life.

Benito Sanches, 36, a ″crack″ cocaine addict who came to America in the 1980 Cuban boat lift, was charged Friday with second-degree murder in the death of his girlfriend’s daughter, Maya Figueroa, police said.

She was the second toddler in two weeks to die a violent death at the city’s biggest welfare hotel, The Prince George Hotel.

Welfare workers had investigated the family for complaints of abuse and neglect, but caseworkers had found no evidence of child abuse, said Suzanne Trazoff, a spokeswoman for the city Human Resources Administration.

Detectives were investigating whether the girl’s mother, Elise Vasquez, 32, was involved in the alleged abuse, police Capt. Michael Gardner said.

On Thursday, the night Maya died, Ms. Vasquez was in Bellevue Hospital, where she had given birth to her fifth child, a boy, the day before.

In an interview with the Daily News on Friday before signing herself out of the hospital, Ms. Vasquez was quoted as saying she did not believe Sanches had hurt Maya and said that ″he loved the child like it was his own. ...

″She would call him ‘Dada.’ She wanted to be with him and to play with him. He would take her panhandling because she liked to be with him,″ Ms. Vasquez said. ″She has been going out with him for two years and he never laid a hand on her or any of the other kids.″

At the time of the battered girl’s death Thursday, Maya and her 18-month- old brother were being used by Sanches as panhandling props, police said. They said he had used them before to solicit money.

″He hoped to get sympathy and compassion that way,″ said Aaron H. Rosenthal, assistant chief of Manhattan detectives.

Maya was in her stroller when a concerned passerby noticed her as Sanches begged for coins at 28th Street and Second Avenue at 9:30 p.m. Thursday. The man flagged down a taxi, gave the driver $5, hustled the three into the cab and ordered the driver to take them to a hospital, police said.

Maya was declared dead on arrival at the emergency room at New York University Medical Center. Her brother, whose name was withheld, was admitted to the hospital for observation although he showed no signs of abuse.

Authorities questioned the cab driver; they hoped to locate the good Samaritan and find out what he saw that night.

″We appeal to him to come forward. We would like to speak to him about what was going on,″ Gardner said.

An autopsy Friday indicated the toddler died of blunt force injuries to her head and abdomen with internal injuries and bleeding, said Ellen Borakove of the city medical examiner’s office. The case was ruled child abuse and a homicide.

Maya had ″bruises and contusions on her face, back and neck. Some of these bruises appeared to be recent,″ Gardner told a news conference.

The two children, their mother and Sanches lived at the Prince George on Manhattan’s East Side, which has 2,600 residents, mainly homeless families. Ms. Vasquez’s two other children, ages 12 and 14, live with relatives in Brooklyn, police said.

Two weeks ago, 3-year-old Quintin McKenzie was scalded to death in a bathtub at the Prince George. His mother, Merian McKenzie, was charged with second-degree murder, and her husband, Calvin C. McKenzie, was charged with assault for allegedly beating the toddler.

At the Prince George on Friday, a steady stream of people flowed in and out of the two steel doors guarding the threadbare lobby. Many of them pushed strollers or had young children by the hand.

″I have to say it: it’s drugs,″ said a 21-year-old woman with a stroller, who identified herself only as Maria. ″If they don’t get money for the drugs, they take it out on the kids.″

″It’s drugs,″ said Dr. Maria New, who chairs the Pediatrics Department at New York-Cornell Medical Center. ″McKenzie was drugs, and now this one, all drugs.″

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