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Awilda LOPEZ





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: The victim had been beaten and sodomized over a two-year period
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: November 22, 1995
Date of arrest: Next day
Date of birth: April 28, 1966
Victim profile: Her daughter, 6-year-old Elisa Izquierdo
Method of murder: Beating
Location: New York City, New York, USA
Status: Sentenced to 15 years to life in prison on July 31, 1996

photo gallery


Awilda Lopez (b. April 28, 1966) gained infamy in late 1995 as the mother and killer of her daughter, 6-year-old Elisa Izquierdo.

When Elisa was born addicted to cocaine on February 11, 1989, she was placed in the custody of her father, Gustavo Izquierdo. It has been the source of much debate whether Lopez initially gave up her daughter or whether she voluntarily abandoned her. Lopez first gained custody of Elisa in May 1994, after the child's father died of cancer.

As an adult, Lopez came under the influence of crack cocaine. Like famous victims Nadine Lockwood and Nixzmary Brown, Elisa too had been singled out for abuse among her siblings. Lopez was alleged to have forbidden Elisa to have contact with her other siblings while they ate or played, to have forced her to ingest her own waste, to have mopped the floor with her head and to have cut off the child's hair, and to have kept Elisa confined to their apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan while the other children were allowed out to play.

In August 1996, Lopez pled guilty to second degree murder and was sentenced to 15 years to life imprisonment. During the winter of 2006, when the Nixzmary Brown case made headlines, Lopez expressed her penitence from prison for her role in her own daughter's death.

As of May 2012 Awilda Lopez is still in prison at: Bedford Hills Correctional Facility 247 Harris Road Bedford Hills, New York 10507

NYSID: 08159607Q DIN: 96G1200

She is scheduled for a parole hearing in July 2012, she was denied parole previously in November 2010. She was denied parole for the second time in July 2012. Her next parole hearing is scheduled for July 2014.


Elisa Izquierdo (February 11, 1989 November 22, 1995) was a six-year-old Cuban American girl who became a symbol of child abuse in the USA after being beaten to death by her mother Awilda Lopez, a New York City drug addict, in 1995. Her story first made city and then national headlines when it became clear that New York City's Child Welfare System (now the Administration for Children's Services) missed many opportunities to intervene with her family and to save her life.

In the media, Elisa was frequently called a modern-day Cinderella because she had been under the protection of a loving father, Gustavo Izquierdo, until his death from cancer on May 26, 1994 (the very day he'd planned to send her to Cuba to protect her from her mother), and had befriended Prince Michael of Greece through her school before coming into her mother's custody. Her life story became the subject of much speculation in the media, from local tabloids such as the New York Daily News and The New York Post to the cover of Time Magazine. Her story was featured on an August 1996 episode of Dateline NBC. Her funeral drew an estimated 300 mourners.

On February 12, 1996, Governor George E. Pataki signed into legislation Elisa's Law, which is designed to balance the need for increased accountability through public awareness and government oversight, with the privacy interests of individuals involved in child protective services cases. In the summer of 1996, Awilda Lopez was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison (until 2010) for killing her daughter; Lopez's companion, Carlos, was also sentenced for his part in her death.


Elisa Izquierdo


Feb. 11, 1989
New York County
New York, USA


Nov. 22, 1995
New York County
New York, USA

Elisa Izquierdo was a beautiful little girl born to Gustavo Izquierdo and Awilda Lopez. Gustavo, a Cuban immigrant, came to America in May of 1980 to teach dance. He took a job as a community aide in a homeless shelter in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, NY.

In 1987 he met Awilda Lopez, a shelter resident with a drug problem. They had a relationship and two years later their daughter, Elisa, was born at Woodhull Hospital. Custody was given to Gustavo, who at 34, found himself a single father with a newborn baby girl.

On the first day that he brought Elisa home from the hospital, he made lots of panicky calls to female acquaintances to get advice on how to take care of her. Co-worker, Cynthia Nuldrow, recalled, "we helped him with formula, we showed him how to change diapers, comb her hair... He caught on fine, he loved that little girl".

Anytime baby Elisa was in distress, her father attended to her every need. Once, when she ran a slight fever, her father panicked and called Ms. Nudrow who advised him to cover her with a blanket and give her baby medicine. When she was teething and in pain, her father again called for help and was told to buy a special gel for her gums.

Gustavo took parenting classes at the local YWCA and after he got the basics down, it was said that he thrived in his new role as father. Gustavo worked long hours at the shelter everyday and every other weekend earning $1,675.00 a month to take care of Elisa. While he was at work, he left Elisa with neighbors and friends. Sometimes he'd bring her to work with him and have co-workers watch her.

In 1990 when Elisa was one year old, her father enrolled her in the YWCA's Montessori Preschool. Every morning he would get up and iron a new dress for her and fix her beautiful hair into pigtails and braids and buns. Barbara Simmons, Elisa's teacher at the preschool, recalled,"How many men brush their little girl's hair and part their hair in a perfect straight line"? Elisa was described as having a special enchanted aura, a brilliant smile and flashing black eyes. Everybody loved her. The school's director, Phyllis Bryce, recalled, "she was beautiful, radiant. She had an inner strength and alot of potential for growth".

Elisa and her father Gustavo had many happy times together. They went on outings to the circus, to the park, to the movies. He had stacks of pictures of her in his wallet. Once when Elisa turned four, Gustavo rented a banquet hall, complete with chandeliers, to celebrate her baptism into the Catholic church. Barbara Woodruff, who lived next door to Gustavo and Elisa, recalled, "when you saw this man walking down the street with his kid, he was a proud daddy. He was really proud. She was just as proud being his daughter as he was of being her father". Gustavo's friend, Mary Crespo, recalled, "she was his life. He would always say Elisa was his princess".

In 1991, Elisa's mother, Awilda Lopez, petitioned the courts for unsupervised weekend visitations with her daughter. The petition was granted and on weekends Elisa would go to her mother's apartment on Manhattan's lower east side. Awilda had married Carlos Lopez, a maintainance worker. She already had two older children, Rubebcito and Kasey. Elisa was her third child. Awilda would go on to have three more children, Taisha, Carlos and Rafael. During these weekend visitations, Elisa was being abused. In 1992, Gustavo Izquierdo petitioned the courts to have Awilda's parental rights terminated. The weekend visits stopped for awhile and Elisa was back full time with her father.

When Gustavo fell behind on tuition payments at the Montessori Preschool, the staff was so fond of Elisa that they recommeded her to Prince Michael of Greece. The Prince was a benefactor of the school. Prince Michael recalled meeting Elisa, "she jumped into my arms and she was sweet and she wouldn't leave my hands the whole time of the visit". Prince Michael erased Gustavo's $1000.00 debt and in 1993 offered to finance Elisa's entire private school education all the way up to college at the prestigious Brooklyn Friends School. At Christmas, Easter and on her birthday, the Prince would send her gifts and during his visits to the school, the Prince would bring her stuffed animals and clothes. The little princess responded with thank you notes and pictures.

In 1994, Elisa celebrated her fifth birthday at the Montessori Preschool. She took the Brooklyn Friends School screening exam and passed. She was scheduled to start classes in the fall. Gustavo, who became sick with cancer, was concerned that Awilda would regain custody of Elisa. He devised a plan that he shared with his cousin, Elsa Canizares, to send Elisa to Cuba. Gustavo Izquierdo died of cancer on the day he was planning on putting Elisa on the plane. The tickets were already purchased.

After Gustavo died there was a custody fight for Elisa held at Brooklyn Family Court before Judge Phoebe Greenbaum. Gustavo's cousin, Elsa Canizares, had petitioned the court for custody of Elisa. Phyllis Bryce, the director of the Montessori school and Prince Michael of Greece, wrote letters to the judge recommending Elsa Canizares be given custody. Judge Greenbaum awarded custody of Elisa to her mother. Elisa, who was use to being the apple of her daddy's eye, now found herself to be one of six children living in a crowded apartment. On November 22nd, 1995, a year and a half after the death of her beloved father, six year old, Elisa Izquierdo was murdered by her mother.

The community raised money to bury Elisa but never used it because the funeral was donated. Her funeral was held at the Ponce Funeral Home in Brooklyn, N.Y. More than 300 people were in attendance, including the then mayor of New York City, Rudolph Giuliani. The Izquierdo side of the family wanted Elisa buried with her father but the mother's side of the family objected. The funeral home sided with the mother's side, who choose to bury Elisa on top of someone else.

After Elisa's death, a law was enacted in New York State called, "Elisa's Law" The law loosens the veil of confidentiality surrounding child welfare cases. Prior to this law, state and local officials were prohibiting from discussing details about child welfare cases. As a result, responsibility for errors or incompetance were rarely fixed. Elisa's law holds child welfare agencies publicly accountable for their actions by allowing the public to know the details of what was done and by whom. When the public can see where the mistakes were made, the mistakes can be rectified.

In response to the death of Elisa Izquierdo, the mayor of New York City, Rudolph Giuliani, created an agency called the Administration for Children's Services (ACS) in January of 1996. This would be the first free standing agency in the city's history devoted only to child welfare services and reporting directly to him.

Elisa's death also launched a crusade to open up juvenile court proceedings to the general public in New York City. With the intense media attention surrounding her death, the media wanted access to the then private juvenile court hearings that would determine the fate of Elisa's five brothers and sisters. The media launched a crusade to open up the hearings and ultimately were successful.


Abandoned to her fate

By David Van Biema -

June 24, 2001

ELISA IZQUIERDO LIKED TO DANCE, WHICH IS ALMOST TOO perfect. Fairy tales, especially those featuring princesses, often include dancing, although perhaps not Elisa's favorite merengue. Fairy-tale princesses are born humble. Elisa fit that bill: she was conceived in a homeless shelter in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn and born addicted to crack. That Elisa nevertheless had a special, enchanted aura is something the whole city of New York now knows. "Radiant," says one of her preschool teachers, remembering a brilliant smile and flashing black eyes. "People loved her," adds another. "Everybody loved her." And, unlikely as it may seem, there was even a prince in Elisa's life: a real scion of Greece's old royalty named Prince Michael, who was a patron of the little girl's preschool. He made a promise to finance her full private-school education up to college, which is about as happily ever after as this age permits.

Fairy-tale princesses, however, are not bludgeoned to death by their mothers. They are not violated with a toothbrush and a hairbrush, and the neighbors do not hear them moaning and pleading at night. Last week, two months before her seventh birthday, Elisa Izquierdo lay in her casket, wearing a crown of flowers. The casket was open, which was an anguished protest on someone's part; no exertion of the undertaker's art could conceal all Elisa's wounds. Before she smashed her daughter's head against a cement wall, Awilda Lopez told police, she had made her eat her own feces and used her head to mop the floor. All this over a period of weeks, or maybe months. The fairy tale was ended.

America dotes on fairy tales and likes to think it takes action on nightmares. When the story of Elisa's death hit the news last week, New Yorkers and people across the country remembered the Kitty Genovese murder in 1964, and took to task all the neighbors who had known too much and said nothing. But, it turned out, many others had not been silent: Elisa's slow, tortured demise had been reported repeatedly. Over the six years of her life, city authorities had been notified at least eight times. And so outrage focused on the child-welfare system. How did it happen, the public wondered angrily, that Elisa's case was known to the system, and yet the system so shamefully failed her?

The Child Welfare Administration, which handles cases of abuse in New York City, first heard of Elisa on Feb. 11, 1989, the day of her birth. Her mother was a crack addict whose addiction was indirectly responsible for her pregnancy: she had lost her apartment, and in Brooklyn's Auburn Place homeless shelter she began a romance with Gustavo Izquierdo, who worked at the shelter as a cook. As her pregnancy progressed, Awilda was so lost in the pipe that relatives managed to wrest custody of her first two children, Rubencito and Kasey, from her. The social workers at Woodhull Hospital took one look at Elisa's tiny, crack-addicted body and immediately assigned custody to the father. Following standard procedure, they also alerted the CWA.

Perhaps to his own surprise, Izquierdo--who had emigrated from Cuba hoping to teach dance--turned out to be a wonderful father. At first there were panicky calls to female acquaintances about diapers and formula, but eventually he mastered the basics. Every morning he would iron a dress for Elisa and put her beautiful hair into braids or pigtails. When she was four, he rented a Queens banquet hall for a party marking her baptism. Says a friend, Mary Crespo: "She was his life. He would always say Elisa was his princess."

It was through her father's efforts that the princess found her prince. Izquierdo took parenting classes at the local ywca, and he enrolled one-year-old Elisa in the Y's Montessori preschool. She was a favorite pupil. Says the school's then director, Phyllis Bryce: "She was beautiful, radiant. She had an inner strength and a lot of potential for growth." So fond of both father and daughter were the Montessori staff members that when Izquierdo fell behind on tuition, they recommended his daughter to Prince Michael of Greece.

Michael will probably never ascend his country's throne, since the monarchy was abolished in 1974. But he still dispenses royal charity. After an aide established a connection with the Montessori school, the faculty introduced Michael to Elisa. On the day he arrived in Brooklyn, he would later remember, "[Elisa] jumped into my arms. She was a lively, charming, beautiful girl. She was so full of love." The prince visited several times, bringing stuffed animals or clothes; the little princess responded with thank-you notes and pictures. Michael's most handsome offer arrived in late 1993: he would pay Elisa's full tuition, through 12th grade, at the Brooklyn Friends School.

But running parallel with the fairy tale was the nightmare. In 1991 Awilda petitioned for, and was granted, unsupervised visitation rights with her daughter. The mother had already regained custody of her two older children; she seemed to have effected a miraculous recovery. In December 1990 social workers signed an affidavit stating that she had given up drugs, married a man named Carlos Lopez and settled at a permanent address. "Both [Lopezes] are willing to go for random drug tests," the affidavit read. "They never miss appointments with the agency, and they are always on time. Mr. Lopez is supportive...He appears to be gentle and understanding."

That last was a grave misjudgment. Carlos Lopez, who did maintenance work, was solicitous only in public. At night neighbors heard dishes, pots and pans crashing against walls. In January 1992, a month after Awilda gave birth to his second child, Carlos stabbed her 17 times with a pocketknife, putting her in the hospital for three days. According to a neighbor, the attack occurred in front of Elisa, during a weekend visit. Carlos served two months in jail and then, neighbors say, resumed beating his wife--and his visiting stepdaughter.

Elisa's life became an excruciating alternation of happiness and horror. The four-year-old took the Friends School's screening examination and passed. But according to Montessori teacher Barbara Simmons, she also began telling people that her mother had locked her in a closet. On one occasion she volunteered, "Awilda hits me. I don't want to go to Awilda." Montessori principal Bryce says she reported suspected abuse to both the Brooklyn Bureau of Community Services and a child-abuse hot line--the CWA's second warning about Elisa. In response, Bryce has said, child-welfare workers made several visits to the Lopez home, "and then stopped, as they usually do."

Izquierdo apparently knew about the mistreatment. A neighbor told the New York Times that Elisa would wake up screaming in the night, that although toilet trained, she had begun to urinate and defecate uncontrollably and that there were cuts and bruises on her vagina. In 1992 Izquierdo petitioned the family court to deny Awilda custodial rights, but fate intervened before the court could act on his request. By late 1993, already ill with cancer, he was planning to take Elisa to Cuba, and perhaps hoping to leave her there permanently. Tickets were bought, but he became too ill to travel, and on May 26 Izquierdo died.

AWILDA IMMEDIATELY FILED FOR permanent custody. A cousin of Izquierdo's, Elsa Canizares, challenged the petition, alleging that Lopez was insane and abused the child. Bryce wrote in a letter to family court judge Phoebe Greenbaum that "Elisa was emotionally and physically abused during the weekend visitations with her mom . Teachers' observation notes are available." Bryce also enlisted the help of Prince Michael, who added his own letter.

Canizares arrived for the June 1994 custody hearing alone. Awilda, by contrast, brought a small army. Her lawyer that day was from the Legal Aid Society, which maintained that its caseworkers had visited the Lopezes and found that "Elisa expressed a strong desire to live with her mother" and her siblings. Also backing Awilda was the CWA, which Judge Greenbaum has indicated had been monitoring the family for more than a year--the agency's third contact with Elisa. Finally there was Project Chance, a federally funded parenting program for the poor run by a man named Bart O'Connor.

When O'Connor met her in 1992, Awilda had seemed "an easily excitable woman," but one who was "very lively, very vibrant and loved her children beyond belief." She dutifully attended parenting classes and sought extra advice. There were setbacks, during which she returned to drugs and abandoned the children. But she recovered--"The kids seemed happy, and the house was immaculate." When Awilda asked O'Connor to help her get Elisa back, he had his doubts: "She was just learning to handle five kids. I thought another kid might be too much." But, after all, he had just given her a progress award, so he vouched for her to the court. In September Judge Greenbaum awarded full custody to Awilda, directing the CWA to observe the family for a year. Last week, hounded by the press, Greenbaum released a statement that read in part, "It is any judge's worst nightmare to be involved in a case in which a child dies."

Especially, it can be assumed, when a child dies slowly, by torture. In September, Awilda removed Elisa from the Montessori school and enrolled her in Manhattan's Public School 26. The Daily News reports that on arrival, she seemed a fairly happy girl, one who shared make-believe bus trips with other children during lunch hour. But she soon folded up into herself. The school's principal and social worker, noting that she was often bruised and had trouble walking, reported the matter directly to a deputy director of CWA's Manhattan field division, in what would be CWA's fourth notification. School district spokesman Andrew Lachman says the official allegedly replied that the case was "not reportable" owing to insufficient evidence. School staff then visited the Lopez apartment. To their surprise, Awilda "was very happy to see them," says Lachman, and there were no signs of abuse.

O'Connor, however, was regretting his recommendation to the judge. He received a series of hysterical phone calls from Awilda complaining that Elisa was soiling herself and drinking from the toilet and had cut off her hair. Finally she asked O'Connor to take Elisa away. Convinced the girl's symptoms had existed prior to her contact with Awilda but were now driving her mother over the edge, he rushed to the apartment. "You could smell urine and see she had defecated everywhere," he says. "Her toys were thrown around. There were feces smeared on the refrigerator."

O'Connor claims he called Elisa's CWA caseworker, who told him he was "too busy" to come by. Moreover, O'Connor says the caseworker never responded to this fifth appeal to CWA, despite repeated subsequent calls. O'Connor took the Lopezes to a city hospital for psychiatric counseling, and Awilda seemed to calm down somewhat. To O'Connor's dismay, however, she repeatedly avoided signing a release that would allow him to send his observations to the city agency. By last July she had dropped out of touch entirely.

There was a reason for that. "Drugs, drugs, drugs--that's all she was interested in," says neighbor Doris Sepulveda, who watched the Lopezes trying to sell a child's tricycle outside their building. Another neighbor, Eric Latorre, recalls seeing the whole family out at 2 a.m. as Awilda sought crack. Awilda had reportedly come to believe that Elisa, whom she called a mongoloid and filthy little whore, had been put under a spell by her father--a spell that had to be beaten out of the child. Neighbors, some of whom say they called the authorities, later told the press of muffled moaning and Elisa's voice pleading, "Mommy, Mommy, please stop! No more! No more! I'm sorry!" Law-enforcement authorities have provided a reason for those cries: they say Elisa was repeatedly sexually assaulted with a toothbrush and a hairbrush. When her screams became too loud, Awilda turned up the radio.

Elisa stopped attending school, and neighbors say they saw less and less of her. On Nov. 15, Carlos Lopez was jailed again for violating his parole agreement. And on Nov. 22, the day before Thanksgiving, all that was twisted in Awilda apparently snapped. One of her sisters, quoted in the New York Times, reported a chilling phone conversation with her that night: "She told me that Elisa was like retarded on the bed, not eating or drinking or going to the bathroom. I said, 'Take her to the hospital, and I'll take care of your other kids.' She said she would think about it after she finished the dishes."

The next morning Awilda called Francisco Santana, a downstairs neighbor. "She was crying, 'I can't believe it, tell me it's not true,'" he says. When he arrived at her apartment, she showed him Elisa's motionless body. He put his hand to the child's cold forehead, pronounced her dead and spent the next two hours pleading with Awilda to call the police. When he finally called himself, he says, she ran to the apartment roof and had to be restrained from jumping. When the police arrived, she confessed to killing Elisa by throwing her against a concrete wall. She confessed that she had made Elisa eat her own feces and that she had mopped the floor with her head. The police told reporters that there was no part of the six-year-old's body that was not cut or bruised. Thirty circular marks that at first appeared to be cigarette burns turned out to be impressions left by the stone in someone's ring. "In my 22 years," said Lieut. Luis Gonzalez, "this is the worst case of child abuse I have ever seen."

O'Connor sits in his Brooklyn office and fields calls from the media. "We made a mistake," he says grimly. "We will try to make sure this never happens again." Looking back, he says, "I should have thrown bombs in the CWA's doorway." The initials themselves infuriate him. At least, he says, "we will say our mea culpa. We're not going to run behind confidentiality laws and not admit we've made a mistake."

He is referring to an aspect of the tragedy's aftermath that has dumbfounded the city. The people of New York could do nothing about Awilda's drug-induced delusions or her timid neighbors. But they wanted an accounting from the CWA. Instead, Executive Deputy Commissioner Kathryn Croft has steadfastly maintained that state confidentiality laws designed to protect complainants prevent her from revealing any details of a case. Thus the public may never know how many cries for help the agency actually recorded or what it did about them. It may never know whether the CWA really made an extended effort to observe Awilda before making a recommendation to Judge Greenbaum--or whether a caseworker was really "too busy" to return a call.

What the public could surmise, however, was that something was amiss. Last week someone leaked an Oct. 10 letter from CWA commissioner Croft to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, complaining that city staff cuts make it impossible for her to train child-abuse caseworkers or even measure their competence. And that is the least of it. The city, state and Federal Government have cut one-sixth from CWA's $1.2 billion budget. While Croft estimates her average staff member's case load at 16.9, some workers at the agency's Queens branch put theirs at 25, a number that almost precludes meaningful long-term investigations. "There are no bodies available to do the work," says Bonnie Bufford, a supervisor in a Queens child-protective-services unit. Claims Gail Nayowith, executive director of the Citizens' Committee for Children: "Case loads are rising. Investigations take longer, and some very important programs don't exist . This child and her family should have got services. With appropriate interventions, services and follow-up, [Elisa] would be alive."

But she is not alive. At her funeral, the Rev. Gianni Agostinelli told mourners that "Elisa was not killed only by the hand of a sick individual, but by the impotence of silence of many, by the neglect of child-welfare institutions and the moral mediocrity that has intoxicated our neighborhoods." Later, Elisa was laid to rest in the Cypress Hills Cemetery in Queens. There had been discussion about her body: the Izquierdo side of her family wanted to determine its fate, but so did the Lopez side. And it seems that mortuaries, like city bureaucracies, have rules for such situations. Regardless of the circumstances, the custody of the body goes to the mother.


Woman sentenced in daughter's death

By Charlie LeDuff - The New York Times

August 1, 1996

As a judge sentenced her to 15 years to life in prison for killing her daughter, Awilda Lopez slumped over the defense table yesterday, wailing over her punishment for a slaying that exposed the failings of New York City's child welfare system.

Ms. Lopez expressed her remorse for killing her 6-year-old daughter, Elisa Izquierdo, saying before the sentencing, ''I am sorry for what happened.''

But as she continued to mumble and sob, Justice Alvin Schlesinger shook his head and issued a fierce condemnation of the city's child welfare system and of society in general for its failure to take action before Elisa's death.

Elisa had been beaten and sodomized over a two-year period and then, after having her head slammed against a cement surface last November, was left by her mother to die, prosecutors said. But in handing down the sentence in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, the judge said the city deserved much of the blame.

''We have not created procedures to do everything necessary to protect the young and vulnerable in this society,'' Justice Schlesinger said. ''The system has failed to protect our babies, and don't tell me how much it costs. If anything is to become of this horrendous tragedy, it will be that we give priority to these babies.''

Child welfare officials had received many reports that Elisa had been beaten and abused for months before her death, court records show. Ms. Lopez, 29, who investigators say was addicted to drugs and alcohol, told the police that she believed her daughter was possessed by the devil.

Justice Schlesinger branded many of the welfare officials and social workers who handled the case ''uneducated'' and ''nine-to-fivers.''

The sentence came as no surprise; in June, Ms. Lopez pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the child's death in return for the punishment handed down yesterday. She could have received as much as 25 years to life.

''We ask only that you impose the promised sentence,'' said Ms. Lopez's lawyer, Daniel J. Ollen, before the sentencing.

After the hearing, child welfare officials bristled at Justice Schlesinger's criticism of the city.

''I don't think the court is aware of what's been going on in this agency,'' said Nicholas Scoppetta, Commissioner of the city's Administration for Children's Services, ''because we have case workers who work without extra compensation, who do a very dangerous job, who go into dangerous situations under very difficult circumstances.''

Commissioner Scoppetta, a former prosecutor, was named head of the agency, which oversees more than 43,000 cases, last February, after Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani reshuffled its top management.

''To paint the entire staff of caseworkers with that kind of broad brush is just simply unfair,'' Mr. Scoppetta said. ''I am just going to have to assume that he is uninformed -- well-intentioned but uninformed.''

As Ms. Lopez limped out of court, escorted by a bailiff, she hugged her lawyer and whispered a tiny thank you. Until she pleaded guilty in June, Ms. Lopez, the mother of six, had denied that she had committed the murder, instead blaming her estranged husband, Carlos Lopez.

Outside the courtroom, Ms. Lopez's lawyer said she now accepts responsibility for her daughter's death. ''It was a fair sentence,'' Mr. Ollen said. ''The reality and the magnitude of what she did finally hit her today. She doesn't blame anyone anymore.''

But others said the sentence was not severe enough.

''Elisa is never coming back,'' Brunilda Rivera, Ms. Lopez's sister, said. ''Fifteen years is not enough. She should never get out of prison.''

The judge said he agreed with the sentence and the prosecution's decision to avoid a trial to spare Ms. Lopez's other children the agony of testifying. Ms. Lopez will not be eligible for parole until 2011.

''Knowing the parole board, she will spend a long time in prison,'' the judge said.


The Death Of Little Elisa


December 10, 1995

It's the kind of call that, even in busy New York, gets a split-second response. A little girl, 6 years old, had stopped breathing, the man said. Minutes after the 9:24 a.m. report, police, firefighters and paramedics arrived at apartment 20A at the Rutgers House housing project in lower Manhattan.

As rescue workers pulled Elisa Izquierdo from her bed, they found deep-red blotches--welts? cigarette burns?-pocking her entire body. On her right side, near the kidney, was an enormous bruise, and she had more bruises on her face and around her temples. There were ghastly wounds around her genitals. The bone of her right-hand pinkie was jutting through the skin. Fireman Michael Brown began CPR, but it was hopeless. "In my 22 years of service," said police Lt. Luis Gonzalez, "this is the worst case of child abuse I have ever seen."

New Yorkers sometimes seem inured to urban horrors. But Elisa' death the day before Thanksgiving shattered that indifference, at least for a moment. It's not just how Elisa died-the autopsy found her head had been hit so hard that her brain hemorrhaged-but how easily this sad end could have been prevented. While many kids fall through the cracks, Elisa was, for a time, protected. She had a father who loved her, teachers and relatives who fought to keep her away from Awilda Lopez, 29, the apparently deranged mother indicted for her murder (she pleaded not guilty). Even a prince-- Michael of Greece--promised to pay for her private education in 1992, and kept up with her after being charmed by Elisa when he visited her school. But something went wrong. "Something like this shouldn't happen," said New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. "We're all accountable."

Elisa's parents met in a shelter for the homeless in 1987. Gus Izquierdo, a Cuban immigrant, cleaned and served food. Lopez, a Puerto Rican raised in Brooklyr,, landed there, with two children, after breaking up with a boyfriend. The two had an affair, but Izquierdo broke it off when Lopez began using crack. When Elisa was born addicted to drags, social workers took her away and gave custody to Izquierdo.

He was, by all accounts, a dedicated, doting father. He dressed her like a doll, enrolled her at the Brooklyn YWCA Montessori Day School, even rented a banquet hall to celebrate her baptism. "How many men brush their little girl's hair and part [it] in a perfect straight line?" asks Barbara Simmons, one of Elisa's teachers. Most of all, he tried desperately to keep Lopez away. But she entered a drug-rehab clinic, married and in November 1991 won the right to have Elisa every other weekend. Both Izquierdo and Elisa's teachers told authorities that the child often returned from the visits bruised and upset. Alicia Stultz, a friend of Izquierdo's, says that whenever Elisa returned from her mother's house, she would throw up and refuse to walk into the bathroom. Simmons says that Elisa herself told a city social worker that Lopez hit her. Even after more than a year of these disturbing weekends, the court allowed the visits to continue-but with the proviso that Lopez not slap or spank Elisa.

Temporary custody: Then the little girl lost the one stable thing in her life. In May 1994, Izquierdo checked into the hospital complaining of "bad lungs." He was diagnosed with cancer and died on May 26. Lopez-who now had five other children, no job and a husband who went to prison after stabbing her 17 times with a pocket knife-won temporary custody, despite considerable opposition. Elsa Canizares, a cousin of Elisa's father, went to court seeking custody of the girl. The head of Elisa's school wrote family court Judge Phoebe Greenbaum in support of Canizares, and to attest to the abuse. Even Prince Michael wrote letters backing Canizares. "There was a solution. There were people ready to take this child, to love this child," he says. But Greenbaum ruled in favor of Lopez, who came to court armed with a Legal Aid lawyer, a social worker and laws that favor reuniting even the most unsuitable of biological families.

Elisa's decline began immediately. Despite the prince's offer to pay the tuition, Lopez pulled the girl out of Montessori and enrolled her at the local public school, PS 126. Concerned about her refusal to play with other children, an uneven walk that suggested some sort of injury and, later, a braise on her head, officials at PS 126 called the state and city child-welfare offices-the fifth time someone reported that Elisa had been abused. Andrew Lachman, a spokes-man for the school, says the state refused to investigate because there wasn't enough evidence. Kathryn Croft of the city's Child Welfare Administration won't say what action, if any, was taken, because of confidentiality laws. In any event, Lopez withdrew Elisa from school.

And then Elisa virtually disappeared. Lopez did not enroll Elisa in another school and very rarely let her out of her room. She wasn't allowed to watch TV or eat with her half siblings, who inexplicably showed no signs of abuse. She urinated and defecated either in her bed or in a pot in her room that overflowed so much it leaked into the apartment below. Few people saw Elisa in the last year; when they did, she was almost completely mute. Neighbors confessed they had frequently heard screams of "Mommy, please stop! I'm sorry" coming from apartment 20A. A few said they called child-welfare authorities, but nothing happened. Most neighbors simply hoped the noise would stop. On Nov. 22, it did.

As she was taken into custody that afternoon, a ranting, wild-haired Awilda Lopez screamed, "I didn't do it!" in the street. Police say she's shown little emotion since then, but she has made some disturbing statements. The New York Daily News reported that Lopez admitted hitting Elisa so hard on Nov. 20 that the child flew head-first into a concrete wall. Elisa did not walk or talk after that. She probably died the next day, though Lopez waited until the day after that before asking a neighbor to call for help. But Lopez believed Elisa was possessed by the Devil, and that evil caused Elisa's death. Lopez reportedly told friends she once slid snakes down her daughter's throat to exorcise the demons. Lopez also would hold Elisa upside down, using her curly brown hair as a human mop. The autopsy revealed that what first appeared to rescue workers to be cigarette burns now seem to be the mark of a ring worn by someone who hit Elisa repeatedly. And two of her step siblings have reportedly told a grand jury that the genital abrasions were caused by a hairbrush, which Lopez used to torture her.

The girl whom no one could save in her last, desperate year of life got tremendous attention once she died. At her funeral, 400 mourners filed by her white casket. The politicians circled, too. Giuliani formed a task force to investigate the city's Child Welfare Administration. A bill in the New York state Senate-- already dubbed "Elisa's Law" -- would allow agencies to more readily disclose whether they have opened an abuse case. (Currently, agencies often don't share information on abusive parents, which may have made tracking allegations against Lopez more difficult.) The reform would last longer than the city's grief. The day after the funeral, as the flowers wilted around her grave, the visitors had stopped coming to see Elisa Izquierdo.


A Mother's Tale: Drugs, Despair And Violence; A Life Mired in Urban Ills Ends in a Daughter's Death

By Lizette Alvarez - The New York Times

November 27, 1995

When Awilda Lopez took her first hit of crack cocaine on the hardscrabble streets of Bushwick, Brooklyn, in 1988, she crossed the shadowy divide that separates tough urban poverty from mind-numbing neglect.

In a matter of months, Ms. Lopez lost everything to the drug, according to the accounts of several friends and relatives. First, she lost her junior high school sweetheart, then her rundown apartment on Knickerbocker Avenue and finally her three oldest children, Rubensito, Kasey and baby Elisa. Now, Ms. Lopez, 29, stands charged in the beating death of 6-year-old Elisa, who died last week from blows so severe her brain hemorrhaged. Elisa will be buried on Wednesday.

Drugs took her away from us," Brunilda Rivera said of Ms. Lopez, her sister. "She entered into another world."

Ms. Lopez, a native of Puerto Rico and one of 13 children, grew up in the heart of the inner city, always one misstep away from falling prey to her neighborhood's worst temptations, friends and relatives said.

Early on, her mother, Matilde Collazo, held out some hope that Ms. Lopez would break the cycle of welfare and dashed hopes at home and in the neighborhood. Her little girl came home from Public School 145 with honors certificates and good attendance awards, paper trophies Ms. Collazo cherished. The girl was curious, sociable and well adjusted.

When Ms. Lopez entered Intermediate School 111, she put aside her childish airs and jumped headlong into adolescent dating rituals. Eager for a taste of full-fledged adulthood, she fixed her eye on Ruben Rivera, a schoolmate she envisioned as the father of her children. Soon, he became just that.

Ms. Lopez dropped out, got pregnant and moved in with Mr. Rivera on Knickerbocker Avenue, locking herself deep into a cycle of poverty, her mother said.

In the 1980's, few streets in New York City surpassed Knickerbocker Avenue in its brash embrace of crack cocaine. Drug dealers pursued their trade with little compunction, advertising their wares to passers-by, luring them with a cheap, easy escape from Bushwick's seemingly insurmountable poverty. Ms. Lopez, now the mother of two children, Ruben and Kasey, took the bait, family members said.

Using her welfare checks to get high, Ms. Lopez soon became more concerned about feeding her own crack addiction than her children. She disappeared for days at a time, leaving them with family members, friends, acquaintances, and ultimately no one, relatives said.

"She left the kids at my house for a week and I never heard from her," said Marisa Huerta, a friend of the Lopez family.

With no money to pay the rent, Ms. Lopez and Mr. Rivera lost their apartment and split up. For several months, Ms. Lopez and her two children lived in two homeless shelters, relatives said. It was during her stay at one of those shelters that Elisa Izquierdo was conceived, the result of a tryst between Ms. Lopez and Gustavo Izquierdo.

One day, on a crack binge deep into her pregnancy, Ms. Lopez left her two children in the care of friends for several days. Tired of her long absences, the friends called Mr. Rivera, the father of the children, who called Brunilda Rivera, Ms. Lopez's sister.

The two alerted the police, who instructed them to call child welfare officials. Mr. Rivera and his mother took temporary custody of the boy and Ms. Rivera took charge of the girl in January 1989.

Elisa was born a crack baby only a month later, according to the family. A social worker again intervened and granted custody of the infant to her father, Mr. Izquierdo. The social worker was blunt with Ms. Lopez: she could reclaim her children when she got off drugs and enrolled in a parenting course.

During the next 11 months, Ms. Lopez pieced her life together, at least outwardly. But once again, she took another misstep: she married Carlos Lopez.

Mr. Lopez provided her with desperately needed stability, an important maneuver in her fight for her children. When she proved to social workers that she was now a fit mother, the two older children, Ruben and Kasey, moved back in December 1990, records show. Ms. Lopez had just given birth to Taisha Lopez. Elisa remained with her father.

But Mr. Lopez was far from stable, according to relatives and neighbors. Ms. Lopez's relatives said he tormented her routinely. Neighbors heard the clatter of dishes, and pots and pans smashing against walls, although in public Mr. Lopez was subdued. "He was the quiet type, but the type you had to be scared of," said Yvonne Valentine, who lived on the same floor as Ms. Lopez at the Farragut Houses in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. "He was a type of 'I'll get you later when we are alone' type of person."

Mr. Lopez has been on Rikers Island since last week, after violating the conditions of his probation. He could not be reached for comment.

Ms. Lopez's life deteriorated once again, and she slid back into the short-lived comforts of crack cocaine, neighbors said. Old patterns took hold. Her children were on their own again. The telephone company cut off her phone service, and for a while she took calls at a neighbor's house.

Still, she tried to please Mr. Lopez, bearing him another child in December 1991. But Mr. Lopez was not placated. One month later, Mr. Lopez, who had accused Ms. Lopez of seeing other men, pulled a pocket knife from his pocket and stabbed Ms. Lopez 17 times while she fed their youngest child, the police and relatives said.

It was not the first time someone in Ms. Lopez's family struggled with domestic abuse. Ms. Lopez's own mother, Ms. Collazo, said she had been beaten by her first husband in Puerto Rico so badly that her son was born paralyzed.

Shaken by the knife attack, Ms. Lopez decided to sever her ties to Mr. Lopez, said Miriam Saeed, Ms. Lopez's niece. But after a brief jail stint, Mr. Lopez returned with a vengeance, relatives said, this time directing the brunt of his abuse toward his stepchildren.

Relatives said that Ruben, Ms. Lopez's oldest child, told them his stepfather beat his mother and Elisa, who visited on weekends. Afraid they would make things worse by getting involved in family matters, Ms. Lopez's siblings and mother said nothing. On visits to the apartment, they noticed that the home was clean and orderly, the children quiet and well-behaved.

But Ms. Lopez's behavior grew increasingly erratic after Elisa's father, Gustavo Izquierdo, died and she regained custody of the child in 1994. She expressed her frustration to relatives, hurling expletives about Elisa's behavior and accusing her of falling under her dead father's voodoo spell, said Mercy Torres, another of Ms. Lopez's sisters.

Ms. Torres said Ms. Lopez could not handle taking care of all the children. "When I asked her if she was hitting Elisa, she told me no, that she just punished her."

Ms. Torres did not even think to worry after she hung up the telephone last Tuesday night, soon before the hour Elisa is believed to have died. "She told me that Elisa was like a retard on the bed, not eating or drinking or going to the bathroom," Ms. Torres said about her telephone conversation with Ms. Lopez last Tuesday night. "I said, 'Take her to the hospital and I'll take care of your other kids.' She said she would think about it after she finished with the dishes."

Cries for Help That Went Unanswered

Relatives, friends and acquaintances of Elisa Izquierdo or her family say there were many warnings that she might be in danger from her mother.

FEB. 11, 1989 -- Elisa Izquierdo is born with cocaine in her bloodstream, relatives say. By some accounts, she is abandoned by her mother, Awilda Lopez. Others say a social worker takes her from her mother. Custody of Elisa is given to her father, Gustavo Izquierdo.

LATE 1989-EARLY 1990 -- Elisa's father puts her in early childhood program at Brooklyn Y.W.C.A.

FALL 1990 -- Social workers determine Ms. Lopez has rehabilitated herself from drug abuse and found stability with Carlos Lopez. She regains custody of her two oldest children. JANUARY 1990 to SPRING 1994 -- At least one neighbor of Awilda and Carlos Lopez claims to have notified police and the city's child welfare agency about possible neglect of Lopez children.

JANUARY 1992 -- During one of Elisa's occasional weekend visits with her mother, relatives say, Carlos Lopez attacks Awilda Lopez with a pocket knife. He is found guilty of assault.

LATE 1993-EARLY 1994 -- Phyllis D. Bryce, who was director of the Montessori school notices Elisa seems upset after visits with her mother and is bruised. Ms. Bryce says she informs Elisa's father and the Brooklyn Bureau of Community Service, and calls the statewide child abuse phone line.

APRIL 1994 -- The Lopezes move to Rutgers Houses project on the Lower East Side. Relatives say Ms. Lopez complains that Elisa is urinating and defecating on herself, and that she has learned voodoo from her father.

MAY 1994 -- Gustavo Izquierdo dies. Ms. Lopez assumes temporary custody of Elisa. Elisa stops attending the Montessori school.

JULY 1994 -- Ms. Bryce writes to Judge Phoebe K. Greenbaum of Family Court in Brooklyn, asking her to place Elisa with her father's cousin.

SEPTEMBER 1994 -- Placed in her mother's custody, Elisa begins kindergarten at Public School 126 in Manhattan.

OCTOBER 1994 -- School officials say they notice Elisa is withdrawn and walking strangely, and report possible child abuse.

DECEMBER 1994 -- School officials say a worker talks with city child welfare office after noticing a large bruise on Elisa.

EARLY 1995 -- Elisa stops attending school. School workers visit her home twice but see no trouble.

NOV. 15, 1995 -- Elisa's stepfather, Carlos Lopez, is sent to Rikers Island for violating probation in the 1992 assault.

NOV. 22, 1995 -- Elisa is found dead in mother's apartment.



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