Hers was a lonely death in the desert
By Michael Ferraresi
Kaiya Kapahu spent most of her time sitting silently in an apartment overlooking a grassy courtyard and swimming pool at her uncle's Phoenix apartment complex.
Since her father sent her to the desert from her native Hawai'i, the child sat mostly alone in a bedroom, relying on her uncle, Leonard Orta Jr., to feed her pureed foods and help change her clothes.
The girl suffered from Rett syndrome, a rare neuro-developmental disorder found predominantly in girls. It left her unable to speak or to react with basic motor skills. Last week, she would have turned 6 — an age at which Rett patients often find stability after a period of rapid deterioration.
Instead, it was a week marked by the discovery of her body and the arrest of Orta, who, according to a probable-cause statement filed in court, told detectives he had deprived her of food and medicine for 10 days before she died.
Phoenix detectives arrested Orta on suspicion of first-degree murder, alleging he allowed the girl to die and her body to decompose in the bedroom until officers discovered it weeks later.
Neighbors at the complex near Indian School Road and 28th Street said they rarely saw the uncle or his elderly father, who also lived in the apartment. Those interviewed Friday said they never knew the girl existed.
David Stuckey, 23, said a group of complex residents hoped to reach out to her family to help raise money to fly her body home or help pay for a funeral.
"As a community, we had no idea there was a little disabled girl living there," said Stuckey, a nursing student at Glendale Community College.
"It just appalls me that someone could do this to their own family. If you can't trust family, who can you trust?"
Kaiya's father, Manuel Kapahu, arrived in Phoenix on Friday to speak with detectives. He declined an interview request.
Orta, Manuel Kapahu's half brother, is being held without bond in what could potentially be a capital murder case, based on multiple aggravating factors in Kaiya's death, according to prosecutors.
In his initial appearance at Maricopa County Fourth Avenue Jail on Thursday, Orta shook his head and appeared concerned when a deputy county attorney relayed facts contained in a Phoenix police probable-cause statement. The judge ordered Orta to surrender his passport.
Orta, 47, was Kaiya's caregiver since July, when her father sent her to Arizona to receive medical treatment. Orta told detectives he worked as a special-needs caregiver for 25 years in Europe, though he currently was unemployed.
ELDER GIVES ALERT
Orta's father, a graveyard-shift security guard who recently suffered a stroke, told police he called them after he discovered Kaiya's body in the bedroom on Wednesday. He said he grew concerned about Kaiya's well-being after he smelled an odor coming from the bedroom.
The elder Orta also said his son was drinking more lately and that the two got into a fight when he asked about Kaiya.
"He should be considered a hero because he called it to the attention of authorities," said Phoenix police Officer Luis Samudio, a department spokesman.
Kaiya's father sent Orta $500 each month to care for her because "family circumstances" kept him from providing the necessary care in Hawai'i, according to court paperwork.
Kaiya's death shocked families in the Rett syndrome community, which works to raise awareness of the syndrome that affects an estimated 15,000 girls or women in the U.S.
Staff at the Cincinnati-based International Rett Syndrome Foundation, the primary organization for families, said Kaiya's family never reached out to representatives in Hawai'i or Arizona. "Generally, our girls are very well-protected because they can't advocate for themselves," said Paige Nues, director of family support. She said nearly everyone was discussing Kaiya's death, wondering how her family connections failed her.
"That relationship part is really all they have," Nues said. "They rely on their connections with people."