A Joshua Tree couple arrested last week after authorities discovered their three children living in a wooden box-like structure were released Tuesday, March 6, from jail and greeted outside by friends and supporters who believe the child abuse charges they face should be dropped.
Daniel Panico, 73, and his wife, Mona Kirk, 51, appeared in Joshua Tree Superior Court where a judge released them on their own recognizance from the San Bernardino County sheriff’s Morongo Basin station. Attorneys for the couple had argued that they did not pose a flight risk and could not afford bail, which initially had been set at $300,000.
The pair were met by a dozen or so friends and supporters, some of whom held signs demanding their freedom.
“They are good people,” said Marsha Custodio, who on her shirt wore a red heart with Mona’s name on it. Custodio said her children participate in scouting with the couple’s three children. “They don’t deserve this.”
Kirk and Panico both said they were happy to be out of jail but remain in shock over their arrests. They added that they were grateful to their friends.
Kirk’s attorney, Elizabeth Crabtree, says she and Panico’s attorney will argue next week that the couple deserves to be reunited with their children. Eventually, they’ll argue for the charges to be dropped. The couple’s next hearing is set for March 15.
Judge Bert Swift issued a criminal protective order against the couple that prohibits them from having direct or indirect contact with the children, which have been placed with county protective services.
Crabtree says Panico and Kirk should never have been arrested and that being poor doesn’t equate with being abusive.
However, authorities said the family was not targeted due to their economic hardships but because of the living conditions on the property. The three children reportedly lived in the large rectangular box — which was approximately 20 feet long by 4 feet high by 10 feet wide — for about four years on the family’s 5-acre property dotted by chaparral and brush.
Longtime friend Jackie Klear called the structure a fort, which was built by one of the couple’s sons.
Authorities also allege the couple didn’t have adequate food at the home and were living in an unsuitable, unsafe environment due to the property conditions.
Kirk slept in the wooden box with her children, while Panico lived in the trailer or a vehicle, Cindy Bachman, a Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman, said in an email.
The couple was not arrested for being homeless but rather for failing to provide basic necessities for their children, such as a shelter for protection from very cold weather, bathroom facilities and an education, Bachman said.
Custodio and Klear did admit the couple did care for several feral and domesticated cats on the property but did not believe it was an issue. Klear said the family brought the dozens of cats into the trailer to protect the animals from coyotes.
Deputies determined the children were not enrolled in public school, nor have they found any sign of enrollment in a home-school program or studying taking place, she said.
The friends of the couple said some of the cluttered conditions on the property were due to recent winds had tossed around a few of the family’s bins, tossing items across the landscape.
However, video and photographs from the scene showed debris and trash around the property. Inside the plywood structure, mattresses, trash, clothing, old dolls and boxes filled the rectangle to the top in some areas.
The couple returned to their home a short time after 11 a.m. Tuesday where they began surveying their property, taking stock of their items. Kleary said someone had gone through Panico and Kirk’s belongings while there were in jail and had taken several items. Klear and Costudio said they reported it to sheriff’s officials.
The couple did not want to give a statement while at their property but allowed their friends speak. They classified their arrest as the criminalization of homelessness.
“This is because they’re poor,” said Klear T, who added that despite their shortcomings, they always made sure the family had enough to eat, visiting food giveaways and accepting donations from friends.
Custodio said there are few resources in the area for the homeless in general.
In the Morongo Basin, there’s a unity home, Custodio explained. Other than that, there is also the ARCH Group (Aligning Resources Challenging Homelessness) which is a homeless advocate, but they can only put you in a hotel for a couple of days at a time, she said.
“We don’t have no homes,” Custodio continued. “We don’t have a soup kitchen. There is help for the mentally disabled but not for regular everyday homeless people like them. People like that, there’s no help.”
An online search for homeless shelters in the Morongo Basin returned results for two locations — Unity Home and Morongo Basin Haven — and a handful of sober-living facilities.
Authorities said there are program available to people including through the Transitional Assistance Department for families. They also point out the San Bernardino County Housing Authority with help from HUD assist county-wide. Officials encourage people to call 211 to access those resources.
The pair pleaded not guilty to three counts each of child abuse during a hearing Friday in the same courthouse.
Klear set up a GoFundMe account for the family which has raised more than $20,000 as of Tuesday afternoon.
“I am raising money for Mona Kirk and Daniel Panico to help get them back on their feet and get their 3 children back in their lives,” Klear wrote on the account page.
On one of the latest updates posted Monday night, Klear wrote, “She is so thankful for all those who are standing behind her. She is ready for this change and will do whatever is necessary to get her children back.