St. Paul woman’s child torture conviction marks first in Minnesota
A doctor who evaluated one of the children told an investigator it was “the worst case of abuse he has seen in over 20 years,” the complaints said
ST. PAUL — Janice Saice fought back tears as she spoke of the agony her two great-grandchildren endured over a week’s time in a St. Paul apartment in September.
Saice recalled how she was “devastated” upon seeing the injuries to 5-year-old Lucilia — the bruises, burns and patches of missing hair. She did not get to see Zimiri, the girl’s 2-year-old brother, who “was worse,” she said.
“Physical injuries heal, but the emotional damage that they suffered will never heal,” Saice said Monday in a Ramsey County courtroom.
The injuries were caused by the “conscious torture” inflicted by the children’s aunt, Jaime Rae Wilson, and her boyfriend, Diego Ramon Calzada-Russette, said Colin Haley, assistant county attorney.
“This was not a one-time deal,” he said before Judge Kelly Olmstead sentenced Wilson on two counts of child torture. “This was day after day after day after day. This was cigarette burns, lighter burns, being whipped with belts, being waterboarded.”
Olmstead described the physical and mental abuse as “horrible” and “heartbreaking.” She then denied Wilson’s request for probation and gave the 19-year-old from St. Paul nearly five years in prison.
Wilson’s child torture conviction is the first in Minnesota under the 2021 statute, according to statewide district court data. The law defines torture as the “intentional infliction of extreme mental anguish, or extreme psychological or physical abuse, when committed in an especially depraved manner.”
Prosecutors say the law gives them more flexibility when making a charging decision. It also carries a stiffer sentence — up to 25 years in prison — than child abuse and assault convictions.
Across Minnesota, Benton and Crow Wing counties each have one child torture case pending in court, while Ramsey County has two, including one filed this year. The other case is against Calzada-Russette, 19, who like Wilson pleaded guilty to counts of child torture in January after reaching a deal with prosecutors. Calzada-Russette, from St. Paul, will go before Olmstead for sentencing April 3.
“There are cases that come before the court that are painful and heartbreaking,” Olmstead said before giving Wilson the 57-month prison sentence. “This sits quite high on the piles of cases that I’ve dealt with.”
The abuse was uncovered Sept. 21, 2022, by hospital staff. Earlier in the day, an ambulance was sent to the couple’s apartment building in the 400 block of Herschel Street on a report that a 2-year-old boy had fallen down a flight of stairs.
Zimiri had bruises all over his body, along with “abnormal markings consistent with cigarette burns.” He was transported to the pediatric intensive care unit at Gillette Children’s Hospital, where he was diagnosed with a fractured bone in the back of his skull and bleeding on the brain.
In a Sept. 22 interview with police, Wilson at first said the boy fell down stairs. She later said she noticed injuries on the boy when her sister’s boyfriend dropped him off on Sept. 19. The sister paid Wilson and Calzada-Russette to watch her two children, Calzada-Russette’s mother told police.
When police pressed Wilson to tell the truth, she said the boy was dropped off in the middle of September and Calzada-Russette had used his belt to beat him multiple times. She never mentioned to investigators that Lucilia had been dropped off with the boy.
That was discovered later that day after officers broke up a “melee” at police headquarters involving family members who wanted to take custody of Wilson’s 3-year-old daughter. The family said they had been trying to make reports about Wilson’s daughter for more than a year, and they were upset about possible harm to that girl when they heard about the two other children who had been injured. Wilson’s daughter was placed into child protection.
Police learned that Lucilia had been taken to Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis.
According to the criminal complaints, Lucilia’s injuries included a traumatic brain injury, ruptured spleen, bruises to nearly every part of her body, cuts and cigarette burns. She was diagnosed as having suffered “extreme abusive trauma.”
A Midwest Children’s Resource Center doctor who evaluated the girl told an investigator it was “the worst case of abuse he has seen in over 20 years,” the complaints said.
Prosecutor Haley told Olmstead at sentencing that only Saice, who is Wilson’s maternal grandmother, would give a victim impact statement to the court. Others sat in the courtroom gallery, including Lucilia and Zimiri’s mother, who is Wilson’s older sister.
“This has been too painful,” Haley said. “And they are angry, and felt it was better not to address the court today.”
When Olmstead gave Wilson an opportunity to speak, she turned to her family and apologized. “I already know you’re not going to forgive me, but I’m very sorry,” she said.
As part of Wilson’s plea agreement, the prosecution agreed to waive its motion to seek concurrent sentences based on aggravated factors, which included the victims’ ages and that the offense was committed in the presence of a child. Prosecutors also agreed to limit a prison sentence to 57 months.
Olmstead said she looked at several factors when considering a sentence, including Wilson’s struggles with drugs and her mental health and how she had no previous convictions. But the judge said she found “no substantial and compelling” reasons to depart from sentencing guidelines and put Wilson on probation, as her defense attorney had requested.
“No child should be subject to treatment like this at anybody’s hands, much less these precious little children,” Olmstead said. “There aren’t words for how horrible it is what you and your co-defendant put them through.”