California parents who housed kids in desert shack released

LOS ANGELES (AP) - A Southern California couple who pleaded not guilty to child abuse after authorities found them housing their three children in a makeshift desert shack was freed from jail Tuesday.

Daniel Panico, 73, and Mona Kirk, 51, were released after their attorneys argued they aren't a flight risk and couldn't afford their $300,000 bail.

Kirk's attorney, Elizabeth Crabtree, said 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.

"I don't think there's anything at this point that substantiates abuse," Crabtree said, adding that the couple should never have been arrested.

At the time of the couple's arrest last week, the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department said their three children - between 11 and 14 years old - had been living in the shack without running water, bathrooms or electricity for several years near Joshua Tree, about 125 miles (200 kilometers) east of Los Angeles.

The shelter was cobbled together with plywood and plastic sheeting, and chairs were used to hold up a tarp ceiling, Several holes on the property were filled with feces, the sheriff's office said.

Sheriff's spokeswoman Cindy Bachman said last week that the children didn't appear to have any obvious injuries and showed no outward signs of malnutrition but "it was apparent they had not bathed in days."

The children were not enrolled in public school and there was no evidence they were being educated, Bachman said.

Dozens of people rallied in support of the couple outside their court hearing on Tuesday, holding signs that read "Being homeless is not a crime" and "Poverty is not a choice."

In a jailhouse interview with The Los Angeles Times, Panico said his family has been torn apart and that he and his wife did nothing wrong.

"We are just minding our own business, trying to raise our three kids on little money," he said.

Crabtree said that rather than arrest the couple, deputies should have called Children and Family Services and allowed the matter to proceed through dependency court, rather than criminal court.

"Miss Kirk misses her children very much," Crabtree said. "But she's keeping her head up knowing she's going to see them again."

Bachman did not immediately respond to questions Tuesday about why deputies thought arresting the couple was appropriate.

An online fundraising effort started by a friend of the couple's has raised $20,000 so far.

Panico and Kirk had planned to build a home on the land where they were living, but "as time went by, they had used all the money they had for living expenses," wrote Jackie Klear, the friend who started the fundraiser.

"Any money they got from side jobs and such was spent on their kids. Food and the basic necessities," she wrote. "The kids were fed, healthy and were part of just about any activity or group that was available to the community."


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