A 3-year-old girl is dead, her father could face the death penalty in connection with her murder, and there were numerous warning signs.
The I-Team has been shedding light on how the system, particularly Child Protective Services consistently fails children and this case is one of the worst the Las Vegas valley has seen.
Abygaile Bennett’s grandmother describes the child as inquisitive, talkative, and a good hugger.
“I miss her. Terribly,” said Bernadine Morimoto, grandmother.
At just 3-years-old, Abygaile had endured a lot. A video shows her father Justin Bennett forcing a hot pepper in her mouth as punishment.
Despite warning signs like the video and bruises on her body, the I-Team found the system failed Abygaile.
She was killed on July 1, 2016.
“The first person that came to mind was Justin,” Morimoto said.
Justin Bennett is accused of murder and could face the death penalty. Court records show Abygaile was beaten so badly, her heart exploded, and she was suffering from a broken back and broken ribs in the days before she died.
“I wish I could have done things differently,” Bernadine Morimoto said.
She says she sounded the alarm several times before Abygaile’s death — to her daughter Korie, the child’s mother, to police, and to CPS.
The I-Team obtained numerous documents which shed light on how Abygaile was failed.
Korie Morimoto told police she tried recording the abuse to prove Justin was abusing her three children so she could gain full custody of them.
The day she left Bennett in January of 2016, Bernadine called police.
Two Metro officers showed up, CPS was called, and an officer later admitted he did not express a sense of urgency even after seeing the video. No report was made, no bruises were documented, and then CPS gave the case to HopeLink, an outside agency that only deals with low level non-abuse cases.
The case manager there, James Hardee testified in court he referred Bennett to parenting classes and HopeLink expressed concern to CPS but CPS manager Lisa Gibson refused to take the case back.
Hardee says Bennett was difficult to reach and uncooperative, and Bernadine Morimoto claims she kept telling Hardee she was worried about the girls, but in April, the case was closed deemed with “no present or impending danger.”
More than two months later, while Korie was out of state with the Air Force, Bennett took the girls from Bernadine, then Abygaile died.
“It’s sickening. It’s something that should have never happened to anyone,” said attorney R. Todd Terry.
He is representing Bernadine Morimoto in a lawsuit against Clark County which runs CPS, and the people she believes failed to protect Abygaile.
“The county has an obligation once they’re aware that kids are in danger and are being harmed to intervene,” Terry said.
Today Justin Bennett awaits trial. He declined a request for an interview so did his sisters who were visiting him in jail.
Bennett’s mother Sherry Morse and Korie Morimoto also face child abuse charges. They’re accused of knowing about the abuse and not protecting the children. Morse could not be reached. Korie Morimoto’s attorney declined an interview.
Case manager James Hardee no longer works at HopeLink. The agency has no comment. Neither does CPS, but the I-Team has learned Lisa Gibson is still a supervisor there.
Both officers Steven Oscar and Stephan Parrish who first responded to the home still have their jobs too.
Bernadine Morimoto says the purpose of her lawsuit is to hold people accountable for failing Abygaile.
“I know she’s safe now. It took me a while to think like that. There’s times when I don’t. But I know she’s safe.”
Korie Morimoto, the child’s mother, told police she was also being abused.
The grandmother, Bernadine has been appointed a guardian for Abygaile’s two sisters. Justin Bennett’s trial is set for October.