HOUSTON — Melanie Mendoza was 8 years old when she was taken unresponsive to a Houston hospital in 2020 where doctors declared her dead. The hospital called Houston police because Melanie’s little body was covered in injuries and bruises and she weighed only 29 pounds.
An autopsy showed the little girl died of complications from blunt force trauma and severe malnutrition, according to the Houston Police Department.
When interviewed by investigators, Melanie's twin sister shared heartbreaking details about the physical and emotional abuse the girls endured over a long period of time.
After a lengthy investigation that took HPD detectives from Spring Branch to San Antonio, Melanie’s mother, 29-year-old Soledad Mendoza, and her live-in boyfriend, 29-year-old Ruben Moreno, were charged with capital murder in connection with Melanie’s death and two counts of injury to a child with bodily injury and injury to a child by omission involving the surviving twin.
“The saddest part is that this wasn’t a one-time thing, this spanned years, and it happened under a roof with other siblings that were unharmed," said Prosecutor Gilbert Sawtelle, who called it "an "especially heinous case."
Both suspects were arrested on Friday, May 20. They appeared in court on Monday. Mendoza's bond was set at $1 million for each charge. Moreno's bond was set at $1 million on the injury to a child charge. He currently has no bond on the capital murder charge.
WARNING: The rest of this story contains disturbing details about the horror that occurred behind closed doors inside the couple’s west Houston apartment.
Autopsy reveals evidence of ongoing beatings, torture
The Harris County medical examiner’s report on Melanie’s death tells a story of years of abuse through torture, beatings and starvation.
The 8-year-old had acute blunt force trauma to her head, upper extremities, torso and lower extremities. She had acute and chronic rib fractures, including some that indicated “compression of the chest.” Her adrenal gland had hemorrhaged from the trauma and her head and legs were covered in bruises.
She had scars "from head to toe," Sawtelle said.
According to court documents, those injuries were caused by Mendoza and Moreno.
Police say Moreno, who weighs about 235 pounds, struck the 29-pound girl with blunt objects, beat her with shoes and belts and kicked her repeatedly.
Mendoza also struck her daughter with blunt objects and beat and kicked her, according to homicide investigators.
Starved to death
Melanie’s weight alone indicated severe malnutrition. The average weight for a girl her age is around 57 pounds, nearly twice Melanie’s size. The girls didn't even register on the growth chart because they were so far below the bottom percentile, which is 44 pounds.
Melanie’s autopsy also showed interruption of bone growth and brown fat in her adrenal gland, both further evidence that she was severely malnourished.
Detectives reviewed records from clinics in Houston and San Antonio where Melanie had been treated in the past. Doctors told Mendoza that the girl was “severely underweight,” and advised the mom that she needed to gain weight.
The twins were even denied school breakfasts and lunch at the mother's request because she claimed they got enough food at home, court documents from Bexar County say.
‘My mom is mean to me’
Melanie’s twin sister, who also weighed only 29 pounds, told investigators that she was starved and tortured along with her sister.
The surviving twin said Mendoza put both girls in a closet or inside trash bags to punish them. When the interviewer asked the little girl why that happened, she said Mendoza told them, “Because you’re ugly and I don’t love you.”
The girl said she and Melanie would try to find food in the trash can, but if they got caught eating anything, they were kicked and beaten with a belt or shoes.
"These twins were isolated and targeted by the mother and by the mother’s boyfriend for this cruel torture that involved not only blunt force trauma but also locking the girls in closets, tying them up in trash bags, kicking them for trying to get food," Sawtelle said.
When the forensic interviewer asked the child, “What happened to your sister?” She replied, “My mom killed her.”
She also interrupted the interviewer at one point to say, “My mom is mean to me.”
Sawtelle said the girl could barely walk because she was so emaciated.
Sawtelle said the family moved to Houston shortly before the pandemic lockdown began, which explains why the twins' teachers and counselors didn't flag anyone about their condition.
Mendoza and Moreno’s history
At the time of Melanie’s death, Mendoza and Moreno had a newborn still in the hospital. The baby and its twin were born premature at 25 weeks but the twin didn't survive.
Moreno isn’t the father of Melanie and her twin, their older brother or their younger sister. Those two children “seemed to be in perfect health,” according to court documents.
Mendoza told investigators that she and Moreno have known each other since they were children growing up in Mexico, but they only began dating about a year before Melanie’s death.
The couple and four children lived in an apartment at 1370 Afton St. in the Spring Branch area.
Moreno told police he considers Mendoza his wife.
Mendoza had previously lived in the San Antonio area. Sawtelle said while they lived there, the children's biological father was abusive, as well.
After Monday's hearing, the prosecutor was asked why it took so long for the charges to be filed since Melanie died just before Christmas in 2020.
He said they had to work with investigators in San Antonio as well as Houston.
“It’s a very complicated, long-term starvation and torture case that spans not only incidents that happened in Harris County, but also in Bexar County,” Prosecutor Gilbert Sawtelle said.
They interviewed pediatricians in both cities and poured through years of medical records so they could rule out any medical condition that could have caused the severe malnutrition.
Sawtelle said CPS in San Antonio did flag the girls for "failure to thrive" and they were temporarily removed from their mother's custody and cared for by UT Health until they gained some weight.
The twins were released back to Mendoza's custody in early 2020 and that's around the time she moved her family to Houston and they fell off the radar.
Update on the surviving children
We checked on the status of the four surviving children and were told they are in foster care and "doing well."
The twin is "doing much better," according to Sawtelle.
"By all accounts, she's in a safe and loving environment."
The girl, however, will suffer permanent developmental issues because of the severity of the malnutrition she endured. He said her growth was stunted because her body was using resources to stay alive, instead of to grow.