ON Friday afternoon, Sept. 21, 2007, Miriam Gallegos approached a stranger in a parking lot in Denvers Golden Triangle and asked to use her cell phone.
Miriam, who held a little girls coat in her hands, said that someone had just stolen her baby.
It was a lie spoken too late.
Neveah, her three-year-old daughter, was already dead and she knew it.
Miriam thought up the kidnapping ploy to give her boyfriend and registered sex offender Angel Ray Montoya time to dispose of the body.
What sounds like a bizarre plot best reserved for crime fiction mirrors the growing epidemic of child abuse fatalities in America.
An average of between four to seven children die every day due to child abuse and neglect in the US, according Childhelp, a national organization.
Annual reports of child abuse in this country alone involve more than six million children.
Neveah and the Angel of Death is Harlan Abrahams riveting account of one innocent girls murder, the dynamics of abuse, holes in child protection services and legal obstacles that denied Neveah justice for five years.
The book, written in honor of Neveah, is a plea to end rampant child abuse and child murder so that all children grow up unafraid, unharmed and free.
In our Jewish community, we often hear the saying, If you save a single life its as if you save the world, he tells the IJN on a frosty morning.
I have learned that the written word can trigger powerful actions. If this book saves one child, it will be worth every minute of work I devoted to it.
ABRAHAMS, an attorney, a former law professor and local author, followed Neveahs case closely from day one. Unlike the majority of observers, his interest was multi-pronged.
The writer in him was initially drawn to Neveahs story because its a compelling true life tale that provides a great narrative, Abrahams says.
Secondly, Im a survivor of considerable child abuse myself.
His expression is open, unaltered.
And as a former constitutional law professor, I had the ability to demystify some of concepts for the reader without interrupting the narrative flow.
The trajectory of the case, however sad, has some redemptive justice at the end. And it was a great vehicle to take on an issue that Ive wanted to address without addressing my own childhood.
Abrahams didnt commit to the book until he heard the closing arguments in 2012. When I heard the story in its entirety, I realized it had the bones of a good tale from a storytelling standpoint.
The press publicized Neveahs photograph from her supposed abduction to the gruesome discovery of her body in a Lakewood gulch four days later.
Her dark eyes speak a secret language understood by too many children.
Shes beautiful, Abrahams says. Her image is haunting. Children like Neveah live in fear. During this holiday season we need to remember that the children who suffer from abuse dont have good holidays.
Holidays trigger stress, and stress triggers abuse. These children fear the family time we crave because time with their family means exposure to abusers.
Abrahams is unable to say what set off Angel Ray that awful day, but hes convinced that Miriam saw ample warning signs on her daughter: bruising; lethargy induced by blunt trauma; fear.
Miriam chose Angel Ray over Neveah. It was that simple, and incredulous.
It was not a single event that ended this childs life, Abrahams says. Neveah went through hell her last few days.
I do know that abuse often arises out of frustration that has nothing to do with the child. From my own experience I can say there is a point where you can look into an abusers eyes and see the moment he loses control.
Its almost like a light switch is being thrown, which pushes them over the edge from anger to loss of control.
Abuse is rarely connected to dishing up discipline to a three-year-old or 12-year-old. Its about gratification, whether sexual or physical or emotional.
The alleged link between physical abuse and discipline is an excuse without merit.
ABRAHAMS fluency in the law clarified obscure terminology, and his personal history allowed him to dig deep into the inner turmoil of the main characters. I went beyond who said what, beyond when and where, to see how people really felt, he says.
The players feelings at different points are not something that gets explored on the witness stand. Emotions provide a dimension that many true crime stories lack if you just study the cold transcripts.
He compassionately interviewed the family lawyers call them witnesses, defendants or prosecutors, but for a writer they are characters.
Miriams mother Janet Gallegos, her sister Cathy and her aunt Vera, the triumvirate that tried to protect Neveah from Miriam and Angel Ray, opened their hearts to him.
DA Mitch Morrissey, Det. Mark Crider, physicians and others also spoke to Abrahams in depth not just about the facts but the pain behind them.
In one passage, Crider explains how it feels to carry a dead child up a gulch.
The language is so real you can touch it:
And for me, it was like . . . halfway up that hill, you realize what youre carrying. Not that you forgot it was a body, but it just clicks, it hits.
Abrahams, 63, grew up during the Vietnam and Civil Rights era, which generated a healthy distaste for the police and the military, he smiles.
It wasnt until I worked with prosecutors and police on the Neveah book that I saw a different side to what they do, he says. I came to really admire the people who are serving us now the police, the homicide detectives, Mitch Morrissey.
I have been blown away and enriched immeasurably by learning how satisfying it can be to perform a public service.
POLICE, homicide detectives, Morrissey, head of Morrisseys family violence unit Verna Carpenter, and 200 citizen volunteers conducted the search for Neveahs body on Sept. 4, 2007.
Angel Ray led them to Neveah as part of a plea bargain to take the death penalty off the table.
Statistics suggest that Neveahs premature end probably began at birth. All the cards were stacked against her.
Neveah was born on Aug. 1, 2004, when Miriam was only 17. Too young to handle being a mother, she left Neveah with her family, disappeared for weeks at a time and often reappeared with a man.
In 2006, she found a new boyfriend, Angel Ray Montoya.
Janet Gallegos, Miriams mother, knew in her gut he was bad news but she had no idea he was a registered sex offender.
That jarring piece of information slipped out when Linda, Cathy and Miriam brought Neveah to Denver General after a visit with Angel Ray.
The two-year-old was bleeding vaginally.
Miriam reassured them it was just a rash. Then she admitted that Angel Ray was a registered sex offender and could get in trouble for something like this.
The doctors at Denver General examined Neveah and called in social services.
A report was issued by the Colorado Dept. of Social Services that detailed the investigation and ensuing recommendations: Closing statement indicated . . . no child protection concerns at this time.
Neveah was returned to Miriams conditional custody. She was ordered to take a series of classes and break all contact with Angel Ray Montoya (who refused to be interviewed by social services).
Regarding suspicions of sexual abuse stemming from Neveahs visit to Denver General, the caseworker and supervisor concluded that they were unfounded based upon the inconclusive medical findings, lack of verbal history by Neveah, and the inability to interview Angel Ray Montoya.
Abrahams can barely contain his anger over the decision.
Miriams saying shes not seeing Angel Ray, that shes going to parenting classes and satisfying the requirements. She plays nice for the social workers and they close the case.
But you have to wonder [if the caseworker] even made any phone calls.
He also objects to the use of the word unfounded in connection with Angel Rays sexual abuse of Neveah.
Thats why I make a distinction between saying the allegations were unfounded vs. unproven. These are two important distinctions, both linguistically and legally.
Abrahams says the allegations were far from unfounded.
AS often happens to children in similar situations, the protective safety net ruptured irreparably for Neveah Gallegos.
Miriams mother and the family had taken one run at family services and Neveah fell through the cracks, Abrahams says. They didnt know where else to turn. Part of my mission is to let people know there are alternatives.
When you get turned away, whether its from family services or the Rocky Mountain Childrens Law Center, whatever there is always another place to turn. But you have to know where to find it.
Neveahs family did not have access to additional information.
One promising alternative to the social service maze is the Rose Andom Center currently under construction at an existing facility at 1330 Fox St.
Supporters range from Mayor Michael Hancock, US Sen. Michael Bennet, Morrissey and former city attorney Cole Finegan to numerous organizations.
Founded eight years ago by Rose Andom, an African-American woman who endured poverty and abuse as a child and is now a successful businesswoman, the center is modeled after 80 Family Justice Centers across the country.
The Andom Center will provide a central location for coordinated services involving 25 agencies, in addition to streamlined referral options to offsite partners for adult domestic abuse victims and abused children.
Abrahams continually spreads the hopeful word about Andom. Hes contacted JFS to gauge its interest and says the response is encouraging.
Without throwing a lot of dirt at social services, I just want to say that anytime there is meaningful reform, it is usually offset by funding cuts, slashing personnel and increasing the workload, he clarifies.
The Jewish community has never been exempt from child abusers in its midst, says Abrahams, who is living proof of a shanda frequently hidden from view.
Its very important for us to recognize two things, he says. And Im going to say this as boldly as possible.
Our community is in denial regarding abuse that occurs within its own walls, yet the evidence is far from anecdotal.
Statistics demonstrate beyond question that child abuse and domestic violence encompass the rich and poor, all ethnicities, religious groups and nationalities.
I dont believe were exempt from this, nor do I believe the mantel of religiosity excuses any kind of abuse.
Asked what the Jewish community should do in cases of abuse, Abrahams is succinct and unwavering.
This conduct must be reported as widely as possible. It should be prosecuted.
Denial is the worst possible response, whether the abuser is a rabbi or a shoe salesman, he says.
The response should be an active engagement to rid our community of this scourge. We must encourage people to speak up. Our community has too much goodness in its heart to deny whats happening.
For a religion that is rooted in justice, for us to deny justice to those who need it most is tragic.
Abrahams has two daughters ages 34 and 29. Married to Carolyn since 2002, he describes their familial bonds as strong and loving.
Did he consciously break the cycle of abuse with his own children?
Yes, he says, very consciously.
In 2012, a Denver District Court jury found Angel Ray Montoya guilty of first-degree murder for the Sept. 21, 2007, strangling of Neveah Gallegos. He was sentenced to life plus 48 years, sentences to be served consecutively.
Can potential loopholes in the trial process buttress his appeals?
I understand that in any case that stretches over five years and has thousands of pages of transcripts, there are countless opportunities for judges to make a mistake, Abrahams says.
But in order for a mistake to set Angel Ray free, it has to be prejudicial, material. It has to really make a difference. Could a competent lawyer make a straight-face argument in Angel Rays favor? Yes.
Still, its a highly doubtful scenario.
Angel Ray, who was attacked when he was released into the general prison population, is in solitary confinement, says Abrahams. Angel Ray isnt going anywhere.
Miriam Gallegos is serving 12 years for her role in Neveahs death. She initially pleaded guilty to child abuse resulting in death but agreed to testify against Angel Ray.
Although her first parole hearing is approaching, Abrahams is confident that she wont be released.
Miriam refuses to talk to her mother Janet, and Janet refuses to talk to her daughter. Its my understanding that Miriam has not demonstrated a level of remorse that satisfies Janet, Abrahams says.
Miriam is still very much out for Miriam, trying to get out of prison as soon as she can and hustling money for her prison bank account.
Neveah Janey Gallegos is buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery.
Six years after her death, family and strangers seek out her grave for their own reasons. Stuffed animals surround a marker where her body was discovered.
Neveah and the Angel of Death is a testament to a life too short but long remembered.
Asked what hed like readers to take with them once they finish the book, Abrahams measures each phrase like a vow.
We owe it to ourselves, and our children, and all future generations, to do whatever we can to eradicate child abuse and domestic violence, he says.
We must rid ourselves of this horrible plague.
Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News