Trial date set for man accused in Harlingen toddler’s death

A Harlingen man charged with capital murder for the April 2017 death of 2-year-old Katalina Desiree Castaneda appeared in court Thursday morning in Brownsville, where his attorney attorneys set a date to bring the case to trial.

Jorge Michael Abundez, Jr., 31, was indicted by a grand jury on June 27, 2018 after a lengthy investigation identified him as the alleged person responsible for the death of Castaneda, according to a 2018 press release from the Harlingen Police Department.

Authorities stated that on April 19, 2017 at about 3:57 p.m., Harlingen police officers were dispatched to the 1800 block of South 3rd St. in reference to Castaneda, who had been found unresponsive by her mother after falling down the stairs.

EMS transported the toddler to the Valley Baptist Medical Center, where she died.

According to The Brownsville Herald archives, a 2017 arrest warrant affidavit issued for the child’s mother, Samantha Lee Gonzalez, stated that Gonzalez told officers the girl had fallen down the stairs while she was in the bathroom.

Upon discovering Castaneda unresponsive at the bottom of the stairs, Gonzalez called her mother, who advised her to apply rubbing alcohol to Castaneda’s chest in an effort to revive the child, who was unconscious and not breathing.

Investigators determined that 16 minutes passed before Gonzalez called 911. According to the HPD, an initial autopsy report showed that Castaneda died as a result of “blunt force abdominal trauma.”

Further investigation into the reports by local news outlets revealed that a local doctor stated that “a ruptured liver and ruptured kidney had happened hours before the fall was reported.”

The doctor also told investigators that Castaneda could only have suffered such an injury if she was “punched, kicked, squeezed or stomped with great force to the abdomen.”

Additionally, a criminal complaint filed against Gonzalez in April 2017 indicated that doctor’s believed a bald spot found on Castaneda’s head was the result of “someone pulling her hair repeatedly.”

According to the HPD, a final autopsy report released on January 29, 2018 generated new leads in the open case, allowing for the identification and arrest of Abundez, who was later charged with capital murder.

A press release regarding the indictment stated that US Marshals and HPD’s Organized Crime Unit found Abundez hiding under a bed at his residence on South 3rd Street in Harlingen. A judge set his bond at $1 million.

Abundez had various prior convictions, including one for sexual assault on May 12, 2010. He is a registered sex offender. Court records state that from Aug. 13, 2017 to Oct. 12, 2017 he failed to report to the HPD as is required annually.

He was arrested and held on $25,000 bond, according to Cameron County detention records. A previous motion filed in the Castaneda case reduced Abundez’ separate $1 million bond to $900,000.

On Thursday, Abundez’s attorney Fred A. Kowalski argued for a $400,000 reduction in his client’s bond, while Abundez stood by in handcuffs, a belly chain, shackles and an orange jumpsuit.

The reduction would have reset Abundez’s bond to $500,000, half of the original amount. Kowalski argued that Castaneda “fell down the stairs”, to which the state’s attorney replied, “That’s the story they’re telling.”

The motion to reduce Abundez’s bond was denied by 404th state District Judge Elia C. Lopez, who cited the severity of the case and the age of the child. In Texas, one of the requirements for a capital murder charge is that the victim is under 6 years old.

Both attorneys agreed to a continuance so that Abundez’s attorneys can obtain an expert witness and a separate pre-trial report. The case will go to trial on April 6, 2020.

Abundez will not face the death penalty and could instead be sentenced to five to 99 years or life in prison.