‘I can’t believe it,’ says alleged killer’s cousin

Zenaida Lagunas sat barefoot in her Atascadero living room Wednesday, folding her hands around a protruding belly as she wondered why her unborn baby’s father was being accused of killing his 20-month-old daughter by another woman.

The expectant mother said Fermin Brito Palacios was never violent toward her or their two children, ages 6 and 3.

“He never hit my children,” said Lagunas, 32, speaking in Spanish during an interview Wednesday. “He never hit me.”

Palacios, 26, and Arianne Merce Brito, 22, were arrested on suspicion of beating to death the couple’s toddler daughter, Natalia Brito. The girl died Saturday.

Arianne Brito and Palacios appeared in court Wednesday on charges of second-degree murder, assault of a child under 8 years old and child endangerment. Brito was also charged with one count of being an accessory after the fact.

They did not enter pleas, but they are expected to return to court this morning when they could enter a plea.

Atascadero police alleged that Palacios repeatedly struck the toddler with his hand and that Brito failed to act. They do not believe Brito participated in the alleged abuse, but she faces the additional charge because she did not step in, Atascadero Police Lt. Jim Mulhall said.

Lagunas spoke Wednesday as Palacios’ two children played outside her home. She explained that she and Palacios had been together for about four years but separated after he began seeing Brito. She said he never treated her or the children badly throughout the relationship and he had a quiet disposition.

“I don’t know what happened,” said Lagunas about Natalia’s death. “It’s sad because it was a child.”

The last time she talked to Palacios was the Friday before Natalia’s death. She said she didn’t know what to think.

Two doors down, Palacios’ cousin Rosendo Palacios, 35, shook his head in confusion.

“I don’t know what happened,” Rosendo Palacios said in Spanish. “It’s unbelievable. …It’s very sad.”

He described his cousin as a good person with a mild manner, who never acted violently toward his children.

“For this reason I can’t believe it,” Rosendo Palacios said.

Natalia died after her mother took her to Twin Cities Community Hospital in Templeton. She likely died as a result of trauma to her head and torso, Atascadero police said.

Brito told emergency personnel Saturday evening that her daughter was short of breath, a statement they said was inconsistent with the child’s injuries, investigators said.

Hospital personnel grew suspicious and called police to Twin Cities hospital about 7 p.m. Saturday.

A preliminary autopsy Sunday confirmed to investigators that Natalia died as a result of blunt force trauma to her head and body, Mulhall said.

Brito was arrested at her home in the 7000 block of Bella Vista Avenue. Investigators tracked Palacios to a relative’s home near Santa Barbara, where he was arrested.

Deputy District Attorney Dan Hilford said such cases of severe physical abuse are rare in San Luis Obispo County.

Police said acquaintances told investigators the young couple had a history of domestic violence and child abuse.

Lee Collins, the county’s director of social services, said his office had not been called to investigate alleged abuse within the family.

“We had never, ever received any allegations alleging physical abuse,” he said. “This was as big a shock to us as anyone.”

If convicted, the couple could face 25 years to life in prison. They are being held at County Jail without bail.

Tribune reporter Sarah Arnquist contributed to this story.