Phoenix police arrested four people in connection with the July 12 death of a young girl who was found inside a plastic container.
Detectives said Thursday they are treating the death of 10-year-old Ame Deal as a homicide.
During the initial investigation, family members told police that Ame and other children in her family had been playing hide and seek and they believed that Ame must have climbed into the box to hide and had accidentally suffocated.
Detectives say they determined the child had been placed in the box as a form of punishment for stealing a popsicle from the freezer. Other children lived in the home and allegedly were told to go along with the lie that Ame died while playing hide and seek.
According to police, she was forced into the chest, padlocked in, and then the family went to sleep while Ame suffocated.
At a news conference, Acting Phoenix Police Chief Joe Yahner remarked, “This truly is a tragedy -- this is a bothersome crime.”
“This child died at the hands of those who were supposed to love and care for her... this case has turned the stomachs of some of our most seasoned detectives," added Police spokesperson Sgt. Trent Crump.
John and Samantha Allen, both 23, were arrested, as well as 62-year-old Judith Deal, 44-year-old Cynthia Stoltzmann. The Allens are Ame's distant cousins, and they were babysitting.
The Allens were booked on first degree murder -- and Stoltzmann, her aunt, and Deal, Ame's grandmother, were booked on child abuse and kidnapping.
"I firmly believe that John Allen deserves to burn in hell. What he did was wrong, you don't do stuff like that to kids," says family member Amanda Stoltzmann.
"This child was forced to do a backbend, with her feet on the floor and her palms on the floor, for several hours. Prior to dragging the chest inside herself, standing by looking at the chest, and then forced into the chest, leaving marks on her knees where the lid was slammed shut," said Crump.
The Allens told police Ame was playing hide and seek when she hid in the box. Weeks later -- family members came forward to say Ame was frequently put in that chest as punishment.
Police say the four family members abused her because they didn't think she was related to them by blood.
Detectives say they forced Ame to eat hot sauce and dog feces as punishment and sleep on the shower floor every night with no pillow or blanket.
Police say when Ame was in the box, family members would kick the box and sit on it.
As for Ame's parents, police still aren't sure where they are. Prosecutors told a judge there have been numerous complaints against the family by Child Protective Services.
Ame Deal's tragic death may have prevented if a neighbor, or relative, or anyone who was remotely suspicious had called police or CPS.
According to ChildHelp, 64 Arizona kids died in 2009 as a result of child abuse. That averages out to more than one a week.
"It is really really important as a community that we are aware of people around us and we look for those signs and we stand for those children who don't have a voice," says Robert Bell from Childhelp.
Signs of physical injury are an obvious sign of abuse. You can call your local police or CPS to report possible abuse.
Arizona law protects people who call as long as you are acting in the best interests of the child.
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