Mona Kirk and Daniel Panico are accused of keeping their three children – ages 14, 13 and 11 years – in a makeshift plywood shelter that resembles a box for at least four years. However, supporters say the couple is just poor and a GoFundMe campaign raised more than $60,000 to get them a new home so they can try to be reunited with their children.
The bizarre case of alleged child cruelty was uncovered in Joshua Tree, California. Kirk is 51-years-old and Panico is 73. The pair were living with the children on a ramshackle, cluttered property that was also infested with cats, according to authorities.
Authorities say the family is homeless and the children were not being held captive, however. “This time of year, it’s very cold at night,” said Cindy Bachman, a spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, to The Los Angeles Times. “When that wind blows, it is freezing.… These kids are living in a shelter made of wood and tarp and it’s 20 to 30 degrees at night.”
The property is located in the 7000 block of Sun Fair Road in Joshua Tree.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. The Property Had No Electricity or Running Water But Friends Say the Couple Are Simply Very Poor
On Wednesday, February 28, 2018, at approximately 11:04 a.m., “deputies from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, Morongo Basin Station, were conducting an area check in the 7000 block of Sun Fair Road in Joshua Tree,” the Morongo Basin Sheriff’s Station reported in a news release.
They found a disturbing scene.
“Deputies located a travel trailer, which appeared to be abandoned, and a large rectangular box made of plywood on the property. The property had no electricity or running water,” the news release reported.
“Several large holes and mounds of trash and human feces were located throughout the property. Approximately 30-40 cats were located inside the trailer and roaming freely. While checking the property deputies contacted three victims ages 11,13 and 14. Mona Kirk and Daniel Panico were found on the property and determined to be the parents of the victims.”
However, friends of the family told The Los Angeles Times that the parents were “extremely poor” but not abusive and had their children in soccer and scouting.
“The Sheriff’s Department is punishing those kids for being homeless,” friend Leanna Munroe told The Times.
The GoFundMe campaign paints a more thorough picture of the couple. It reads:
“My name is Jackie Klear. I live in Yucca Valley, Ca. I have known Mona Kirk, Daniel Panico and the children for well over 10 years. Mona Kirk use to run the Mommy and me class at the Yucca Valley community center. She never pulled enough money from the class and was always using money from her own pocket to support the program. She was great with the babies and kids who attended. They rented a home in Joshua Tree. They struggled like most people do. But they got by. Then they were told they had to leave as they were selling the place. A few of us helped pack them up, put their belongings into storage and they moved thier trailer into my yard. We ran electricity and water to their trailer and all was well. Eventually they wanted to move to their 5 acre land that they owned and build their own home. My husband was going to help them build that home. But as time went by, they had used all the money they had for living expenses. And here is where we stand 4 years later. The kids always came first. Any money they got from side jobs and such was spent on their kids. Food and the basic necessities. The kids were fed healthy and were part of just about any activity or group that was available to the community. Soccer, Gems, Girl Scouts, Phoenix Scouts, They had park days with the homeschool groups and so on. They were well known in the library and museum as Mona loved to teach her children in a different way. Both Mona and Daniel fell ill for a little while which only made things harder and worse for them. Many of her friends have helped them with whatever we were capable of doing. I am raising money for Mona Kirk and Daniel Panico to help get them back on their feet and get their 3 children back in their lives. I am hoping to either by them a home or build them one on their land with the money we are raising for them. This way they will not have to worry about rent. The rest of the money is going towards all the requirement they must follow in order to get their children back. I am a very close friend of theirs and this family is torn apart from each other. I could see in court that Mona had most likely been crying since this all happened. All of this caused by a spiraling downfall over time. Please help this family as they would give you the shirt off their back to help any of you. I will be withdrawing the funds in my name until Mona and Daniel are released from jail. Thank you Everyone.”
2. Deputies Said the Children Were Living in What They Initially Called a ‘Large Rectangular Box’ That Was Only Four Foot High
During the investigation, reports the Sheriff’s Department, “deputies learned the three victims have lived in the large rectangular box, (approximately 20 feet long by 4 feet high by 10 ft wide) for approximately four years.”
They report that the victims “were found to have an inadequate amount of food and were living in an unsuitable and unsafe environment due to the conditions located on the property. Children and Family Service responded to the location and took custody of the three victims.”
According to The Desert Sun, “The structure where the children were living is on a mostly empty dirt road, two blocks off Highway 62, in the large span of open desert between Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms.”
3. The Father Spoke of Building a ‘Dream Home’ on the Squalid Property & Other Neighbors Live Off the Grid
Mona Kirk and Daniel Panico “were arrested and booked into the Morongo Basin Jail for Penal Code Penal Code 273 A (A) Willful Cruelty To Child in lieu of 100,000 bail,” the Sheriff’s Department’s release said.
“Anyone with information related to this investigation is asked to contact the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department Morongo Basin Station at (760)366-4175. Anyone wishing to remain anonymous may contact We-Tip at 1-888-78-CRIME,” the Sheriff’s Department posted.
The couple’s neighbor, Mike Reynolds, said the family had lived on the property for about four years. “The father owned the land and the trailer and talked about building his dream home on the property,” reported The Desert Sun, quoting Reynolds as saying, “He was a regular retired guy, and an intelligent man.”
Reynolds told the newspaper that other neighbors in the area live “off the grid” and the children seemed happy.
4. Kirk Has Lived in Many Different California Cities & Authorities Later Clarified That the Family Is Homeless
Online records show Kirk living in California as far back as 1989. She comes up with ties to San Jose, Los Gatos, Sherman Oaks, and, starting in 2003, Joshua Tree. Panico also comes up with a previous California address.
“Capt. Trevis Newport of the Sheriff’s Morongo Basin Station later clarified that the children were not being held captive in a confined space,” reported The Los Angeles Times.
“They’re homeless,” Newport told the newspaper. “It’s a shelter, the shape of a box … nowhere near what it sounded like when it came out.”
5. California Has Had Other Bizarre Cases of Alleged Child Cruelty
The bizarre box case is far from the only recent California case of alleged child cruelty. David Allen Turpin and Louise Anna Turpin, a former California engineer and his homemaker wife, are accused of what a prosecutor called “human depravity” against their 13 children, for allegedly torturing their offspring in a house of horrors by chaining them to beds in “dark and foul-smelling surroundings,” starving them for years, and subjecting them to beatings and even strangulation.
The chilling accusations of abuse emerged after one of the teenagers, a 17-year-old girl, who was so emaciated she looked age 10, staged a courageous escape by climbing through a window, executing a plan she’d crafted with her siblings for two years, Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin said in a January 18, 2018 press conference.
In contrast to the Turpins, who posted photos of their brood on social media, Kirk and Panico don’t appear to have a social media presence. Authorities stressed to the LA Times that the Kirk and Panico case is not like the Turpin allegations because there is no accusation that Kirk and Panico restrained their children.
You can learn more about that case here: