The Miami Herald
Mar. 08, 2002
Mother guilty in teen's burning

                      She's convicted of attempted murder

                      By DAVID GREEN

                      As the jury filed out of the court room after finding Maria Tarrago guilty of attempted second-degree murder on
                      Thursday, she raised her hands to the ceiling in thanks.

                      Tarrago had reason to be grateful: The 41-year-old was on trial for dousing her daughter with gasoline and setting her
                      alight. Charged with attempted first-degree murder, she could have spent the rest of her life in prison. Now she faces up to
                      35 years.

                      ''We're extremely delighted,'' her attorney, Alan Soven, said afterward. ``Maria is, of course, disappointed that they did
                      not believe it was an accident.''

                      After deliberating for nearly two days, the panel also found Tarrago guilty of aggravated child abuse
                      and tampering with evidence. The three men and three women acquitted her on charges of child abuse
                      and arson.

                      The Salvadoran housekeeper acknowledged pouring gasoline over her 15-year-old daughter on Dec. 6,
                      1999. She was jealous because her daughter had become romantically involved with Tarrago's
                      25-year-old boyfriend.

                      Tarrago then flicked a lighter -- igniting a fireball that left her daughter clinging to life. The teen was
                      burned over 23 percent of her body. Her ears melted to nubs, one hand was reduced to a claw.

                      During Tarrago's weeklong trial before Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Scott J. Silverman, her attorney
                      insisted she brandished the bottle of gas at her daughter merely to scare her. Sloshing it on her -- and
                      then igniting it -- happened by accident, Soven said.

                      Jurors did not buy that.

                      The panel felt Tarrago methodically prepared to burn her daughter, the foreman said, satisfying the
                      ''premeditation'' element necessary for attempted first-degree murder. But jurors did not believe
                      Tarrago meant to kill her.

                      ''She never said she was going to kill her,'' said jury foreman Lennox Bullard, 62, a retired Miami FPL
                      training supervisor. ``She said she was going to teach her a lesson she would never forget.''

                      A COMPROMISE

                      So the panel compromised by choosing the second-degree charge, Bullard said.

                      The panel felt sympathy for Tarrago, according to the foreman. Her emotional displays during her trial --
                      weeping, reaching toward the monitor when her children testified by closed-circuit TV -- convinced
                      jurors she was deeply remorseful.

                      They acquitted Tarrago of the arson charge. That charge stemmed from her burning her bathroom
                      during the fire. And they found her not guilty of the second child-abuse charge, which resulted from the
                      trauma caused her son.

                      The evidence-tampering charge -- which the jury convicted her on -- stemmed from her orders to family
                      members to clean and wallpaper the bathroom after the burning.

                      For prosecutors, the verdict was bittersweet.

                      It ensures Tarrago -- so reviled for her crime that her attorney received several death threats during
                      the trial -- could be incarcerated well into her 70s. The state attorney's office wanted to see her
                      imprisoned for life.

                      ''This verdict doesn't take away from what this woman did to her daughter, which is reprehensible,''
                      said Assistant State Attorney Jon Lindeman Jr. ``We'll be seeking the maximum penalty.''

                      Added co-prosecutor Esther Rubio: ``I'm just happy it's over for the children.''

                      It was Tarrago's children who helped convict her.

                      Last week, her daughter -- who remains horribly disfigured -- testified by closed-circuit television that
                      Tarrago arranged a threesome between mother, boyfriend and daughter at a Hialeah motel.

                      In the months after the sexual tryst, the girl testified, she and Julio Cesar Chavez fell in love. He began
                      picking her up after school. They sat in the park, talking and kissing.

                      SON WATCHES

                      But Tarrago found out. One day in late 1999, Tarrago's 10-year-old son watched her fill an alcohol
                      bottle with gasoline, the boy testified.

                      He asked her what she was going to do.

                      ''I'm going to burn your sister,'' he testified she said.

                      Nearly three years later, the lives of all those involved remain ruined.

                      Now in foster care, Tarrago's daughter is enrolled in a new high school and is trying to move on with
                      her life. Her brother, now 12, lives with his father and uncle. He, too, struggles to cope with the fallout
                      from the tragedy. He's unable to sleep, has problems concentrating and is plagued by feelings of guilt.

                      Tarrago's estranged boyfriend -- wanted on attempted-murder charges at the time of the burning --
                      has since pleaded guilty to that charge and to having sex with a minor, and awaits sentencing.

                      Tarrago herself still faces prosecution for the sexual liaison she arranged between Chavez and her
                      daughter. But not everyone is quick to heap scorn on her.

                      A group of family members sat through the trial. They remain convinced the burning was an accident.

                      ''Maria is a good person,'' her aunt, Enma Sanchez, said after the verdict. ``She loves her daughter
                      and son above everything else in her life.''