A Carson City man received life in prison with parole eligibility for the death of a 2-year-old girl last March.
Eric Buhl, 27, was sentenced in District Court on Thursday to life in prison with parole eligibility after 20 years for the murder of Coahuyana “Chloe” Hernandez in March 2017. Buhl beat the child to death after she wouldn’t stop screaming, the District Attorney’s Office said during the three-hour sentencing hearing.
The court had lead detective Salvador Acosta illustrate a timeline of the case from the night of the homicide to Buhl’s guilty plea in September. During the six months of investigation, Acosta said Buhl changed his story of what happened that day four times to detectives, the courts and the victim’s family.
On March 17, 2017, Buhl called 911 stating a child had fallen down the stairs of their Manzanita Terrace home and was unconscious. On the 911 tape, played in court, Buhl can be heard telling the dispatcher what happened on scene and said he was giving Hernandez CPR, despite the dispatcher’s request for him not to. He told dispatch he was watching the child and put her down for a nap and when he came into the house to check on her and found her lying at the bottom of a six-stair flight into the garage. While on the phone with dispatch, Buhl said Hernandez was breathing at times and was going in and out of consciousness. At one point he said she had started seizing and he started CPR again.
“He was just explaining the scene to dispatch,” Acosta said. “It was a ‘I just found out, I don’t know what happened.’ He wasn’t asking for help for her, he was staging the scene.”
It also was later revealed Buhl called the victim’s grandmother before he called 911.
Acosta said by the time Hernandez arrived at the hospital, she was dead.
“The Fire Department (medics) on scene said she was cold to the touch and looked like she had been down for a while,” Acosta said.
Buhl was arrested that night for a pipe bomb in his room, found during the investigation, which he denied at first to detectives.
An autopsy was conducted the next day which revealed extensive bruising and internal lacerations and hemorrhaging, said Dr. Katherine Callohan, assistant medical examiner with the Washoe County Crime Lab. Callohan testified later in court.
“Hernandez could have died minutes to four hours after with her injuries so we knew where she was and who was there at the time,” Acosta said.
Not an accident
The Medical Examiner’s office determined May 2 the death was a homicide from blunt force trauma, and not accidental like Buhl had claimed.
“My mind was expecting lethal head trauma because that is what kids die from with a fall,” Callohan said. She said when she found so much blood in the chest cavity during the autopsy was when her suspicions changed.
Photos presented in court showed circular bruising around her chest, stomach, back, sides, head, arms and face. Hernandez also had severe hemorrhaging around her heart, liver and pancreas. Callohan said the autopsy showed Hernandez was hit so hard, parts of her liver, glands and other internal organs were nearly torn in half from the force, with smaller lacerations around her heart and pancreas.
Callohan said some of those injuries — such as the liver and heart tear and rib fracture — could be caused by CPR efforts, however not all of them together, which is what was apparent in Hernandez’s autopsy.
“All at the same time, you don’t see that and you don’t see it with the bleeding,” Callohan said. “...(the injuries) are just so deep.”
She said the injuries Hernandez sustained are similar to what she sees in car wreck victims.
“(For example) the adrenal gland is significantly deep in the abdomen cavity and I haven’t seen that extensive of injuries in my five-year career outside of a car accident,” Callohan said.
Callohan said injuries like that would most likely take a minimum of one or two strikes because of the location of the lacerations and bleeding.
Acosta said they interviewed Buhl a second time March 18 and he started to tell a different story. Buhl told detectives that day he was actually carrying Hernandez in his arms up the stairs when he fell and crushed her underneath him.
“I felt her crunch in my arms when I did that,” a crying Buhl told detectives in a recorded video from March 18.
Buhl said he got up, turned around and went down a separate set of stairs in the garage when he tripped again and dropped her down the stairs where he left her to go call Hernandez’s grandmother. Buhl then told detectives that he attempted to give her CPR by pounding on her chest and abdomen with his fists.
Acosta pointed out in the video how hard Buhl was demonstrating his hits, that radios and other objects on the table were launched into the air.
The detective also provided audio tapes of recorded calls in the jail from Buhl where he told multiple people “I didn’t mean to hurt her.”
“Him saying he didn’t want to hurt her, he told us with CPR he wanted to help her, but the way he did it isn’t helping a child,” Acosta said.
“He said ‘I hit her, I killed that little girl,’” Acosta testified.
He said Buhl finally admitted to what happened after the fourth account of the story, which proved consistent to the evidence collected at that point.
According to Buhl, Hernandez didn’t like him and he wanted her to. He had been trying to put her down for a nap when she screamed at him. Buhl told detectives he hit her in the face and she fell onto the hardwood floor and was knocked unconscious.
“She kept screaming and I was like ‘stop I am not going to hurt you,’” he told detectives in a recorded interview in May. “She didn’t stop, she’s screaming and yelling so I grabbed her and she pulled back and I smacked her in the face. She hit the ground, fell on the hardwood floor and started twitching. I was like holy ... and I was so mad that she didn’t like me, I couldn’t get her to like me...
“I hit her in the face (again), I don’t remember why I did it, I kept squeezing her on the cheek like wake up, wake up and I was more mad cause I ... knocked her out. She wasn’t breathing and I don’t know why I kept hitting her.”
Buhl also changed his story several more times over the next six months; telling his girlfriend the original story she fell down the stairs, then during his arraignment in September telling the judge Hernandez actually chocked on a piece of chocolate and he was trying to administer the Heimlich maneuver.
“He didn’t tell you he did that, but he told me and he lied to you in court,” Acosta said. “This little girl isn’t here today because of what he did, because he put his hands on her.”
The District Attorney’s Office advocated for the life sentence with parole possibility, citing the severity of the crime.
“Two years and eights months is all (Hernandez) got to experience then gone,” said Assistant DA Kristin Luis. “Buhl kept saying ‘I don’t know why I snapped,’ ‘I don’t know why I hit her’...I am not even sure Mr. Buhl knows what happened that day.”
Luis said with the life sentence it will ensure Buhl will receive the necessary punishment as well as give him a chance to rehabilitate himself while in prison, with parole afterward.
“We don’t know what is going to cause Buhl to snap next and society needs to be protected,” Luis said.
The defense on the other hand was advocating for a 20- to 50-year prison sentence saying the DA was wrong and Buhl would most likely not receive the necessary rehabilitation treatment with a life sentence.
Defense Attorney Marcie Ryba also said this was just a sad story that went wrong. She said Buhl had been abused as a child, turned his life around and just got overwhelmed and snapped.
“This case was so sad, we have Mr. Buhl who was sexually and physically abused as a child and Chloe is just a reflection of him,” Ryba said. Buhl and his girlfriend had taken in Hernandez after her mother had trouble caring for her because of a physical disability, where Hernandez lived part-time with Buhl, his girlfriend and their three children.
“Why did he snap? He was overwhelmed,” Ryba said. “He had financial issues, relationship issues and on top of that they added another child. She was screaming and he hit her, she fell and was knocked unconscious and he panicked. I don’t think he thought that hitting this child could cause these injuries because the same thing happened to him and he didn’t die ... he had so much going on, he couldn’t handle it and he hit her.”
Buhl also addressed the court before the sentencing was delivered.
“That was the saddest day of my life and the hardest thing to accept that I had hurt her,” Buhl told the court. “I do deserve it, I need to be punished for what I did. I am truly sorry, I will never forget Chloe.”
District Judge James Wilson said there was a lot of information stemming from the case he wouldn’t factor into his decision as they were irrelevant to the overall outcome of the sentencing.
“But the case boils down to you beat a 2-year-old girl to death,” Wilson said. “A 36-inch, 34-pound little girl by repeatedly punching her enough to cut her pancreas and liver and heart in half.”
Wilson said he considered sentencing Buhl to life but decided to take the recommendations made by the DA and Parole and Probation that asked for parole eligibility.