Jasmine finds freedom: Tenacious spirit survives ordeal of horror
January 30, 2011
It’s been five years since Jasmine Perez was discovered pushing a shopping cart full of food and clothes down Carson City streets. A passerby called police to report a 6-year-old child wandering unsupervised.
What police discovered was much more horrifying.
Jasmine – just 4 feet tall, weighing 41 pounds – told them she was 16. She and her 11-year-old brother, David, had been held captive in the bathroom of the family’s Como Street apartment for years, starved and tortured at the hands of their grandmother, Esther Rios.
What started as a punishment of an hour or two in the bathroom turned into six years of imprisonment while the rest of the family – Rios, the children’s mother Regina Rios and her husband, and three other siblings – lived a relatively normal life in the apartment.
Jasmine and David had been kept alive on meager rations, usually bologna, hot dogs or oatmeal, and endured nearly daily beatings. Rios would threaten the girl that she was going to kill her, cut her up and discard her body in the desert.
Then on Jan. 19, 2006, Jasmine had a dream.
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“It sounds crazy,” she said Monday, looking back on that day. “It’s hard to believe myself.”
In the dream, she saw her grandmother coming home from work early, giving Jasmine the opportunity to get away without her mother or siblings home to stop her.
Rios did come home from work early that day. She sent Jasmine and David to wait in the bedroom while she used the bathroom. At first Jasmine dismissed the dream, but as her grandmother lingered in the bathroom, Jasmine realized it was her time to act.
She slammed the door and turned the deadbolt that had been installed on the outside of the door.
With her grandma shrieking threats and insults from inside the bathroom and David begging her not to go, Jasmine grabbed as much food, clothing and money as she could and fled.
“My plan was to live on my own and just be free,” she said.
Looking back, she knows there were so many ways it could have backfired. Years of being locked away had left her with limited lung capacity, making breathing difficult. Spending most of her days on the bathroom floor, coupled with beatings to her legs, had atrophied her muscles, and she could barely walk.
On top of her physical limitations, she risked the chance that no one would stop to help. Out of all the cars that drove past her that day, only one person called police.
Then there was her grandmother. In first grade, Jasmine told her teacher she was being abused. She had run away before. Both times, Rios convinced authorities that Jasmine was mentally handicapped and prone to lies.
But for some reason, she was successful that day.
“I think God was on my side,” she said. “He kept his eyes on me and his hands underneath me.”
After police found her in a parking lot near the community center, they drove her home, where Rios again told police that Jasmine was delusional and anorexic.
But when 11-year-old David, who at 36 pounds was the size of an average 3-year-old, was discovered hiding under a bed, there was no longer any way to deny it.
Jasmine said Deputy Daniel Gonzales dropped to his knee in front of her. Taking her hand, he told her he was sorry for what she had been through.
“He said, ‘I don’t even know you, but I love you.'”
It was the first time anyone other than David had ever told her that, she said.
“That’s when the love started,” she said.
• • •
That day marked the end of captivity for Jasmine and David, who has since moved to California to live with his father.
He called Jasmine last week.
“He said, ‘Happy anniversary, Jasmine,'” she said. “‘You saved my life.'”
But freedom has taken some time to find.
Although there was an outpouring of support and donations from the community, Jasmine didn’t know how to handle it.
“When I learned there was so much attention focused on us, it was really overwhelming,” she said. “I knew someone was going to hurt me.”
And she worried for those offering help. From police to counselors to social workers and foster parents, she feared they would be punished for their compassion toward her.
“I thought, ‘My grandma is going to come kill you.’ But they never gave up.”
She admits she and David were difficult to deal with. She hoarded food and lied about it. She lashed out. They both threw things. She ran away.
David and Jasmine went through several foster families, and she continued to have nightmares of her grandmother coming back for her.
But there were those who stuck with her and she started to open up.
“It’s a struggle,” Jasmine said. “I was told you’re ugly, you’re evil, and I believed it for so long. I think I’ve had to learn to accept myself and love myself.”
• • •
Five years after her escape, her appearance now masks her tragic past.
She’s a normal height, 5 feet 4 inches. David, she said, is even taller.
Her teeth, damaged from years of malnutrition and regurgitating what little food she had to eat in order to preserve it, were fixed by local dentist Dr. Jonathan Bauter.
Physical therapy and corrective surgery restored her ability to walk, and she even plays sports.
She wears her tenacious spirit with a skull belt buckle, green faux hawk and silver studs in her bottom lip. Her smile is clear and wide, but her soft brown eyes betray a vulnerability.
Fixing the inside, Jasmine said, has required even more work.
“It’s just like being in a coma,” she said of those six years with no education, no stimulation from TV, books or friends. “I went in at 10 years old. Found at 16, but still 10.”
She’d attended second grade before her family moved from California to Carson City, but was never enrolled in school once here.
At 17, she entered the fourth grade at Fritsch Elementary School.
“My friends say you must have been so out of place there, so much bigger,” she said. “But I was one of the smallest in my class.”
At 21, she’s now a senior in high school with plans to pursue a career in teaching after graduation. Her goals right now are to find a job and buy a car.
“I’m doing well,” she said. “I’ve never given up, and I don’t plan on giving up anytime soon.”
One of the first things she had to learn was to eat with utensils.
“I had always used my hands,” she explained. “I had to learn how to hold the fork and everything.”
She visited her mother, Regina Rios, a few times in prison, where she is serving 22 to 55 years on two counts of child abuse and one count of false imprisonment.
But when her mother tried to relay a message to her from Esther Rios, who received 28 to 70 years in prison on two counts of child abuse and two counts of false imprisonment, Jasmine stopped visiting.
“I really didn’t want to know what my grandma had to say,” she said.
Her mother’s husband, Tomas Granados, was sentenced to 14 to 35 years for one count of child abuse and one count of false imprisonment.
Looking back, Jasmine is sometimes still in awe that she lived through it all.
“I was hit in the head with a hammer, I don’t know how I survived that,” she said.
But, she said, she holds no anger or hatred for her abusers. Instead, her focus is on enjoying the life she fought to preserve.
“I’ve been so isolated since I was young,” she said. “I never had a life, but I have a life now, and that means something. Now, I see it as the most beautiful thing.”ů