DURHAM (WTVD) --In Durham's tight-knit Unity Village neighborhood on Tuesday night, family and friends laid flowers and lit candles. It was a traditional Mexican novena -- nine days of prayer to mourn the death of 3-year old Leslie Ramirez.
This first night of the novena began less than 24 hours after Leslie was found inside a hot van, just steps away from her family's apartment on Hearthside Street.
Tuesday evening, just as the novena was getting underway, paramedics arrived at the home. The family says the little girl's mother, Rocio Murillo, went into shock -- perhaps consumed by the emotion of the day. Murillo was taken to a Durham hospital.
It was all evidence of a visceral pain that is reverberating through a Durham family and community Tuesday. Leslie's death is begging the hardest of questions and likely leaving oceans of guilt behind. The family is expected to make a public statement Wednesday.
Leslie died Monday night after being found in a hot van just off Hearthside Street, steps from her home. Family members say she was in her mother's care. No one can account for how or when the little girl went missing, but according to a neighbor, her father found her in the van when he got home from work.
Jorge Alvarez watched the terrifying scene unfold from across the street. He said he watched the father try to punch out the window by banging on the driver-side door and watched him take the child from the van with "foam at the mouth," with black eyes and the skin "starting to peel back" on her arms.
Neighbors say it was apparent she had been in the car during the heat for some time.
One common misconception, according to Kids and Cars Director Amber Andreasen, is that it has to be sweltering for children to overheat if they're left in a vehicle with no ventilation.
"The first fatality from heatstroke this year happened on a day when it was 52 outside," Andreasen said. "The inside of a vehicle acts like a greenhouse. And it let in heat and traps that heat inside the vehicle, and it heats up very quickly. In fact, 80 percent of the increase in the temperature inside the vehicle happens inside of the first 10 minutes."
Andreasen says a child's body temperature rises three to five times faster than an adult's body temperature, making children particularly susceptible to heat stroke.
It remains unclear whether that's what happened Monday in Durham, but Andreasen said the deterioration of Ramirez's body reported by neighbors fits a pattern.
"When a child dies of heat stroke, it's a very gruesome death," she explained. "It's the kind of thing that nobody should ever have to experience."
There are on average 37 child deaths caused each year by heat stroke in vehicles. Here's what the numbers look like since 2010:
- 2016: 27
- 2015: 25
- 2014: 32
- 2013: 44
- 2012: 35
- 2011: 33
- 2010: 49
North Carolina ranks as the No. 6 state in the nation in these tragedies with 31 fatalities from 1991-present. Leslie's death Monday marks the second child in North Carolina this year to die in a hot car. You can find out more about the problem and prevention at Kids and Cars.
Nineteen states have laws making it illegal to knowingly leave a child in a vehicle, but Andreasen said that's not often the case. According to Kids and Cars, when children are left in cars, 54 percent of the time it's unintentional, 33 percent of the time kids climb in on their own, and 12 percent of the time, it's intentional (where parents knowingly leave their children in cars, presumably intending to come back and get them, but getting back to them too late).
"I'm sure there are a lot of people out there who are going, 'How could you leave your child in the car, how could you forget them?'" said Andreasen. "We work to help people understand that because the worst thing any parent could do is to think this couldn't happen to them. This really can happen to anybody. These aren't malicious acts of intentional harm towards a child."
So far, Durham police haven't filed charges in Leslie's death.
Andreasen said that's probably a good thing.
"If the child was unknowingly left, bringing criminal charges does nothing for anybody," she said. "These families are not a danger to society. They don't need to be in jail. They are living in their own punishment and will be in an unbelievable hell for the rest of their life. No jail cell and no charges could even compare to what they punish themselves with."
Police have confirmed Leslie's name and age, but not any other details about their investigation.
Authorities have said an autopsy will be performed.
Anyone with information about this case is asked to call Investigator E. Ortiz at (919) 560-4440, or CrimeStoppers at (919) 683-1200. CrimeStoppers pays cash rewards for information leading to arrests in felony cases and callers never have to identify themselves.
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