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‘There are no words’: Circus promoters abused, shackled and starved a 12-year-old boy until he died, police say

Luis Posso, 32, and Dayana Medina Flores, 25, have been charged in connection with the death of 12-year-old Eduardo Posso. (Monroe County Sheriff's Department)

This story has been updated.

Karen Graham and her husband sensed that the boy who lived next door wasn’t being treated well. Eduardo Posso seemed terrified, too scared to even pet their dog. They heard his father yelling late into the night, watched as the 12-year-old was forced to move heavy circus equipment off the porch every day so that he could sweep it, and noticed that his siblings rarely left the efficiency apartment that the family shared in Myakka City, Fla.

But she was still shocked when she heard the news: Last Friday, months after his family pulled him and his siblings out of school and began an itinerant life on the road, Posso had died. Authorities in Bloomington, Ind., were accusing his father and stepmother of shackling him in a motel bathtub and forcing him to wear a shock collar intended for a dog. An initial investigation suggested that he had starved to death.

“He would smile at us because he knew he had a friend next door, but he just never trusted me enough to talk to me,” Graham told the Bradenton Herald. “I wish he would have.”

Child welfare officials had made multiple visits to the Florida apartment that Eduardo’s father, Luis Posso, and his stepmother, Dayana Medina Flores, shared, the paper reported. But they never found proof that the boy was being neglected or abused. Now, Posso, 32, and Flores, 25, both face felony child neglect charges in Indiana. At a Tuesday news conference, authorities said they could be potentially be charged with murder once a coroner has officially determined the boy’s cause of death.

“There are no words for this kind of abuse,” Monroe County Detective Lt. Jennifer Allen said. “Disbelief, horror, shock — you can’t even put it into words.”

Appearing to choke back tears, Monroe County Coroner Joani Shields told reporters that Eduardo weighed about 50 to 55 pounds, was “severely emaciated” and had 0 percent body fat when he died. He had no broken bones or internal injuries, she said, but his body was covered with bruises.

Unbeknown to Eduardo’s mother and many of his relatives, Posso and Flores had been wandering from town to town with their four children, passing out fliers for a traveling circus that they were being paid to promote. Bloomington, the home of Indiana University, was the latest stop on their tour. The family arrived last week and checked into an extended-stay motel, authorities said. Early on the morning on May 24, they showed up at a hospital with Eduardo, who had stopped breathing.

Less than 15 minutes after his arrival, the boy was declared dead.

Hospital staff alerted police that the 12-year-old showed “signs of extreme abuse,” Monroe County Sheriff Brad Swain said. When detectives searched the couple’s phones, they found disturbing video footage of family members wandering in and out of the motel room’s bathroom and paying no attention to Eduardo, who was restrained in the bathtub and wearing a dog’s shock collar. They also found a selfie that Posso had taken that showed his son restrained in the background.

Inside the motel room, they found ankle and wrist chains, as well as the shock collar. Investigators also discovered that the couple had attached a Web camera to a towel bar in the bathroom, which allowed them to remotely monitor Eduardo while they were gone all day. A housekeeper told police that she had never seen the boy alone in the room but did notice the camera and thought that it was “somewhat odd,” Allen said.

The couple’s three other children — two boys, ages 5 and 2, and a 9-year-old girl — are now in the custody of child protective services. All seemed relatively healthy, authorities said, and it appeared that Eduardo had been singled out for abuse. Allen said the couple told police that he “acted up the most.”

Posso and Flores both face felony neglect and confinement charges, and Posso faces an additional count of domestic battery. Each is being held on $500,000 bond in advance of a Friday court hearing, and it was not immediately clear if either had a lawyer. Flores allegedly told investigators that Posso physically abused Eduardo and used restraints on him. Posso “did admit to some sorts of physical abuse on the child,” but not to keeping him shackled up, Allen said. Both denied withholding food from the boy.

Cirque Italia, which produces the traveling circus that Passo and Flores were hired to promote, said in a statement that the couple worked for a Florida-based advance advertising business and had no direct connection with the circus itself. The company “feels terribly about the tragedy that has occurred” and will provide “what limited information they have to assist in this investigation,” a spokesperson told the Herald.

Before the family left Florida, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office had visited their home five times in roughly an 18-month period to investigate reports that Eduardo was being abused, according to the Herald. Some had been made by anonymous tipsters, while others came from his school and his grandmother. On two occasions, Eduardo had bruises, which were attributed to a juggling accident and a failed trampoline flip. In December, the last time that investigators visited, Eduardo denied that he was being abused and a deputy took a photo of him smiling. Two days later, he and his siblings were pulled out of school.

"It’s very evident that what happened to Eduardo had happened to him during the last couple of weeks or months, but we didn’t see any signs of that when we did investigations,” Randy Warren, a spokesman for the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, told WFLA.

Law enforcement officials in Indiana said at Tuesday’s news conference that they believe the abuse ramped up after the family went on the road to promote the circus, since older photos show Eduardo looking like a normal, happy child. They suspect that Posso and Flores made sure to leave him in their van or motel room while they brought the other children along to hand out advertisements for the circus, so that no one would see how emaciated he had become. Meanwhile, the boy’s relatives had no idea that the family had left Florida, or that the kids weren’t in school.

Aurea Esmeralda Garcia, Eduardo’s biological mother, told WXIN that her last visit with her son had been in 2017. Because she lacked custody, she hadn’t been able to see or talk with him often. She said that she had tried to raise concerns about how the boy was being treated, though it’s unclear whom she contacted or what she told them.

“I want to kiss him, however he is, and tell him I’m sorry,” she told the station. “I did everything I could, but nothing worked.”

Graham, who lived next door to the circus promoters, said that child welfare officials never tried to talk to her when they visited the family’s Florida apartment. She told the Herald that some things she had witnessed, like the lock on the kitchen cabinet, looked more sinister in retrospect. One time, she said, she saw the couple placing leather restraints in the back of their car, but figured that it had something to do with their circus act. Another time, when she saw Eduardo picking up garbage, she assumed that his parents forced him to do it. Now, she thinks he was looking for something to eat.

“I knew that they were mean to him, but I never in a million years thought they could starve that boy to death,” she said.

Since the other children weren’t allowed outside, Graham hadn’t even realized there were four of them in the apartment until she saw news stories about Eduardo’s death, she told the paper. She recalled that her husband waved at the couple’s young daughter once, and Posso told him to never do so much as look at her again. Before the family left Florida, she said, her husband gave Eduardo a private talk and encouraged him to work hard in school so that he could get out of his difficult living situation.

“I would do anything for that to have turned out different,” Graham told the Herald. “I just loved him and so did my husband.”

The 12-year-old had been a good kid, she recalled, and a fantastic juggler.

"He would stand in the driveway and juggle for hours and hours and hours trying to impress his dad,” she said. “It was never good enough. He was just heartbroken.”

This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Dayana Medina Flores’ name.

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