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Detective: On family videos, Angelina Costello ‘looks like a skeleton’

By Mark Shenefelt - | Jan 23, 2023

BENJAMIN ZACK, Standard-Examiner file photos

In this combination photo, Brenda Emile, left, and Miller Costello, right, appear July 13, 2017, in 2nd District Court in Ogden. They have been charged in connection with the death of their 3-year-old daughter.

OGDEN — A former police detective testified Monday about the systematic psychological abuse, physical torture and ultimate starvation that Angelina Costello suffered at the hands of her parents, Miller Costello and Brenda Emile.

Judge Michael DiReda began hearing evidence in a weeklong series of 2nd District Court sessions to determine the sentences the pair will receive for first-degree aggravated murder in the July 7, 2017, death of their daughter. Costello and Emile pleaded guilty earlier this year in return for prosecutors dropping their pursuit of the death penalty.

Sitka Hrabal was an Ogden Police Department detective who was assigned to gather evidence from Costello and Emile’s phones. It was a shocking task, she recounted.

“They basically documented the last year and a half of torture, abuse and injury on their phones,” Hrabal said. “Angelina suffered immense amounts of pain, torture, taunting with food, going from a healthy 1 ½ year-old to a dead 3-year-old.”

Prosecutors played a dozen or more of the videos and asked Hrabal to describe the circumstances. Early on, Angelina looked happy, with “chubby cheeks,” Hrabal said.

Both Emile and Costello repeatedly taunted the girl with food, she said. In one video, Emile offered Angelina food, then took it away. “I lied, it’s mine,” Emile said, giggling. “Mmm, this is so good. Ha ha, no food for you.”

The family went to Disneyland in May 2017, two months before the child died. Angelina was wearing a long-sleeve shirt and a beanie, apparently to cover burns, bruises and her malnutrition. The other two children wore T-shirts, typical warm-weather clothing.

Even so, some of Angelina’s injuries were notable on the videos, Hrabal said. “She has sunken eyes and the right side of her nose is missing,” she said of one of the Disneyland videos. “You can really see that the malnutrition is affecting her at this point. She looks sad, looks defeated.”

By June, Hrabal testified that Angelina “looks like a skeleton. It appears her body just ate what was left to keep her alive this long.”

Prosecutors also had a letter read to the court from the adoptive mother of the couple’s oldest child, a boy who was about 4 years old at the time of his sister’s death. She said the boy has struggled with grief and feelings of guilt because Costello and Emile ordered him to participate in the abuse.

He witnessed the starvation. “One time, a piece of onion was on the floor and Angelina ate it, she was so hungry,” the boy said, according to the adoptive mother. The parents, the boy said, “used to hit us with wires” but directed most of their abuse at Angelina.

The boy, now almost 10 years old, hopes his biological parents never get out of prison because he fears they would come to kill him, the adoptive mother said.

A letter from a social worker who counseled the boy said the child was the one who found Angelina dead in her bed. “He got her favorite blanket for her because she was cold,” the social worker said. After the parents realized the girl was dead, “they ran around getting rid of drugs and the things they used to hurt her with,” the letter said.

The boy said the parents had rigged a shock device they would attach to Angelina’s body as a method of torture. He added that he and Angelina once were locked in a dark closet together for several days without food or water.

As Angelina declined, “she started acting differently, like a sick doll,” the boy said, according to the adoptive mother.

Prosecutor Letitia Toombs opened the state’s side of the sentencing hearing with details from the medical examiner’s testimony given during a preliminary hearing early in the case.

Burns, punctures, bruises, abrasions, fractures and “layers and layers of scare tissue” were found. “Very little of her body was left untouched,” from her head to her feet, Toombs said.

Angelina’s internal organs showed injuries as well. Toombs said. Her pancreas, for instance, was bruised and had bled, the medical examiner testifying that extreme blunt force was needed to go through the abdomen and strike the pancreas against the spine, she said.

Monday’s hearing ended with a contentious exchange about Hrabal’s testimony when asked by prosecutor Nicholas Caine how the case had affected her. Hrabal said she had investigated hundreds of child abuse cases, but in Angelina’s death, “I never saw anything like this. For me, this was a career ender. I’m not a cop anymore, after I had to watch what she went through.”

The detective said she has PTSD and underwent counseling.

Defense attorney Randall Marshall said it was not appropriate for police officers to be allowed to offer victim testimony. But DiReda overruled the objection, saying Hrabal’s testimony about what she went through “speaks volumes” about the gravity of the case. However, the judge did disallow the reading of letters from two other police officers, saying Hrabal’s testimony was sufficient.

After testimony and other arguments, DiReda will sentence Emile and Costello to either 25 years to life in prison or life in prison without the possibility of parole.

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