ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Two-year-old Jahzel Piñon was shy and didn’t like to leave her mom’s side.
“She was always attached at my hip,” said Stephanie Piñon. Piñon, a stay-at-home mother, said her four kids were her world.
“I am a mom. I am a soul, like everyone else who loves and adores her children,” she said.
In a 911 call on July 14, 2010, you can hear a hysterical Piñon.
“Oh my god, help me,” Piñon told dispatchers.
It was the last time Piñon would see Jahzel. It’s an image she can’t shake.
“All I have to this day, going on six years this July, is how I found her and her coffin,” said Piñon.
It’s a day she replays over and over in her mind.
“I would give anything, anything to have her back because I miss her so much,” she said.
Piñon says a chain of events unfolded that morning that would lead to tragedy. She was running a half-hour late to a meeting for Jahzel’s 4-year-old sister at the preschool at SIPI, the community college near Coors and Paseo. She says she didn’t realize her husband had also put Jahzel in the minivan.
“She was supposed to be home with dad and her 6-month-old sibling,” Piñon said.
She thought Jahzel was staying home. But, a quiet Jahzel was sitting directly behind her. Piñon says she just couldn’t see her.
“All I see is the two big car seats in the very back for my older kids and the ruffle of the canopy to my 6-month-old’s car seat. But right behind me, there’s nothing,” she said.
When they pulled into the parking lot, Piñon said her 4-year-old decided to unbuckle herself, which she never does. She said the 4-year-old opened the door and jumped out.
Piñon ran to grab her. She says in a rush she shut the door and they walked off to the meeting. She even stayed for lunch with her 4-year-old. Two and a half hours passed until she found Jahzel in their van.
“She was purple. She was convulsing,” said Piñon.
Investigators say the temperature reached up to 135 degrees in the minivan on that hot July day.
“She was trying to survive,” said a crying Piñon.
Jazhel was taken to the hospital while deputies interrogated Piñon for hours. She would tell them she must have forgotten she’d brought the toddler along. Hours later she would learn her daughter was dead. At her lowest moment, things got worse. Messages of hate poured in on the internet.
“You deserve to burn in that vehicle or I can’t wait to find you so I could hurt you like that baby hurt,” said Piñon of the messages she saw.
Piñon feared for her safety. She moved her family to Hobbs.
“Everyone has the right to their opinion to feel outrage because I probably would have felt the same way too had it happened to someone else. But, it didn’t happen to someone else. It happened to me and I live with it every day,” said Piñon.
“People tonight will watch this story and ask how do you forget your child,” asked KRQE News 13.
“I know it’s very easy for someone to say, this will never happen to me, how could she do that? And, I understand that question, but I have an answer. I was not that forgetful parent. I didn’t forget my baby,” said Piñon.
Piñon maintains she just didn’t know Jahzel was in her van.
“I did not forgot you baby. I didn’t know you were there,” said a crying Piñon.
Piñon struck a plea deal and was convicted of child abandonment resulting in death.
KRQE News 13 asked Piñon if she thought she should have been charged.
“Honestly to be truthful, no,” said Piñon.
She was facing nine years in prison at her sentencing last year.
“What if I get sent to prison for something that I didn’t do. What’s going to happen to my babies? What’s going to happen to my husband?” she said.
The judge gave her five years of probation. She thanks her church and attorney for standing by her side.
“Thank you for not giving up on me. For knowing the truth and not letting me give up either,” she said.
Jahzel would be the 23rd child left to die in a hot car in 2010 around the country. She wouldn’t be the last, 49 kids would die in hot cars in the U.S. later that year.
“Not just parents, babysitters, headstart, it happens to police officers, judges, pediatricians, no one is immune to these tragedies,” said Piñon.
She says not all parents leave their kids in the car on purpose in these cases and that’s why she’s breaking her silence now.
“Good moms can forget their babies and it’s not because they don’t love them. It’s because many things happen,” said Piñon.
Piñon now works with KidsAndCars.org. She recently moved back to Albuquerque and is looking forward to talking to parents about the problem.
You can reach her through the organization to set up speaking engagements: