Left for dead, Carmina Salcido is back

Date: 2008-07-31

From tragedy to hope

By David Bolling

Carmina Salcido, for a brief, tragic moment, was the most famous 3-year-old in America.

Tossed by her psychopathic father into a ravine beside the bodies of her two dead sisters, her throat cut nearly ear-to-ear, Carmina improbably, miraculously survived. Her father's murderous rampage, which also took the life of Carmina's mother, stunned the Sonoma Valley and made national headlines. Ramon Salcido was captured in Mexico, extradited on cartoonist Charles Schulz's personal plane and returned to the Sonoma County airport after telling the media he had no regrets for slaughtering seven people.

Sympathy poured in from across the country, Carmina's hospital room filled with flowers and stuffed animals, a trust fund swelled to nearly $100,000. But that awful April day in 1989 was not the end of Carmina's nightmare, it was just the beginning.

Now 22, she has come home to Sonoma with a story that is stranger than fiction and a book she hopes will shift the trajectory of her life.

As a novel, readers would find it unbelievable. Listening to her tell it is slightly surreal. Watching the mature composure on her face, hearing the measured, often eloquent words with which she describes her last 19 years, you can be excused a measure of disbelief. You can also be excused for staring at the scar that is still stretched across her throat, the indelible reminder of her father's rage and the only thing of substance he has given her.

There is an instinct to think that what happened to Carmina can't happen to real people. Not in real life, not in Sonoma. But it did.

And you have to reach a bit to understand how the pretty young woman telling the extraordinary story with the vocabulary and the comprehension of a much older person could live through years of emotional hell and emerge with so much calm detachment.

After the arrest and conviction of her father, with most of her relatives dead by his hand, Carmina had only her grandfather, Bob Richards, for family. But Richards had just lost his wife, all three daughters and two granddaughters. He was devastated and in no position to raise a 3-year-old.

Carmina was adopted by a conservative Catholic couple from Missouri and instantly disappeared into cloistered confinement. Members of a sect called "Tradition, Family and Property," or "TFP," her adoptive parents, she said, kept her isolated and confined in an environment that was almost "medieval." Besides scripture, she said, she was taught every nuance of etiquette, setting tables, tasting wine, serving.

She was also an only child, her new parents were in their 50s, she had no peers, and her closest friends were animals. She learned, she says, to talk to cows. She developed a passion for horses. It was otherwise a stifling existence. But it was worse than that. Much worse.

"I experienced," she says, in a matter of fact voice, "17 years of abuse, every form you can imagine."

The words hang there. She is asked, "Everything? Emotional abuse? Psychological abuse? Physical abuse? Sexual abuse?"

"Everything," she says calmly. "Everything."

It's the plot of a horror story, a Steven King novel. Surviving one form of hell, she descends into another.

It should be understood that the abuse she says was inflicted by her adoptive parents was not the product of TFP doctrine, which is based on the work of the Brazilian historian and Catholic activist Plinio Correa de Oliveira. But her isolated and confined life, imposed in the name of religious piety, helped to shield the abusive behavior from view. When her grandfather came to visit, said Carmina, "he had a gut feeling something wasn't right, but there wasn't anything he could do. They gave the appearance of a traditional Catholic family and they knew how to play the game really well."

Still, if her TFP training cloistered her, it didn't contain her spirit and, apparently, it didn't make her pious. There is clear evidence in her of an underlying faith, but not an embrace of dogma, although she escaped the prison created by her adoptive parents by moving to a Carmelite monastery in Nebraska for a year.

If the TFP indoctrination didn't capture her soul it provided her a unique education. "By the time I was 12- or 13-years-old," she said, "I could talk to Jehovah's Witnesses and refute their theology. I began working for TFP at 15."

Along the way she acquired a vocabulary that separated her from her peers, as well as an amazingly mature perspective.

Ask her how she survived years of torment, along with vivid memories of her father's murderous rage, and she tells you the answer included a simple decision.

"A major part of being as far advanced as I am right now is that I realized you either go coo-coo, or you figure out a way to stay sane. You have to move on in life, you can't let your past pull you down. I pretty much vowed as a child I would never, never be an angry person, because my adoptive parents were angry people."

And so, of course, was her father.

There were a few bright spots in the bleak landscape of her childhood and one of them was music. Raised on classical melodies she began singing along with Pavarotti when she was 3-1/2. She says she plays 11 instruments by rote, including the organ, piano, violin, guitar, oboe and flute. And, according to those who've heard her, she sings like an angel.

Patricia Rile, a Santa Rosa talent agent who once enrolled Carmina's mother in a modeling class, said she has heard Carmina perform and was amazed.

"She can sing anything, she has perfect pitch, she's far more talented than a lot of those people on American Idol."

But having talent, and marketing it, are two different things, and right now Carmina is just trying to survive while waiting for her book - titled "Not Lost Forever" - to be published. Co-written by veteran Colorado author Steve Jackson, the book is under contract to a major publisher and is being represented by celebrity attorney Gloria Allred.

But there have been inexplicable delays in publication and payment and for now she is running a highly personalized dog-grooming business and working part-time at a Plaza fashion shop.

Carmina knows she has a sensational story and she's frank about her expectations for the book. "We're looking at this book selling millions," she said, and a movie deal is part of the plan. She describes the plot as a combination of "true crime, romance, inspiration, history, biography - all merged into one book."

The book is one reason she came back to Sonoma. She needed to reconnect with the core drama of her life, to revisit the places that had faded into dim memory. One of those places was the ravine near the Sonoma dump transfer station on Stage Gulch Road where she almost died. The first time she returned she was with her grandfather and, "as we approached the dump I could feel something in my chest and even though I didn't know exactly where we were, I knew we were getting close ... Now every time I go by there I feel this tug. I could be blindfolded and I'd know where I was."

Another reason for her return was to attempt some closure with her father, who has been on Death Row at San Quentin since his conviction in 1990.

She has seen him several times, seeking the kind of reconciliation that can only come through a heartfelt apology.

Ramon Salcido first saw his adult daughter on a KRON TV interview and wrote a letter to the station acknowledging, she said, that his daughter wanted an apology. But the words he wrote to KRON didn't sound sincere to Carmina, so she went to see him.

Ramon Salcido, now a prison minister, claims a congregation of 300 inmates. But to Carmina he remains "a psychopath. There were no tears, no real apology, he kept placing himself in the role of victim."

Even more disturbing, said Carmina, people began sending her father color photos of Carmina from her MySpace site and two of her friends began getting hits from inmates. When she asked her father about it, she said, "He told me, 'I just wanted to see if I could find any more kinky photos of you.'"

That was the end of her search for closure. "I concluded, he is twisted and sick up there. I've gotten what I wanted."

Carmina insists she's not angry at her father - "I've resolved, anger doesn't make anything better. I don't want to be like the kind of people I've had to deal with," - but she admits, "I'll be breathing an enormous sigh of relief when he's gone."

Carmina said she sometimes worries her father will be in her life as long as she lives. But his recent death-sentence conviction was upheld by the California Supreme Court, eliminating another source of appeal. His next stop will be the United States Supreme Court and that means Ramon Salcido will likely live for several more years.

But his spunky daughter, who fought off the knife he tried to kill her with and has struggled for her life, her sanity and her financial security, shows every sign of surviving the shadow of her father's madness to succeed on her own terms.

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