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Monday, Jul 24, 2017

Agency: No signs Pasco girl faced danger before fatal attack

NEW PORT RICHEY — Jenica Randazzo felt loved at her grandparents' home and there were no signs that her life was in danger before Feb. 5, the day her uncle, Jason Rios, is accused of attacking and killing the 9-year-old girl and her grandmother, Angela Rios, according to foster care records released this week.

The attack at the Catherine Street home where they lived was deemed “horrific” by Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco, who said the grisly crime scene would likely haunt even his most seasoned first responders. Jason Rios, 24, faces murder and attempted murder charges and is being held without bail in the Land O' Lakes Jail.

The incident started before 8 a.m. and didn't end for several hours, as Jason Rios barricaded himself in a nearby house after attacking his mother and nieces, and engaged in an hours-long standoff with the sheriff's SWAT team, sheriff's records show.

Before he was arrested, Jason Rios tried to kill himself by drilling through his torso, neck and head with a drill bit and auger, the sheriff's office said. Rios' family told authorities that he suffers from paranoid schizophrenia.

Officials with Eckerd Community Alternatives said in an email this week that “there were no indications that could have predicted this tragic outcome.” Eckerd is the lead agency for community-based child welfare and foster care services in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.

“Documentation yielded no evidence that the case manager knew of erratic behavior, drug abuse or diagnosed mental illness on the part of Jason Rios,” Brian Bostick, executive director of Eckerd Community Alternatives, wrote in a memo accompanying the foster care records.

In fact, Bostick wrote, there were “positive reports” of Jason Rios bonding with the children cared for by his grandparents, including Jenica and La'nyla Heater, 8, who also was attacked Feb. 5, but survived with injuries related to blunt-force trauma, Dominic Putnam, 13, and Chancellor Rios, 4, Bostick wrote. The boys were not injured in the attack.

Reports of Jason Rios' interaction with the children came from the county Child Protective Investigations unit as well as the children.

“Jason Rios did pass a background screening test and had no violent or drug offenses” that would prevent the children from staying under the same roof, Bostick wrote.

Records released this week do not paint a cheerful picture of Jenica's short life.

Jenica and her three siblings were removed from the custody of her mother, Jessica Rios, in December 2011, because of her mother's substance abuse issues, according to the records released by Eckerd Community Alternatives.

At the time, Jenica's father, Eric Randazzo, was serving time in state prison on drug charges, state corrections records show. He was released in March 2012, but was arrested in Pasco in March 2013 on a charge of petty theft.

According to information from Eckerd, Ernesto and Angela Rios' four grandchildren were placed with them in 2011, but “stressful factors strained the family and in September 2012, they were placed in foster care.”

The following September, the Rios' began participating in family counseling and parenting classes through Bay Care's Urgent Family Care program and also worked closely with Youth and Family Alternatives and Kinship Care to gain more skills and support in caring for their grandchildren, according to Bostick.

Eckerd case managers regularly made visits to the Rios home, as previous foster parents had expressed concerns of their ability to raise the four children.

After the most recent visit, an unannounced one on Jan. 6, a case worker wrote that risk to the children staying there was “currently low, as they appear comfortable and safe in the current placement, and the caregiver appears to be improving with ability to manage their behaviors and needs.”

After the Feb. 5 incident, the Rios' neighbors said Ernesto was often seen pushing his wife up and down the street in her wheelchair.

“She had diabetes and had had her legs removed,” neighbor John Wirick said. “He was always walking her just to get her out of the house, because she was also starting to go blind.”

Keeping siblings together is important, and Jenica and her siblings felt close to one another and their grandparents, Bostick wrote, citing “a variety of professionals, as well as the children themselves.”

“While there is no fail-safe method to prevent every bad action and tragic circumstance from occurring, we remain dedicated to doing everything we can to protect children and ensure they receive the love and care they deserve,” Bostick wrote.

Five days after the attacks that killed Jenica and her grandmother, Dominic Putnam, 13, a grandson of the Rios' who also lived at the house, was reported missing from the Runaway Alternatives Project in New Port Richey. He was found safe later that day.

On the morning of the attacks, Dominic told investigators that his grandfather woke him up before school. A short time later, the boy said he heard screaming and repeated “whacking” sounds from his grandparents' bedroom.

When the boy entered his grandparents' bedroom, he saw his uncle standing over his grandmother, holding a tire iron, a sheriff's report said. Angela Rios had severe facial injuries and Dominic fled to the house of a neighbor, who called 911, the report said.

Jason Rios went to Jenica's room next, then La'nyla's, the report said.

Both girls were beaten about the head and face with the tire iron, and the attack didn't stop until the intervention of Ernesto Rios, who was showering when the violence began, the sheriff's office said.

gfox@tampatrib.com

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