BURDEN OF PROOF: The Death of Manuel Ramirez

(SIOUX CITY, IA) 6-year-old Manuel Ramirez died in his Sioux City home on the evening of March 7, 2011. At the time, law enforcement ruled his death suspicious. That was nearly 21 months ago. Now, we know much more about the police and Department of Human Services investigations into what happened leading up to, during and after that night, including a number of reports to DHS prior to Manuel's death. And for the first time, Siouxland News confirms police are investigating his death as a murder. It's a cold case detectives need your help solving.

According to documents from a DHS investigation into the death of 6-year-old Manuel Ramirez, around 7:45 PM on March 7, 2011, one of his siblings put about six inches of water in the bathtub and left Manuel alone. The door to the bathroom was shut because Manuel didn't like it open. His stepmother, 36-year-old Maria Miranda, and four siblings were home at the time. When they didn't hear Manuel anymore, they ran to the bathroom and found Manuel lying on his back, his stomach was hard and his eyes were rolled back. They tried to do CPR and called 911.

Sioux City Police Chief Doug Young says releasing the 911 tape could hurt the department's investigation.

"There is a phone call, there is conversations in that phone call that bring us some hesitation," says Doug Young, Sioux City Police Chief.

Police arrived at the home at 1417 Virginia Street within 3 minutes of receiving that call around 9 PM for a possible drowning. According to the DHS timeline, that's more than an hour after Manuel got in the bathtub.

"When they entered, there was a female adult and a young juvenile outside the bathroom on the floor," says Chief Young.

Young says officers on the scene took over. Manuel vomited during CPR but medical personnel continued until he got to the hospital. Manuel was pronounced dead at 9:50 PM. Officers got to work on the case right away and quickly took note of a scene that didn't add up to a possible drowning, including toys in the bathtub but no water.

"When this thing came in as a drowning and there was no evidence of drowning, then obviously it becomes a suspicious death to us. There's only a couple people that knew what happened and one of them is deceased so we have to rely on the information from the best witness that we have there," says Chief Young.

The Medical Examiner's Office in Ankeny, Iowa, confirmed those suspicions when it released the autopsy results:

Cause of Death: Consistent with asphyxia
Manner of Death: Could not be Determined

"Something caused the asphyxia and we know it wasn't drowning," says Chief Young. "So we classified that as a murder."

As part of their murder investigation, police looked into all aspects of Manuel's life.

"We take in the totality of everything when we do these investigations - family history, you know, we investigate - we talk to school personnel, we talk to DHS, we do all this stuff," says Chief Young.

Here's what we now know about Manuel: he was born in El Monte, California, and had been living with his father, stepmother and four siblings in Sioux City since September 2009. At the time of his death, his father, 37-year-old Jose Luis De Los Santos, was in jail. Manuel was a 6-year-old first grader at Irving Elementary where teachers expressed concern to detectives about the family dynamics at home. DHS investigators learned Manuel was constantly hungry, stealing food at school and at home.

Sources who knew Manuel tell Siouxland News they know of at least three reports made to DHS on Manuel's behalf: a burned hand, an arm injury and bruises around his neck. According to those sources, the DHS reports all came back unfounded.

"(Reporter: Do you feel like, in this case, everything was done that could have been done to prevent this from happening or was this a situation where this child fell through the cracks?) Well it's unfortunate it happened. If somebody failed along the line, that's also unfortunate," says Chief Young.

Teachers and administrators from Irving and the school district attended Manuel's funeral. He was buried at Calvary Cemetery with no headstone to mark his grave. In the following weeks, the district brought in counselors to help students and staff. At the time, Superintendent Dr. Paul Gausman said communication was the most important part of its crisis plan.

"They've suffered so much loss is such a short period of time ... If you're dealing with students of a certain age, or family members that come from multiple diverse backgrounds, some of the communications work better than others," says Dr. Paul Gausman, Sioux City Schools Superintendent.

But now, Gausman is refusing to speak on camera about Manuel's death and he told district employees they can't talk to Siouxland News about it either.

"(Reporter: What kind of feedback did you get from teachers and school officials? Were there negative comments from them saying, we were worried about this kid?) Um, that I probably cannot address at this time because the case is still active and under investigation," says Chief Young.

Three months after Manuel's death, DHS wrapped up its investigation - it confirmed denial of critical care and believed Maria Miranda posed "a danger to other children that may be subject to her care and supervision". The final report referenced other injuries to Manuel which remain unexplained. But by then, DHS couldn't find Maria Miranda.

Woodbury County found her later that summer - arrested for harboring a runaway. The county handed her over to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Maria Miranda was deported on October 26th. Her husband, Manuel's father Jose, had been deported - for the second time - five months earlier on May 25th. Coincidentally, that was the same day investigators first got access to Manuel's autopsy results.

"Obviously people being deported probably had an impact on this investigation. But federal government's got their rules to play by," says Chief Young.

As of November 2012, police say they aren't any closer to making an arrest and for now, the case is cold unless a new tip comes in.

"Probably somebody coming forward that was in the house at that time and giving us some more information," says Chief Young. "But at this point it's still open and will remain that way until we're satisfied."

The DHS report investigating Manuel's death was placed on the Iowa Child Abuse Registry.
But Chief Young says police have not labeled the death as child abuse. Right now, it's only classified as a murder investigation. He says no one from the family has reached out to police and that's not common. Siouxland News has been unable to find Manuel's biological mother, Sofia Ramirez. We know she lived in California when Manuel was born.

UPDATE: After this story aired, a number of people contacted us through email and Facebook, concerned about how this little boy was being remembered in death. So Siouxland News set up an account if you'd like to help buy a headstone for Manuel's grave. You can stop by any Security National Bank branch and donate to the Manuel Ramirez Memorial Fund.

Reported by Erika Thomas. You can contact her at

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