A Murrieta couple entered a “not guilty” plea Thursday, Aug. 24, in the child abuse case against them.
Benjamin Matthew Whitten, 33, and his live-in girlfriend, Jeryn Christine Johnson, 25, both made their court appearances in person as they entered their pleas at their arraignment hearing held at the Southwest Justice Center in Murrieta Thursday, Aug. 24.
The couple was charged with torture and cruelty to a child resulting in great bodily injury, as well as a slew of other charges after first responders were called about 10 a.m. to their Murrieta residence at 24001 Verdun Lane, near Mountain Pride Park, regarding a child in medical distress Tuesday, Aug. 15.
The child, Whitten’s 5-year-old biological son, Feno, was malnourished and suffering from severe injuries that required immediate medical attention, according to police. After the child was examined at a Temecula Valley trauma center, the decision was made to airlift him to the pediatric hospital for specialized care.
According to the Facebook page, “Justice for Feno,” created by a group of Murrieta women in support of the boy and to keep concerned community members informed of his status, as of press time, he remains on “full system life support and artificial nutrition,” at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego.
According to court documents obtained by Valley News, the boy was severely malnourished, sleeping on a plank of wood and dropped on concrete after being taken out of the pool by Johnson. He was malnourished and had injuries to his head, spinal cord and abdomen, among other injuries.
Whitten, who is a U.S. Navy sailor stationed at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Detachment-San Diego since March 2016, is being held in lieu of $1 million bail at the Byrd Detention Center in Murrieta. Johnson is being held in lieu of $1 million bail at the Robert Presley Detention Center in Riverside.
A representative for Whitten’s command was on hand for the arraignment.
Detectives arrested the pair after questioning them at length and searching their house, where Murrieta Police Lt. Tony Conrad described the living conditions as “extremely unsanitary.” He said 11 dogs, four cats and two fish were impounded by animal control officers.
Whitten was awarded primary custody of his son several years ago after divorcing the child’s mother, who reportedly suffered from a “mental disorder.”
The defendants were arraigned before Riverside County Superior Court Judge Mark Mandio, who scheduled a felony settlement conference for the pair on Oct. 6 at the Southwest Justice Center in Murrieta.
Neither Whitten, a Texas native who enlisted in the Navy in January 2009, or Johnson, a native of Valley Center, has any record of prior felony or misdemeanor convictions in Riverside County.