- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 2, 2015

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - The trial of an Albuquerque stepfather accused in the abuse death of a boy whose case raised alarm over the state’s handling of child welfare investigations began Wednesday with a police officer testifying that the defendant appeared to show little concern for the 9-year-old, even as paramedics tried to revive him.

The defense, meanwhile, argued that evidence would show Omaree Varela was killed by his mother, and that the stepfather had nothing to do with the boy’s death in 2013.

“In an attempt to seek justice for Omaree, a wide net was cast,” defense attorney Tom Clark said in opening statements. “The problem when wide nets are cast is innocent people get caught up.”

Stephen Causus, 43, is charged with child abuse resulting in death, tampering with evidence, bribery of a witness and other counts.

His wife, Synthia Varela-Casaus, is expected to stand trial separately.

Court documents show that she initially told authorities Omaree was pushed off a toy horse by his sister. Later, she told police she knocked him into a door, and after he fell, stomped and kicked him while he was unconscious.

The boy’s death was one of seven attributed to child abuse in the state in 2013, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services statistics. Revelations that officials had received reports on at least three prior occasions that Omaree may have been abused but failed to remove him from a dangerous situation cast a spotlight on the case.

Gov. Susana Martinez, a former prosecutor, reviewed the investigation before making several policy changes. One included requiring the state Children, Youth and Families Department to give police access to its records so officers could have more information when responding to reports of abuse.

In opening statements at the trial, prosecutor Wesley Jensen detailed severe internal bleeding that medical examiners say Omaree suffered on the day he was killed. He also described injuries that pointed to abuse over time - lacerations on his scalp and eyebrow, three burn scars on his chest, and bruising on his groin, back and shins.

Police Sgt. Jim Edison and Officer Katherine Wright testified that they were dispatched to the home on Dec. 27, 2013. Causus answered the door and sent each to a back bedroom where they found Omaree on the foot of the bed. His mother was also in the room with her two other children but remained on the phone. Causus didn’t follow, according to the testimony.

“I found it very odd that neither one asked ever about his condition,” Wright testified. “They didn’t seem upset or wanting to see him at any given time.”

Edison, the first officer to arrive, immediately began searching for a pulse, he said.

“Hey, buddy?” he’s heard saying repeatedly to Omaree on lapel camera footage shown to jurors.

When police questioned Causus, he said he had been with a friend nearby and returned to the house after his wife called frantically saying the boy was unconscious. He attempted to revive the child, he said.

Jensen said Causus could not remember his friend’s last name or find the exact time of his wife’s incoming call on his cellphone.

Lawyers on both sides said Omaree’s sister, now 6, will be a key witness via a video monitor at the trial.

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