CROWN POINT | Last Friday, precisely one year after mourners wept before the flower-laden white casket of 2-year-old Jada Justice, the couple accused of murdering the child again were brought to the Lake County Courthouse.
Unlike their stormy joint arraignment a year ago, the couple arrived separately this time, one to witness trial preliminaries and the other presumably to be deposed by the defense as a prosecution witness.
In the year since her arrest, 19-year-old Engelica Castillo has not recanted her story about events leading to the discovery of the child's battered, burnt body in a LaPorte County swamp.
In her statement to police, Castillo said her cousin, Melissa Swiontek, dropped off her daughter, Jada, to stay with Engelica and her boyfriend, 24-year-old Timothy Tkachik, to be potty trained.
Castillo described several days during which the couple visited family members, shopped, paid bills, smoked marijuana, and Tkachik seriously burned himself while lighting a grill.
Out of milk, Castillo said she took Jada along when she went to a gas station in Gary's Glen Park area, where the child was abducted, launching a nine-day, nationwide search by local law enforcement, the FBI, the Lake County Sheriff's helicopter unit, canine units and cable television shows.
Tkachik told police a dramatically different story in which Castillo allegedly became increasingly violent with the child, spanking her, pulling her hair and hitting her in the head with her knuckles while the couple did heroin.
Tkachik depicts himself as having left the room to watch television when Castillo wouldn't be stopped from hitting the child.
Realizing the child wasn't breathing, Tkachik told police he tried CPR and quotes himself saying, "I told you to stop. I told you enough is enough."
Tkachik told police he came up with the abduction story and thought of burning the child's body as a way "to get rid of Jada so they wouldn't get into trouble."
Last Monday, a year to the day after nearly 100 family members, friends and strangers had clasped hands during a prayer vigil for the child's safe return, Tkachik pleaded guilty to two counts of neglect to a dependent, agreeing to testify against Castillo. In exchange, prosecutors dropped murder and battery charges against Tkachik.
In the plea agreement, Tkachik admits for the first time to also beating the child.
In the document, Tkachik states Jada had done things to irritate Castillo, including dumping a package of drink mix and spilling a container of syrup.
He admits to ultimately joining Castillo in beating Jada, delivering several blows to Jada's head and holding the child down while Castillo allegedly repeatedly struck the child with a belt.
Tkachik faces a concurrent prison sentence of between 20 and 50 years when sentenced Sept. 10. With good behavior, he would serve half the sentence.
Meanwhile, court officials, prosecutors and Castillo's defense attorneys continue to work on jury issues in preparation for Castillo's upcoming murder trial, set to begin Aug. 2.
If convicted, Castillo faces a potential sentence of life without parole.