Crime & Courts

She killed a Kansas mother to steal her newborn; now she will pay for her crimes

Wichita newborn Sophia Gonzales, with her mother and father in November 2016. Her mother, 27-year-old Laura Abarca, was found shot to death in her Wichita apartment on Nov. 17, 2016.
Wichita newborn Sophia Gonzales, with her mother and father in November 2016. Her mother, 27-year-old Laura Abarca, was found shot to death in her Wichita apartment on Nov. 17, 2016. Special to the Eagle

Sophia Gonzales was just six days old when she vanished from her west Wichita home on Nov. 17, 2016. That day someone came in and killed her mother with a single gunshot to the forehead.

When her father came home to the gruesome scene, he had no clue where she’d gone.

The disappearance prompted a frantic search that drew national attention. Police and the public desperately wanted to know: What happened to ‘Baby Sophia?’

Less than two years later, the little girl is “growing as fast as weeds” in her family’s care and is doing well, her uncle said. And Yesenia Sesmas, the woman responsible for kidnapping her after faking a pregnancy for months, was convicted Tuesday of first-degree premeditated murder and other crimes following a week-long trial.

“She’s a happy baby,” Jose Abarca said of his niece on Tuesday afternoon after hearing Sedgwick County District Court Judge Terry Pullman announce that a jury had reached a guilty verdict in the case that left his younger sister, 27-year-old Laura Abarca, dead and Sophia missing.

He and his family are helping Sophia’s father raise her, he said.

“We really wanted to go through this trial and have justice. And I think that happened today,” Jose Abarca said. Right now, he said, his family was “just really trying to process everything.”

“We’re just being tough. Just trying to be there for each other.”

Sesmas, 36, will be sentenced July 13 on three counts: first-degree premeditated and intentional murder, kidnapping and interference with parental custody. She faces life in prison plus the possibility of additional time.

If she’s given the maximum sentence allowed for her crimes under Kansas law, Sesmas wouldn’t get out of prison for at least 50 years.

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Detective Michelle Tennyson describes her interrogation of Yesenia Sesmas. Sesmas is charged in the Nov. 17 shooting death of Laura Abarca, 27; and the kidnapping of Abarca's 6-day-old daughter. (March 16, 2017)

According to evidence presented at trial, Sesmas faked a pregnancy for months after she lost her own unborn child then drove from Texas to Wichita after learning that 27-year-old Abarca, who was a friend and former co-worker, had given birth. She shot Abarca once in the forehead while the women were alone with the baby in Abarca’s west Wichita apartment.

Sesmas then tucked Sophia into a diaper bag, carried her to her truck, strapped the baby into a car seat that she’d brought and went back to Texas.

Abarca's fiance discovered her dead and Sophia missing when he arrived home from work that afternoon.

Less than two days later, Sophia — who became known publicly as "Baby Sophia" during the ensuing frenzy and an intensive search that involved the FBI — was found healthy and unharmed in Sesmas’ Dallas home when a police SWAT team raided it. Sesmas became the prime suspect after authorities found cellphone messages the women swapped the day before and the day of the killing and kidnapping.

At trial, the main issue for jurors was what was going through Sesmas' mind when she went to Abarca's apartment and pulled out a loaded gun:

Did she mean to kill the new mother so she could steal the baby?

Or did the .40-caliber pistol she brought along fire unintentionally?

Prosecutors argued that Sesmas planned the murder and kidnapping. After miscarrying, she lied to family and friends for months about still being pregnant, prepared her home for a newborn, held a baby shower where she accepted gifts and claimed photos of Sophia that she got from Abarca were of her own newly delivered infant.

Sesmas had reached an impasse and "was either going to have to come home with a baby" or explain her lies to those who knew her, Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett told jurors during closing arguments Tuesday.

"When she walked into that apartment on Nov. 17, 2016, there were only two ways for this to end," Bennett said in court.

She went to bed back in Texas thinking "she would wake up and raise that baby and her life would begin," he said.

Sesmas, meanwhile, has maintained that Abarca agreed to give her Sophia after she was born but backed out of the deal at the last minute.

In interviews with investigators and news media, she has said she took the gun to Abarca's apartment only to threaten her into turning over Sophia and that she had no plan to kill her.

This was "unplanned and spontaneous," said public defender Jason Smartt when it was his turn to present closing arguments to the jury.

"She didn't know that it (the gun) was going to fire, and she was surprised when it did," he said, adding that a person who premeditated a killing would try to distance themselves from the crime and wouldn't leave evidence like a shell casing at the scene.

"She didn't intend to kill Laura."

Jurors reached their verdict after deliberating for less than three hours Tuesday. The trial started May 29.

Sesmas remains in the Sedgwick County Jail while she awaits sentencing and the adjudication of another case in which she is charged with aggravated battery and kidnapping. The victims in that case are a Wichita woman who was eight months pregnant at the time and her young children.

Amy Renee Leiker: 316-268-6644, @amyreneeleiker