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Eight months later, few answers in young girl’s death in Cortez

Annika Sandoval and her father, Brian Sandavol. (Montrose Daily Press)
Five-year-old died in home March 29; no arrests made

More than eight months after the suspicious death of a 5-year-old girl in Montezuma County, no arrests have been made, and charges have not been filed in the case.

Annika Mae Sandoval, the daughter of Brian Sandoval of Montrose, was found unresponsive, lying in bed with her mother, Rachel Leonard, on March 29 in Leonard’s Cortez home.

Leonard was taken to St. Mary’s Medical Center in Grand Junction, incoherent, according to law enforcement.

Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin at the time began investigating the death as a homicide, telling the Daily Press, “It might not end up being that way. You have to start off with the most serious and keep all your options with wide vision and not be tunnel-visioned about anything.”

Last week, the sheriff said the case may not go anywhere at all.

“There hasn’t been any movement on it, and I don’t know that the DA will do anything with it,” he said.

Nowlin added that his investigators have had multiple meetings with District Attorney Matthew Margeson and that the sheriff was unsure whether any charges would be filed.

Mar 31, 2022
Child’s death under investigation by Montezuma County sheriff, CBI

Despite the lack of charges, the Sheriff’s Office and the DA are treating the investigation as “active and ongoing,” Margeson said last week, declining to comment further except to say the Sheriff’s Office had yet to complete its work on the case.

Cause of death

As of Tuesday, a cause of death had not been determined, Montezuma County Coroner George Deavers said.

“There’s about two cases a year where you can’t determine a cause of death,” he said. One example, he said, is when an elderly person dies unattended at home. He also said sometimes there are no signs when someone suffocates.

“If someone shoves a pillow over someone’s face, if they’re big enough to struggle, it will show signs,” he said, adding that if someone is too small, they may not be able to struggle hard enough.

Asked if he thought the girl’s death was suspicious, he said, “Five-year-olds don’t just die every day, so it’s suspicious, yes.”

The undetermined nature of her death could have to do with why no charges have been filed yet.

“The autopsy doesn’t show anything,” Nowlin said. “With all of the possibilities, there’s no medical reason given for how she died.”

A second pathologist is looking into the cause of death and has been for more than a month. Deavers said he’s unsure when the other pathologist’s results could come back.

Deavers also said outside evidence could play a factor in whether he determines a cause of death, and he’s been working with investigators throughout the investigation.

Grieving family wants answers

Following Annika’s death, friends of Brian Sandoval launched a crowdfunding page to curtail funeral costs. The community support was helpful, but the whole process was a whirlwind, Sandoval said.

“I never dealt with anything like this in my life. When I went up there, they told me I needed to find a funeral home,” he said.

Annika Sandoval (Montrose Daily Press)

He is still grieving and wants answers.

“So was (Leonard) trying to commit suicide or what?” he said. “And she was in bed with our daughter. This sucks because I feel like (the investigators) aren’t doing anything.”

He said the night before his daughter died, he and Leonard had an argument involving Annika meeting Sandoval’s new girlfriend, now wife.

“She said I broke a promise with her (about not introducing Annika to significant others). That was the day I dropped her off in Telluride,” Sandoval said.

Later that night, he said, the two texted without argument, but the next morning, when Leonard’s parents found Annika dead and Leonard incoherent, he texted his child’s mother again with no response.

“It wasn’t until 1:30 (p.m.) that I heard,” he said. “They called the cops at 9:30 or 10:30, and I didn’t find out what was going on or that anything was wrong until 1:30.”

More than anything, Sandoval said he wants answers and justice.

“I just want justice for my daughter. That’s it. It’s kind of weird to me there’s not enough evidence for them to do anything right now,” he said. “It just sucks, you know. She was 5 years old. She’s innocent. She was healthy. I just want to find out what happened to her.”

An attempt to reach Leonard by phone was unsuccessful.

This story was provided to The Journal courtesy of Justin Tubbs, managing editor of the Montrose Daily Press.