Westminster Police Officer Claudia McCarthy soon will return to work after having twin girls on St. Patrick’s Day.
When she does, McCarthy, 33, will work patrol — the assignment she requested in June 2013 after serving, for more than five years, as a detective in the Westminster PD’s Family Protection Unit.
Most police officers will tell you that investigating family crimes, which includes domestic violence and child abuse, is one of the toughest, but also most rewarding, jobs a cop can have.
It was for McCarthy.
Her career as a family crimes detective illustrates the unthinkable things police officers commonly see on the job, and how certain cases can lead to changes — both professionally and personally.
“I think the public really doesn’t think about it because maybe they think we are used to it or that we are cold,” McCarthy said of officers regularly seeing the worst of human behavior — and its effect on victims.
“The sad reality,” McCarthy said, “is that it does affect us.”
Jan. 26, 2013 was the night that profoundly affected McCarthy.
She was off that day, a Saturday, at home with her husband taking care of their 2-year-old son.
Becoming a mother in November 2010 had made part of McCarthy’s job more difficult. Responding to calls of a child who had drowned cut deeper.
McCarthy would ask herself:
What if that were my child?
McCarthy’s sergeant called her that Saturday and told her to head to the University of California Irvine Health Regional Burn Center.
There, an 11-month-old girl was clinging to life with third-degree burns to her legs, calves, feet and buttocks, including blistering on both of her legs and her vaginal area.
Based on the burn patterns, doctors concluded her injuries were consistent with someone repeatedly dipping her into scalding water.
McCarthy showed up at the hospital and interviewed the suspect, Alfred Alexander Hollimon.
Hollimon had a prior strike conviction in 2008 for attempted robbery in Nevada, but nothing in his criminal past rose to the level of savagery he was suspected of committing that night in the Westminster apartment of the baby’s mother.
The mother listed Hollimon as the father on the baby girl’s birth certificate, but it was unclear if he actually was the father, McCarthy said. He shared custody of the girl with the mother.
Hollimon was calm during the interview, McCarthy recalled. He told her the burning was accidental.
Soon, however, McCarthy pieced together what she believed happened that night, and Hollimon was arrested.
For reasons that remain unclear, at around 5:40 p.m. on Jan. 23, 2013, Hollimon filled a bathtub with water and turned it onto a high heat setting, McCarthy’s investigation revealed.
While Hollimon’s mother and his grandparents were in a nearby room, he woke up the 11-month-old, removed her clothing and dipped the lower half of her body in the hot water.
The water was more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
Hollimon then took the baby out of the bathtub and began peeling pieces of her blistered skin from the tip of her toes to the bottom of her kneecaps and disposed of it in a kitchen trash can.
Hollimon’s mother called 911, and the Westminster PD and the Orange County Fire Authority responded.
Staring at the baby in the burn center, all bandaged up and fighting for her life, tore McCarthy apart.
There were no relatives around — just nurses and doctors.
“Seeing her all by herself, in this condition, I can’t tell you how sad it made me feel,” McCarthy said
During emergency treatment, X-rays revealed the baby had suffered fractures in her skull, spine, ribs and an arm.
The baby spent her first birthday in the hospital.
The investigation took its toll on McCarthy.
In June 2013, McCarthy found herself in the agonizing position of telling her sergeant that she wanted to be taken off the Family Protection Unit.
“I bawled my eyes out,” she recalls of the meeting. “It was a tough decision, but it had become too much for me.
“I just wanted out.”
McCarthy was reassigned to patrol – her first duty when she joined the Westminster PD in March 2005.
On March 13, 2014, a very pregnant McCarthy testified before a jury at the West Justice Center in Westminster in the Hollimon case.
In a victim impact statement submitted to the court, the parents in the process of adopting the girl described how she never will be able to feel comfortable wearing clothes like normal girls, or be able to go to the beach without feeling self-conscious.
They also explained the pain that she continues to endure.
Doctors say the victim sustained lifelong scarring and must undergo regular surgeries and skin-graft operations until her body stops growing.
Four days after testifying, McCarthy had her twins.
Four days after that, on March 21, a jury found Hollimon, 24, of Westminster guilty of two felony counts of child abuse, one felony count of mayhem, and a sentencing enhancement for causing great bodily injury to a child under 5.
With his prior strike conviction, Hollimon was sentenced to 25 years and eight months in state prison.
McCarthy said it’s helpful for cops totalk about tough cases, whether it be to co-workers or officers who have training in dealing with traumatic situations.
“Sometimes officers joke with each other at really sad or gruesome scenes because it’s a way of coping with it,” McCarthy said. “We would all go crazy if we didn’t find some kind of humor in things. When it comes to children, though, it really hits home to a lot of officers.”