CHEROKEE COUNTY, Ga.,None - An apartment maintenance worker accused of killing a 7-year-old girl appeared before a Cherokee County judge under heightened security on Thursday.
Twenty-year-old Ryan Brunn wore a bulletproof vest and shackles as he walked into a courtroom filled to capacity. Brunn was arrested on Wednesday and is accused of kidnapping Jorelys Rivera, binding, gagging, stabbing and raping her before stuffing her body in a Dumpster.
“Do you understand what you’re charged with? Two charges here, one is the offense of murder, the other is false statements,” Judge Frank Mills asked Brunn, who only nodded his response.
Authorities told Channel 2’s Tom Regan there are concerns about Brunn’s safety because of community outrage over the crime.
“He’s in a room by himself at the jail,” said Lt. Jay Baker. Baker told Regan that he’s unaware of any specific threats against Brunn.
Brunn’s attorney said his client is emotionally shaken.
“We got the case yesterday. It’s obviously a very tragic case, a very serious case. So just give us time to do our job,” Daran Burns told Mills.
Some residents of the apartment complex where the killing took place attended the hearing.
“It’s unbelievable man, how something like this could happen. My cousin was her best friend and it tears me to see my cousin in tears every day,” said Jesus Palimino.
Rivera children returned to mother
Earlier Thursday, a judge ordered the state to return the siblings of Jorelys Rivera to their mother, Joselinne.
Department of Family and Child Service workers took the children into custody over the weekend because of a lack of supervision. Channel 2’s Lori Geary first reported this week that DFCS has a 100-page file on the family.
Newly-released documents show Jorelys Rivera was reported missing twice before her murder last week, and that DFCS workers had investigated "inadequate supervision" allegations against her mother.
Records obtained by Channel 2 from the Department of Human Services show that in February, the 7-year-old girl's school called DFCS to report that on at least two occasions the mother called the school, "stating the student did not get off the bus and was missing."
The report later states, "Both times the student was found within 20 to 30 minutes at the neighbor's apartment."
Another time, the school bus driver took Jorelys back to school, noting "parent was again not at the bus stop."
DFCS also notes another allegation of "inadequate supervision" and "inadequate medical care", but the details are blacked out in the heavily-redacted report. Still, workers found no signs of child abuse.
The department closed the case after requiring Joselinne Rivera to sign a safety plan stating she understood the need to ensure an adult was around for the child. No follow-up was required since policy requires additional check-ups if there are signs of abuse or maltreatment. That could change, in light of this case.
"Instead of putting a safety plan in place with the family and not following up, we would look to follow up if that was appropriate in a particular case," said Lisa Marie Shekell, Director of Legislative Affairs and Communications for the Department of Human Services.
Shekell said cases involving children's deaths, where DFCS has had previous involvement with their families, are reviewed to search for lessons learned, but so far, a review has turned up no mistakes.
"There is nothing that DFCS has found that would indicate that DFCS needed to correct any of its actions," Shekell told Channel 2’s Manual Bojorquez. "However, I will say that there are lessons learned from this case and others and we will apply those to our policies moving forward."
That could also include requiring more thorough assessments upon first contact with a family, including their financial situation, to give case workers a chance to provide additional solutions for challenges.
Joselin Rivera worked the overnight shift at a poultry-processing plant. Someone close enough to the situation to be interviewed by state investigators said, "I know there wasn't enough care."
The children’s father, Santos Torres, flew in from Puerto Rico for the custody hearing, asking the court to return the two little girls.
“The family very much wants these two children to have as much of a normal life that they can, given all the terrible things that have happened,” said Torres’ attorney John Connolly.
Family members gave Channel 2’s Sophia Choi home video of Jorelys, showing her playing with her family sister and singing. Joselinne Rivera told Choi she is overwhelmed by the outpouring of support.
DFCS will continue to review the case, for possible changes in policy.
GBI continues investigation
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation spent several hours gathering evidence at the apartment complex where the killing happened. Computer specialists used high tech scanning equipment to create a 360 degree 3-D picture of various parts of the complex so agents can verify witness statements.
Residents said it’s hard to move on with police always outside their homes.
“Always a reminder. When I come home late at night from work, it’s a reminder too. It’s really just horrible.
Brunn family reacts to arrest
In Dahlonega, Ryan Brunn's family remains convinced he did not kill Jorelys Rivera.
"We think the whole thing is crazy," Steven Brunn, Ryan's brother told Channel 2’s Richard Elliot. "It just doesn't seem like him, and we're crossing our fingers and praying that maybe they probably got the wrong guy."
Steven Brunn said he was on the telephone with Ryan just moments before agents arrested him.
"Last time I talked to him was about five minutes before they arrested him," said Brunn. "He just told me he had to go, he had to go. I turn around and next thing I know, I look at my TV, and they're handcuffing him."
Brunn confirmed all five of his siblings were adopted in New York City. Records show Karen Ann Whiteley adopted the unrelated boys then moved south to Lumpkin County while they were still small.
"I do remember New York," said Brunn. "We moved up here thinking everything was going to be a little bit better, but moving to Georgia's been a nightmare."
The family lived in a home on Briar Patch Road before neighbors said they abandoned it about two months ago. Brunn confirmed they were homeschooled and that Ryan Brunn earned his GED in Virginia. He said Ryan moved to the Canton apartment complex to work about a month ago.
"My mom is doing all right," said Brunn. "She's still in shock. She cannot believe that her son would do this, and she sticks to her story right now and believes he did not do this."
Channel Two Action News filed open records requests with the Lumpkin County Sheriff's Office and learned Ryan
Brunn did not have any criminal arrests. But Steven and brother Conner Brunn do. Deputies arrested Steven Brunn two years ago on seven counts of theft, and they arrested Conner on shoplifting charges. Records showed when he tried to run away from authorities, he slipped and fell down a 150-foot embankment at a neighboring gold mine and suffered critical injuries.
Steven Brunn remains convinced of his brother's innocence, and said he is upset that so many people seem to have already convicted Ryan.
"Between the messages on Facebook, I feel like society needs to just chill out a little bit," said Brunn. "I understand there's a tragedy going on, but we do not know that he is guilty yet."