In one photo, an 8- or 9-year-old Synthia Varela is dressed in a Brownie uniform, a beret atop her head, hair braided neatly to the side.
Other photos from the same era show her at her dining room table, pondering homework; gleefully sitting inside a vintage toy pedal car; relaxing along a mountain lake in Switzerland; and standing among ruins in Jordan. The photos of this seemingly happy child were taken when Synthia was about the same age as her son, Omaree Varela at the time he died allegedly at the hands of his mother – now Synthia Varela-Casaus.
A young Synthia Varela grew up in a middle-class family in the Northeast Heights with professional parents. The family lived overseas for a while and traveled extensively, affording Synthia and an older sister a larger world view.
As she got older, Synthia’s world shrank as her drug addictions grew. Last December, the 38-year-old mother of four was arrested for Omaree’s death and commented while being led away by police: “I was disciplining him and I kicked him the wrong way. It was an accident.”
The autopsy on Omaree, however, indicates the boy was savagely beaten. He had multiple injuries and his body bore signs of previous abuse.
In the months since his death, the Journal has learned that:
- Omaree was born while his mother was in prison on drug trafficking charges;
- Biological father Christopher Clewis, no stranger to the criminal justice system, claimed Synthia shut him out of the boy’s life;
- Synthia’s current husband, Steve Casaus, recently arrested for drug possession, has a long criminal history and, according to a 911 recording, was verbally abusive toward Omaree;
- The Children, Youth and Families Department, as well as the Albuquerque Police Department, missed opportunities to remove Omaree from, or prevent Omaree from returning to, his abusive home environment. CYFD has confirmed that there were nine referrals concerning Omaree or his family, but only two could be substantiated; and
- Before Omaree was born, Synthia gave her father and stepmother custody of her much older first-born son who, in contrast to Omaree, led a normal and apparently happy life. He sports a tattoo that reads: “Truly Blessed.”
What went wrong?
Contemplating why Synthia – a once “very happy child” who was offered so many opportunities – chose a path in life that brought her to such a dark place is an exercise her stepmother says she has engaged in often since Omaree’s death. Part of the answer lies in “abandonment issues” Synthia has harbored since her father and biological mother divorced soon after Synthia was born in 1975, she says.
The father began raising the two girls with the help of his mother – the girls’ paternal grandmother. Synthia and her sister seldom saw their mother after that, she said.
The father and the girls’ now stepmother met in 1976 when they both worked as engineering technicians for the Army Corps of Engineers. They began dating about 1981, when Synthia was 6 and her sister was 11. They married in 1983, the same year their government jobs took them to Saudi Arabia.
The children went along, a family adventure that allowed them to live in and experience another culture for a couple of years. Family life was good, and there were other excursions, including vacations to Jordan, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Spain, Greece, Amsterdam, Italy, Hawaii, Singapore and Hong Kong.
“I think the girls appreciated it and understood how lucky they were to have those cultural experiences,” she said.
Back in Albuquerque, the girls were raised as “not particularly strict” Catholics, but they did go to church regularly and attended public schools. Her stepmother said Synthia had always been a high-energy child with a willful and independent streak, “a rebellious nature” and a penchant for “questioning authority.”
In high school, those character traits led to “behavior problems.” Synthia got kicked out of Sandia High School, then La Cueva. At age 15, she ran away from home, was picked up by police, and placed in group homes in Albuquerque and Santa Rosa. “She fled those places, too, and eventually ended up in the juvenile detention center,” said her stepmother.
“My husband went to juvenile court all the time, trying to stay on top of it. Synthia wasn’t yet 18, and we wanted to get her into the right environment to get her help, but, by the time she was in the D-home, she was already pregnant.”
Synthia turned 18 in June 1993 and she was released from juvenile detention in October, just before her son was born.
Also by this time, Synthia had begun accumulating a lengthy list of arrests that over the years has come to include shoplifting, disorderly conduct, concealing identity, failure to appear in court, contempt of court, failure to comply with the conditions of her probation, aiding illegal activity, multiple arrests for prostitution, and a host of drug-related arrests for such things as possession, distribution and trafficking.
Not all the cases resulted in convictions and many were dismissed, but a printout of her Bernalillo County Person History Report, generated by the Metropolitan Detention Center, fills 28 pages.
Both Synthia’s father and older sister declined comment for this story.
Her public defender, Todd Farkas, said that his office hasn’t yet received all the information and evidence from the state and state agencies relating to the case against Synthia and the death of her son. “It’s important to remember that these are allegations only and she is innocent until proven guilty.”
He further said that “based on early investigation and background research,” he expects issues to emerge concerning “the physical facts of Omaree’s injury and death; serious mental and physical conditions affecting Synthia’s behavior; improper police extraction of a so-called ‘confession’ from a mentally and emotionally vulnerable woman”; and other matters and mitigating circumstances linked to his client’s case.
Her stepmother summed up the root cause of Synthia’s bad choices and destructive lifestyle in one word: “Meth.”
“It just ruined her life. She hung around meth dealers and pimps. That became her whole life. There were a few months when she’d get sober and we’d be in contact again, but then she’d go back to using meth and disappear.”
Shortly after her oldest son was born, Synthia began living with an Albuquerque man, Alan Waseta, also 18, and a known drug dealer, police said at the time.
In February 1994, officers raided the home while Synthia was preparing a bottle to feed her baby. According to newspaper stories and Bernalillo County Sheriff’s incident reports, as deputies entered the home’s front door, Waseta grabbed a briefcase, pushed Synthia out the back door with him, then exchanged gunfire with a deputy. Waseta was struck in the torso and fell on top of Synthia. He was taken to the hospital in critical condition, had surgery and survived.
The briefcase contained money, drugs and a gun. Inside the home, officers found more drugs and weapons, including a submachine gun – and the uninjured baby.
Synthia was also taken to the hospital, where doctors examined her, and found she had numerous burns and other marks. She eventually conceded that Waseta abused her.
Waseta was later sentenced to one year in prison, five years on probation and ordered into a two-year residential drug treatment program.
The baby was immediately taken into CYFD custody. Fearful she would never see her son again, Synthia agreed to have the child placed in foster care with her father and stepmother until they could formally adopt him.
It was something Synthia came to regret for the rest of her life, said her stepmother. Synthia had three more children, Omaree being the oldest of that trio. Steve Casaus is not the father of any of the children, although he was married to Synthia and in prison at the time the two younger ones were born, the stepmother said.
“Synthia always regretted her decision to give up (her first-born child) and she hated us for it. Because of that, she was careful to never give up control of the other kids.”
Children as collateral damage
As her drug addiction ebbed and flowed, she would agree to place the kids with family or friends acting as guardians. If the guardians got too attached or attempted to make the placement more permanent, “she would rush in and reclaim the kids” – something she learned she had a legal right to do.
“When he was 5, Omaree lived with Synthia’s older sister for about seven months. The cops came in the middle of the night and took him out of his bed. Synthia wanted him back. Her whole thing was control. Later, she did the same thing to that Essie woman.”
Essie Sotelo was an older woman who had befriended Synthia, and began taking care of Omaree and, later, his younger sister when Synthia failed to return home for extended periods of time and care for the kids herself. In September 2009, CYFD’s Protective Services Division recommended that Sotelo remain as guardian of the two kids. Synthia subsequently gave Sotelo a letter granting her permission to take the children to Phoenix, where they were going to live with Sotelo and her daughter, Shana Smith.
In March 2011, two months after they moved to Phoenix, a CYFD caseworker contacted Sotelo and said Synthia wanted her children back and they were to be returned to a CYFD office in Albuquerque. The family complied.
Over the years, Synthia would periodically show up on the doorstep of her father’s and stepmother’s home asking for money, “or she’d go to the neighbors’ homes and make up stories about how she needed money for daycare, and promising them that me and her dad would pay them back later,” said the stepmother. Synthia usually came without Omaree or his siblings and was deceptive about where the children were. “She was a pathological liar. It was just constant.”
The stepmother said she only recently got to see Synthia’s two younger children for the first time. After Omaree’s death, they were removed from the home where they lived with their mother and Steve Casaus, and are currently in CYFD custody.
Casaus got out of prison in 2010, where he had been incarcerated on a multitude of charges, including drug trafficking and possession, and transfer of stolen vehicles.
While trafficking in drugs was part of their criminal history, the stepmother said she can’t recall that Synthia or Casaus ever held a job. The family did, however, get some public assistance, the stepmother said. Synthia had gotten Omaree qualified for Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, and the family received food stamps and were on other programs, though she wasn’t sure what those were.
“So he (Casaus) gets out (of prison) and all of a sudden they’re one big happy family,” the stepmother said. “That’s when they rented that house on Comanche” – the house where Omaree Varela was found cold and unresponsive by police after allegedly being stomped to death by his mother.
“Do you know what it’s like to sit in a funeral home making burial arrangements for a 9-year-old child? It’s the most horrible thing we’ve ever had to do. I think about it all the time. I wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning asking myself, ‘How the hell did this happen?’ ”