By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
"One of the reasons this is still such a problem is that nobody wants to believe this can happen to them," Fennell says. "Believe me, it can. Most of these people are caring, doting parents who made a terrible, terrible mistake they have to live with for their rest of their lives. There's a temptation to demonize them because that makes the tragedy easier to understand, maybe, but I work with many of these people. They are good people, good parents who are in hell wherever they go, whatever they do, whether they go to prison or not."
Antonio Balta sits against a blank wall in the stark prison meeting room, near a dusty old fan. He can hear the echo of other inmates howling in the yard. Now 33 years old, he's 5-foot-9 and barely 150 pounds. Baggy, ash-blue prison scrubs hang on his slouched frame.
Asked to describe his early life, he says, in a soft voice, "Things have always been bad."
When Balta was a boy in Peru, his father was in the military and scarcely around. His mother cleaned houses. As a teenager, he baby-sat his infant cousins. His parents sent him to America — illegally — in 1993, when he was 16, to live with his uncle, a jockey. They hoped he'd have a better life away from the streets of Lima.
Balta says he worked odd jobs at horse tracks as his uncle followed the racing circuits from Florida to California to New York. At Belmont Park in New York, his first job with racehorses was as a "hot walker," the guy who cools the horses down after a race.
Eventually, his family settled near the track in Saratoga Springs, New York. At 20, Balta got his then-girlfriend, Jenny, pregnant. They married, had a second child, and separated soon after. He rarely saw the kids or paid child support.
In early 2002, Balta met Michelle Bashford, an American girl who was at the track with her father. Balta was betting that day — and winning. They went out for margaritas and hit it off. Within weeks, they were sharing an apartment. In November, Michelle announced she was pregnant.
They debated an abortion. He worried about money but missed having a baby around — the smells, the feel of the soft skin. "I told myself I could get another job and support this baby," he says. "Plus she could work a little, so everything was going to be all right. She was so happy. I'd never seen her that happy. She was crying.
"Michelle is a good woman," he says as he stares at the floor. "She has a good heart."
The day Veronika was born — May 21, 2003 — Balta had gone to work. When he'd left in the morning, Michelle wasn't having any pains. When he called that afternoon, Michelle's father answered. The baby was on the way: "You better hurry!"
Balta sped to the hospital. In the lobby gift shop, he stopped to buy the small pink bunny with I LOVE YOU embroidered on the chest. When he got to the room, he learned he'd missed the birth by about 20 minutes. The baby was sleeping. He leaned down to his daughter and whispered, "I'm sorry I didn't make it to meet you. I didn't know you were going to come early."
He worked extra hours during Saratoga's horse season while Michelle stayed home with Veronika. At the end of the racing season, his boss invited him to work in Kentucky. Michelle, who'd never lived outside of New York, was excited at the prospect of traveling. They packed everything they owned into Balta's '96 Pontiac Grand Prix and set off across the United States. Life was filled with promise.
Balta did a good job in Kentucky and was invited to work with the team in Florida. Michelle was elated. She'd always wanted to live by the beach.
They drove to Hallandale Beach on December 3, 2003. The only hotel room they could afford had roaches crawling out of the refrigerator, so the first two nights in South Florida, the whole family slept in the Grand Prix.
After Balta began working at Gulfstream Park, the family rented a $300-a-month efficiency in Hallandale, right across from the track. Michelle got a job waiting tables in the track restaurant. They couldn't afford daycare; when both parents worked, Balta took Veronika with him to the stables. He would park her stroller outside each stall and talk to her as he brushed the horses. He sang to her, calling her "mami" — short for mami chula, Spanish for "pretty mommy."
In March, the Florida racing season was ending and the couple planned their trip back to New York. They decided they'd drive up directly after the Florida Derby.
The night before they were scheduled to leave, Michelle suggested they drive into the night and skip the last day of work. "I have a bad feeling," she said.
Balta calmed her down. The Florida Derby is the biggest horserace of the year in the Sunshine State. The track would be busy. She'd make a lot of money.
"It's just one day," he remembers saying.