Michael Branch, 39, appeared in court on Monday for a pretrial hearing, in which a judge determines if there is enough evidence in a case for it to be taken to trial.
Branch pleaded not guilty to a single misdemeanor count of child abuse after the 7-year-old daughter of his girlfriend, Veronda Gladney, fell out of the rear window of their 1999 Lincoln Navigator and onto Interstate 5 while they were driving through the Newhall Pass on July 2.
The girl, Tanunekakah, was killed after being struck by multiple vehicles, according to California Highway Patrol reports.
Gladney is facing two felony charges: one for child abuse and another for vehicular manslaughter. She’s also facing a misdemeanor count of child abuse. Gladney has pleaded not guilty.
Gladney was driving the Navigator and Branch was a passenger when Tanunekakah was killed. Investigators said they believed the 7-year-old girl had not been secured by a seatbelt, car seat or booster, the latter of which is required by state law for any child under the age of 8.
Free to move around, the young girl is thought to have climbed into the back of the vehicle and, just as the SUV headed past Weldon Canyon Road, northbound on the I-5, she is believed to have fallen out of the back window due to it being broken and/or unlocked.
Tanunekakah was killed at approximately 3:40 a.m. after being struck by multiple vehicles, according to a CHP report. The 9-1-1 call that initially reported her death came from one of the drivers who hit her. The caller reported they had struck an unknown stationary object that was blocking the roadway, according to a CHP report.
“The little girl fell out of the vehicle and I don’t think the parents maybe even realized it at first,” said Officer Josh Greengard, spokesman for the CHP Newhall Office. “But CHP did make contact with the mom and her boyfriend after they had returned to the scene.”
Branch’s next court date is on Jan. 11 at the Santa Clarita courthouse for another pretrial hearing.