Just hours after a news conference heralding his arrest, Santa Ana police Wednesday released the man they had called a suspect in the abduction and slaying of a 9-year-old schoolgirl.
Jose Antonio Gonzalez, 27, of Garden Grove was released Wednesday afternoon after friends substantiated his story that he was not at the street corner where Nadia Puente was kidnaped Monday as she walked home from Diamond Elementary School, Santa Ana Police Capt. James L. Dittman said.
Gonzalez was released about 2:30 p.m., less than 5 hours after officers arrested him as he left his apartment and got into his car. Police announced his arrest at an 11 a.m. news conference, saying that a wealth of physical evidence linked Gonzalez to Nadia’s slaying.
Although he was released, police said they have not eliminated Gonzalez as a suspect in the girl’s death. Police also said they have no other suspects in the tragic crime.
The fourth-grader’s body was found early Tuesday morning, about 11 hours after her abduction, stuffed in a trash bin near the Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles.
Although police originally believed that she had been strangled, an autopsy Wednesday determined that death was caused by asphyxia due to chest compression. The chest apparently was compressed against a solid object, according to the report by the Los Angeles County coroner’s office. There also was evidence of sexual molestation, a coroner’s office spokesman said, but he did not elaborate.
Police said Wednesday that they believe that Nadia’s abductor lured her into his vehicle, described by witnesses as a small silver car with black stripes on the sides, by posing as a teacher who needed help with his books. Dittman said a man “had approached other (children) the same day, using the same ruse.”
Dittman said Gonzalez is a waiter who worked until 2 p.m. on the day of the abduction, “but that’s not his alibi.”
Dittman would not reveal where Gonzalez said he was at the time of the abduction. But he said there were “multiple people who were with him” and added that friends who were with Gonzalez when he was arrested “voluntarily came to the police station” to corroborate his alibi.
Still, Dittman said, “we have to do some additional work on his alibi,” adding that police “haven’t ruled him out completely” as a suspect in Nadia’s slaying.
Police spokesman Lt. Robert Chavez described Gonzalez as “cooperative” during his questioning at the police station.
‘Very Confident’ in Morning
At the morning news conference, Police Chief Paul M. Walters said he was “very, very confident that this is the person that perpetrated this crime.”
Dittman in the afternoon press conference defended the department’s earlier arrest, saying the earlier evidence “was so strong in pointing to Mr. Gonzalez . . . we would have been derelict not to” arrest him.
Police also defended their highly publicized announcement of Gonzalez’s arrest. It was important to let people know that a suspect had been arrested “to relax the fear” in the community, Dittman said.
At the Wednesday afternoon conference, police released a composite drawing of the suspect that differs slightly from the original description of the man seen by other schoolchildren when he lured Nadia into his car. The earlier description was of a Latino man with short, dark, curly hair and a goatee. The new drawing shows a clean-shaven man with straight hair and feathery bangs. The discrepancy, Dittman explained, is the result of police dealing with “multiple witnesses with numerous descriptions.”
As for the release of Gonzalez, Dittman said the police are “not at all” back to the beginning point in their investigation.
Police have collected physical evidence from among the crime scenes, but they would not elaborate on whether the evidence was from the abduction or murder scenes, or from the Griffith Park site where Nadia’s body was found. They would not say whether fingerprints were obtained from the trash can.
Gonzalez Car Impounded
Dittman said police have impounded Gonzalez’s car, which is silver with black stripes. It matches the color and size and has the same number of doors as the vehicle described by witnesses to Nadia’s abduction, police said. They said they have not
ruled out the possibility that someone else was driving his car.
At the Puente home Wednesday, 20 friends and family members squeezed into the living room of the mint green house to watch the 5 p.m. news broadcasts chronicling the flip-flopping case. They were silent as Gonzalez’s release was announced. Some shook their heads.
Nadia’s parents, Sara and Armando Puente, were too upset to talk.
The family initially had been heartened by Gonzalez’s arrest in the morning. “We know it won’t bring Nadia back, but it was a relief,” said Barbara Arreola, Nadia’s aunt. The family did not want the ongoing torment of seeing Nadia’s case unsolved, like that of Patricia Lopez, she said.
Patricia, also 9, disappeared nearly 2 years ago, not far from where Nadia was abducted, and was later found slain. No suspects have been arrested in the Lopez case, and police have said they are investigating whether the two murders, which have both similarities and differences, are related.
Gonzalez did not immediately return Wednesday to his apartment in the 100-unit complex where he lives with several roommates.
One of the roommates, Ismael Bobadilla, 21, said Gonzalez told him in a telephone call Wednesday afternoon that he would not return to the apartment that night “because of the police and reporters.” He said Gonzalez might be away for 2 days and possibly was staying with cousins in Downey.
Wife, Family in Mexico
Another roommate, Francisco Urena, said Gonzalez did not show up at the apartment Tuesday, the day Nadia’s body was found, until about 9 p.m., and he did not know Gonzalez’s whereabouts before then. He said Gonzalez works as a waiter at a Mexican restaurant in either Costa Mesa or Santa Ana.
Urena’s brother, Humberto, who used to live at the apartment, said Gonzalez is married and has no children, but his wife and family live in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Humberto Urena said he did not “think that (Gonzalez) had anything to do with this (the slaying),” and that Gonzalez had never shown abnormal behavior towards children.
“No. Never have I seen anything like that. He’s never done anything like that. This is my good friend,” he said.
Another roommate, also named Jose Gonzalez but not related, said he and his roommates are “scared.”
“He (Jose Antonio Gonzalez) is a good person. He’s never caused any problems,” said the roommate, who did not give his name.
A neighbor who asked not to be identified described Gonzalez as “nice,” adding that Gonzalez sometimes would translate for him when he needed to talk with Spanish-speaking residents.
Of the girl’s slaying, the neighbor said, “I knew right away he couldn’t have done it.”
At the time of Gonzalez’s arrest, a special task force of officers had worked 43 hours straight, combing a 10-mile circle around the intersection of Greenville and Pomona streets, the site of Nadia’s disappearance, for witnesses and evidence, and to set up a command post near the girl’s house. Police also set up a bilingual hot line for anyone to call with information. Police had received about 20 calls including what they described as “critical information” in the case by mid-morning Wednesday, Dittman said. The hot line, (714) 647-5495, remains open.
Police Efforts Praised
Santa Ana City Councilwoman Patricia A. McGuigan praised the police efforts at the afternoon news conference, adding that she had been at the police command post Tuesday when word came in that the body in Griffith Park was Nadia’s. The officers’ faces, she said, were filled with pain.
Two trust funds have been set up for the Puente family, which is unable to pay for Nadia’s burial costs. Nadia’s father is a welder, and her mother works as a receptionist.
One trust fund, set up through Diamond Elementary School, has been established through the Bank of America branch at 16192 Harbor Blvd., Fountain Valley.
The other was established by Luckow Circuit Breakers in Santa Ana, which employs Nadia’s mother. Owner Ted Luckow said contributions can be mailed to the Puente Family Memorial Fund at the business, 2708 S. Grand Ave., Santa Ana, Calif. 92708, or at the Wells Fargo Bank, 24791 Alicia Parkway, Laguna Hills, Calif. 92653.
“She’s like family here,” Luckow said of 27-year-old Sara Puente. “I can’t tell you what this (Nadia’s death) has done to the people working here.”
Times staff writers Jeff Mitchell and David Reyes contributed to this story.