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Hot Line Brings Tips in Killing of Schoolchild : ‘Quite a Few Calls’ to Police Reported

Times Staff Writers

The search for the killer of 9-year-old Nadia Puente continued Thursday, with Santa Ana police sifting through a combination of physical evidence and new information supplied through a police hot line.

“We’ve received quite a few calls on the hot line overnight,” said police spokeswoman Maureen Thomas, who declined to elaborate about the new information. But she said that tips on the girl’s kidnaping as she walked home from Diamond Elementary School on Monday were being studied by investigators.

The fourth-grader’s body was found early Tuesday morning stuffed in a trash bin near Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles.

Part of the investigation, Thomas said, involves physical evidence, but she did not disclose whether it was found where Nadia was abducted or in the park.

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“I can’t comment. . . . There is physical evidence that does exist,” she said.

Angry at Authorities

Meanwhile, the girl’s parents expressed “frustration and outrage” toward authorities a day after police told them that they had arrested a suspect based on strong evidence, then released him hours later.

“It was kind of like one minute police were telling the mother, ‘He’s our man.’ And they (the parents) were put under the impression that police had very strong evidence. Then the next minute, they let him go,” said Stella Avina of the Adam Walsh Center, which has been speaking on behalf of the Puente family.

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Avina said the girl’s mother is being sedated and the entire family is suffering “a lot of pain.”

“One of the biggest questions they keep asking themselves is: ‘Why?’ Why their beautiful daughter?” Avina said.

The Puente family had to brace itself for another emotional jolt on Thursday, Avina said. The family’s youngest boy, 2-year-old Gustavo, underwent surgery to remove a tube from his chest that was put there in an earlier bone-marrow transplant.

“You can understand that this is an upsetting time for them,” she added.

On Thursday afternoon, Thomas said, police met with members of the Puente family and briefed them on the investigation. The parents declined to comment Thursday evening.

There has been an outpouring of concern for the girl’s family, and an anonymous donor has given them $2,900 to cover Nadia’s funeral expenses, according to Diane Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Santa Ana Unified School District.

Diane Thomas, calling the public support “phenomenal,” said a Riverside woman drove to Diamond school to donate $300 to the Puente family.

“Then the same woman went to a local market, bought groceries for the entire family and left them at the school,” she added.

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Rudy Castruita, superintendent of the Santa Ana district, said that school officials are trying to gain approval for Nadia’s paternal grandfather to enter the United States from Mexico to attend next week’s funeral. So far, he said, they have been unable to arrange it.

A rosary will be said for Nadia by Father Jaime Soto, vicar for the Catholic Hispanic Ministries, at 7 p.m. Tuesday at MacDougall Family Mortuary at 1610 E. 1st St. in Santa Ana.

A Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Our Lady of Guadalupe (Delhi), 541 E. Central Ave. in Santa Ana. Interment will follow at Holy Sepulcher Cemetery in Orange.

At a news conference Thursday in Santa Ana, Adam Walsh Center spokesmen called for special legislation to protect children, suggesting mandatory safety-education programs.

“We need to get away from the idea of the man in the raincoat,” said Lynn Day, another Adam Walsh spokeswoman. “They (abductors) come in suits and ties.”

Robert L. Richardson, president of the Santa Ana Unified School District Board of Trustees, said he is certain that the district intends to take another look at its safety program, especially on advising children to say no to strangers.

“Whether it’s role-playing, or bringing police into the classroom, or perhaps a combination, saying no is a message that needs to be repeated even to the point of redundancy,” Richardson said.

According to eyewitnesses, police said, the abductor may have told Nadia that he was a teacher who needed help in carrying some books when he lured her inside his vehicle, described as a small silver car with black stripes on the sides.

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Police initially issued a description of the suspect, calling him a Latino man with short, dark, curly hair and a goatee. A subsequent composite drawing of the suspect depicted a clean-shaven man with straight hair and bangs.

Jose Antonio Gonzales, 27, of Garden Grove, who was arrested by police Wednesday as a “prime suspect,” later was released after eyewitnesses failed to positively identify him in a police lineup and his alibi was corroborated.

But police, offering little explanation Thursday, refused to clear Gonzales as a suspect.

“We’re saying he’s not a primary suspect,” Maureen Thomas said, refusing further comment on the ground of jeopardizing the investigation.

The car Gonzalez had been driving, a small, gray two-door Pontiac, was impounded, inspected and then released to him with little explanation.

“We’re not ruling out any vehicle, including his,” Thomas said.

Gonzales could not be reached for comment. But a roommate who asked not to be identified said that Gonzalez went to work Thursday at a Costa Mesa restaurant, returned briefly to their Garden Grove apartment, then left for an undisclosed location.

Santa Ana Police Lt. Bruce Carlson said late Thursday that there were no new developments in the investigation of the girl’s death.

Carlson and another of the department’s community relations officers, Jose Vargas, met with about 30 parents and their children at Diamond school Thursday evening in an effort to allay concerns in the wake of Nadia’s death, a school district spokeswoman said.

Diane Thomas said that psychologists who have been available at the school since Tuesday night met with 270 parents Wednesday to counsel them about the signs that would indicate their children’s unspoken fears and anxieties. She said they counseled another 30 parents during the day Thursday, some of whom were returning for additional help.

“This is good,” because it shows that they are applying the information received Wednesday, she said.

Several funds have been established to help the Puente family. Those interested in contributing can contact Diamond Elementary School, which has established a fund through the Bank of America branch at 16192 Harbor Blvd. in Fountain Valley.

Another was established by Luckow Circuit Breakers in Santa Ana, which employs Nadia’s mother. Owner Ted Luckow said that contributions can be mailed to the Puente Family Memorial Fund at the business, 2708 S. Grand Ave., Santa Ana, Calif. 92708, or to the Wells Fargo Bank, 24791 Alicia Parkway, Laguna Hills, Calif. 92653.


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