Sheriff’s deputies searching last week for a missing 7-year-old Newhall girl failed to see her body when they checked the bedroom of a 14-year-old boy who lives five doors away, authorities said Monday. Her body was discovered in the bedroom behind a water bed four days later.
The girl, Sara Nan Hodges, is believed to have died in the teen-ager’s bedroom Thursday afternoon, hours before deputies looked through the house at the outset of a massive search of the rural Santa Clarita Valley.
An autopsy determined Monday that the blond, blue-eyed girl had been strangled. The boy has been arrested on suspicion of murder.
Her decomposing, fully clothed body was found Sunday afternoon by the boy’s landlady, who made the grisly discovery while trying to locate the source of a sickening smell. The boy had set up a fan to blow the odor out an open window and had been sleeping in the room for “a couple of days” since the slaying, according to a sheriff’s homicide detective.
Name Not Released
The boy, whose name was not released because of his age, is expected to be arraigned today in Los Angeles Juvenile Court, authorities said. Because he cannot be tried as an adult, he faces a maximum 11 years in California Youth Authority custody, if convicted.
Relatives of the dead girl recalled Monday that when the search for her was launched last week, her suspected killer, with whom Sara Hodges sometimes rode horses, quickly volunteered.
“He was the first person here, saying what a nice little girl Sara was and asking if there was anything he could do to help,” Sara’s 16-year-old sister, Tisha, said.
Others described the suspect as a loner. Friends said he had moved a few months ago from Florida, where, they said, he had been a accused of committing burglaries.
Sara’s mother, Linda Hodges, questioned why her daughter had died, calling her “a little fighter.”
“She was so intelligent. She could play rummy with the older kids and still beat the pants off them,” she said.
Hodges, in an interview, blamed her daughter’s death on “the way our society treats the mentally ill.”
“It’s the Greyhound therapy of sticking people from one side of the country on a bus to the other side and treating people who only have enough money to pay,” she said.
Sheriff’s officials had no comment on whether the suspect had any history of mental illness.
Nothing Suspicious Found
Sheriff’s Homicide Sgt. David Horton told reporters that deputies had checked the boy’s bedroom Thursday night, shortly after Sara was reported missing but found nothing suspicious there or in other houses that were searched.
The house in which the body was found is owned by Olga Kaczmar, who rents two bedrooms to the accused boy and his mother. It was Kaczmar who let the deputies in to look around, Horton said.
“We were in their houses at the people’s consent . . . not looking for narcotics,” Horton said when asked why the deputies’ search was not more thorough. “We wanted to cause as little disruption as possible.”
The girl’s remains were found in a hard-to-reach, 18-inch-by-18-inch area between a bedroom wall and the headboard of the boy’s water bed, Horton said. The body, he said, showed no obvious signs of violence.
Horton said it is believed that the girl had been killed in the bedroom before she was reported missing late Thursday. He said the boy had subsequently “made a statement” to investigators, but the sergeant would not elaborate.
A visitor to the house on Alderbrook Drive told The Times on Sunday that the boy was sitting on the bed when the girl’s body was found and tearfully denied killing her.
The boy had lived with his father in Florida until February when he moved to Newhall to stay with his mother. Horton said the boy had not been in trouble with the law since moving to California.
Efren Perez, who lives next door to the home where the suspect lived, said Monday that he had seen the boy several times working with a handsaw in the garage. When the boy realized someone was watching him, he quickly shut the door. Perez said he often said hello, but the boy never responded.
“He was very strange,” Perez said.
Mandy Gallion, a seventh-grader who sat next to the suspect in a drafting class at Placerita Junior High, described him as “kind of down all the time, depressed.”
Students at Newhall Elementary School, where Sara had been enrolled in the first grade for about six weeks, were receiving counseling Monday to help them cope with her death.
“We are a close community, and the children care for one another and feel for each other,” said Joyce Wetterau, principal of the school. “Even though she had only been here a short time, she was a member of the family.”
A trust fund is being established by the Hodges to help them pay for funeral expenses.