A grieving mother’s cries pierced the calm of a sun-soaked, grassy slope at a cemetery in Orange Wednesday.
“Ay, mi hijita, mi chiquita!” cried Sara Puente, saying her last farewell to her murdered 9-year-old daughter, Nadia. “You were my queen, ay, ay, ay!”
Puente’s cries brought tears to many of the 200 people gathered around the covered grave site at Holy Sepulcher Cemetery. Overcome with grief, the mother was led away to a waiting limousine by her husband, Armando, and relatives as the guests stayed behind and filed past Nadia’s grave, laying flowers on her white casket.
Earlier Wednesday, six white-gloved men carried Nadia’s casket into Our Lady of Guadalupe-Delhi Church in Santa Ana while a teen-age choir sang in Spanish to the strums of a guitar: “Lord, take care of us.”
It was a gut-wrenching day in Santa Ana, where Nadia’s murder last week has frightened children and parents. The girl, a fourth-grader at Diamond Elementary School, was abducted after school on March 20 and found the next day by a transient near the Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles. She had been killed by chest compression and had been sexually molested, authorities said.
The unknown killer remains at large, and police have cleared a man whom they had briefly held for questioning early in the investigation.
In an outpouring of community feeling for the Puente family, more than 500 people crowded into the Delhi neighborhood church Wednesday morning for Mass. Dozens of children were on hand, and babies’ cries regularly broke the solemnity of the service. Mothers nursed their infants with bottles, and perhaps 100 more people stood outside and across the street, listening on a loudspeaker as two priests conducted the Spanish-language Mass.
“It’s just a feeling you have in your heart, to be with the people inside, even if you don’t know them,” said Santa Ana resident Cecilia Aguinaga. “I have a baby girl 14 months old. . . . It must be so bad.”
Father Alonso Caceres, pastor of the church, said in his sermon that “the painful events are a sign that our young should always be protected.”
Father Jaime Soto, the Diocese of Orange’s vicar for the Hispanic community, confronted the crowd of mourners with a timeless question.
“What does our faith do for us now?” he asked. “Our faith is not something that drugs us of the pain that we feel. It is not something that allows us to hide from the terrible reality that has transpired in this past week. Rather . . . it allows us to come here with disturbed hearts, our broken hearts, and say to the Lord: ‘Lord, where were you on that day?’ ”
Clutched a Stuffed Toy
Sara Puente clutched a green, stuffed toy to her chest throughout the Mass, while Armando Puente alternately consoled her and stared ahead with a look of disbelief.
“The Lord . . . suffered with Nadia,” Soto continued. “He suffers now with Armando and Sara. . . . Do we believe this as we stand here in our pain and anguish? That is the critical question. To call on our faith, to bring all our power to bear, so that we might believe that Nadia shares now the light and joy of the Lord’s resurrection.”
Santa Ana Unified School District Supt. Rudy Castriuta attended the Mass with other administrators and teachers from Nadia’s school.
Her schoolmates had their own private ceremony last Friday, district spokeswoman Diane Thomas said. After teachers finished talking about Nadia, a popular schoolgirl who was a member of the student council, a psychologist led the children in a quiet moment, and then 900 white balloons were released into the air.
The psychologists “wanted to give them something as a symbol,” Thomas said. “There had been real feelings all week . . . there was emotion. It was like the psychologists were saying: ‘OK, we’ve talked about it, now we’re going to say goodby and move on.’ ”
Several Santa Ana police officers also attended the Mass or burial Wednesday, including Lt. Dave Salazar, who heads the department’s Crimes Against Persons unit.
Looking at Several Leads
Salazar said his investigators are looking at several leads and “feel very strongly” about them.
“We’re developing them simultaneously . . . and we have a couple in mind we feel comfortable with,” Salazar said. “We feel real confident right now that we’re going to close this case out.”
Salazar said that some of the leads have come from a police hot line set up for this investigation. He would not divulge details but said that some of the information pertains to people seen around the school at the time that Nadia disappeared. (The hot line number is (714) 647-5495).
Jose Antonio Gonzalez of Garden Grove, who was arrested and released hours later when police checked out his alibi, has been cleared of any suspicion in the case, Salazar said. Physical evidence linked Gonzalez “to a location that was part of the crime scene,” Salazar explained, but only through “a remarkable set of coincidences.”
Now, he said, “We have some people who we’re interested in talking to.”
Times staff writer Maria Newman contributed to this story.