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After a Year, Kidnaping Is Still a Mystery : Bleak Christmas: Family is not celebrating as a trail of clues in the abduction of Leticia Hernandez, 8, of Oceanside has hit a dead end in the wilds of northern Florida.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Her gifts from last Christmas sit unopened, and sometimes her little brother cries out for her in the night. But always, there is no answer.

One year and thousands of police leads later, Leticia Hernandez, 8, is still missing, and, if she is still alive, is believed to be anywhere in heavily forested northern Florida with the kidnapers who grabbed her from an Oceanside street a year ago today.

“In other homes there will be parties and happiness, but not here,” Leticia’s mother said softly in Spanish. “There will be no Christmas, there will be nothing.”

It has been a whole year of soaring hopes and crashing disappointments for the mother, also named Leticia, after 18 sightings of her child abruptly ended last May, when the trail vanished into the Florida outback.

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Oceanside Police Department spokesman Bob George said the 14 investigators who once gumshoed the kidnaping have now dwindled to one dedicated and hard-working detective who needs a break in the frustrating case.

“Even though there are no verifiable leads or sightings doesn’t mean we’re disheartened,” George said. “With a case like this, you just can’t quit.”

Leticia, or “Tita” as her family affectionately calls her, had wandered from the Hernandezes’ cramped apartment on Bush Street and headed for a local park while her mother was distracted by chores. The girl never returned.

So far, the national media coverage, the descriptions of two suspected abductors, the once-promising trail of sightings, the blizzard of leaflets with Leticia’s photograph--all have failed to deliver the Hernandez family from pain.

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“For me, it has been difficult to go on, but I have to go on for the sake of my family,” said the girl’s 33-year-old mother, who shares the family apartment with Leticia’s sister, five brothers and grandmother. Leticia’s father is a farmworker in the Sacramento area.

Time has been an oppressive blur of the past and present, of two Christmases made bitter and cruel.

When Leticia disappeared, the family kept the decorated Christmas tree, hoping that, once she returned they’d celebrate a Christmas of joyful reunion. The months slowly passed, and finally the dry and sadly drooping tree was taken away in the summer. The presents from that Christmas remain stacked at the edge of the living room.

Now it is Christmas time again, but this year, Hernandez said, “There will not even be a tree.”

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Although the Christmas reminders are especially hard, Leticia’s absence haunts the family every day, especially 5-year-old brother Daniel.

“Daniel called her at night and looked for her,” grandmother Victoria Gonzalez de Hernandez said. “He’d wake up crying.”

Despite the tears, the children believe Leticia will return one day, their mother said. Her eighth birthday was Thursday.

“Even though they are young, they understand what is happening,” Hernandez said. “They don’t ask questions because they know what is going on, but they say she is going to return.”

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It will be difficult, if and when the time comes, to tell 6-month-old Michael, the brother Leticia doesn’t yet know she has, about the kidnaping.

Hernandez said, “I haven’t thought of what I’m going to tell him because he still does not understand. But, when he asks, I have proof and many things (to show him) so that he can see and understand what has happened.”

She said Oceanside police investigators have regularly called or visited her when they’ve gotten reliable information.

“They have always told us they do not want to give us false hopes or news. When they are sure, they come and let me know,” Hernandez said. The investigators still drop by, although they haven’t had promising news for more than six months.

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The mother prays often and waits.

Police are waiting, too.

Between the day of the kidnaping and last May 22, Leticia was spotted 18 times at rest stops, gas stations, campgrounds and the like between Buckman Springs east of San Diego and High Springs, Fla.

Her abductors are described as a Caucasian male, age 30 to 35, about 5-foot-10, 220 to 150 pounds, with blond, shoulder-length hair and a cross tattooed on the back of one hand, and a female accomplice in her mid-30s with bleached blond, collar-length hair, standing 5-feet 10-inches and weighing about 130 pounds.

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On one occasion, the couple was observed with another woman described as white, in her mid 40s with slightly graying curly brown hair.

George said, “We still believe they’re probably in the northern Florida area. The problem is, it’s a densely forested, swampy area. She could be 10 feet from somebody, and they’d never see her.”

George said police are assuming Leticia still is alive simply because, “We don’t have anything to tell us she’s not alive.”

She is believed to be in the northern Florida area because the leads still coming in are mostly from that area, George said, “but there’s nothing we can say is a sighting.”

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George said investigators, including the FBI, which has an agent on the case, need a break to get further. “We’ve needed that from the beginning,” George said.

Any promising tips are checked, a time-consuming process.

Oceanside Police Lt. Ron Call spent most of Tuesday dealing with a brief spot on television’s “A Current Affair” that showed a woman sought in connection with a series of killings in Florida.

Viewers phoned the station to report that the woman resembled Leticia’s kidnaper, and Call wound up spending hours checking the information and fending off reporters.

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“Yes, the composite (drawing) looks close, but there’s no connection with the Leticia Hernandez case,” he said. “We’re not even investigating whether they’re linked at all.”

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has gotten tips regularly on the case, hundreds of them since the kidnaping, according to Bob Ermini, the center’s director of case management.

The center, cooperating with Oceanside police, has helped print and distribute in Florida 250,000 flyers with Leticia’s picture.

At home, one of the many people who have taken a personal interest in Leticia is Oceanside police Officer Chris McDonough, who recorded a song to help raise reward money to solve the case. The reward fund stands at $18,500.

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McDonough, who is chairman of San Diegans for the Return of Leticia Hernandez, said he believes the girl is alive because most kidnaped children are never seen again after their abduction.

The Hernandez family is already planning for Leticia’s return.

“We will have her forget,” her grandmother said, “and have her forget the people she was with . . . and live a normal life like before.”

The Search for Leticia Hernandez

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SIGHTINGS ALONG INTERSTATE 10. 1. Dec. 16, 1989, Buckman Springs 2. Dec. 19-20, Mt. Laguna 3. Dec. 26, Ocotillo Wells 4. Dec. 27, San Simon 5. Dec. 29, El Paso 6. Dec. 31, Sonora 7. Jan. 17, 1990, Van Horn 8. Jan. 19, Mobile

SIGHTINGS IN FLORIDA 9. Feb. 2, 1990, Panama City 10. Feb. 1-10, Chattahoochee 11. Feb. 5, Branford 12. March 11-23, Quincy 13. March 26, Greensboro 14. March 31, Marianna 15. March 31, Cottondale 16. April 30, Santa Fe 17. May 5, Waldo 18. May 22, High Springs

Reward Fund for Leticia Hernandez

A Leticia Hernandez Reward Fund has been set up at Wells Fargo Bank in Oceanside. Police are asking the public for $1 donations to raise the reward fund from its current $18,500 to $100,000.

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