The remains of 7-year-old Leticia Hernandez, whose kidnaping in Oceanside 15 months ago launched a dramatic nationwide search, were found in a remote canyon of North San Diego County, authorities said Monday.
A property caretaker discovered the girl’s decomposing body Saturday near a rural county road in a sparsely populated area between the Pala Indian Reservation and the Riverside County line. She may have been dead for a year.
“The remains have been positively identified through dental records as those of Leticia Hernandez,” said Sgt. Bill Krunglevich of the Oceanside Police Department.
“The medical examiner’s office indicates that the time of death occurred between three and 12 months ago.”
Authorities didn’t disclose a cause of death, exactly where she was found or whether there are suspects in the case, saying only there is a continuing joint investigation by Oceanside police and the FBI.
However, a spokesman for the county medical examiner’s office, who asked not to be identified, said the investigation “is being handled as a homicide” unless an examination of the remains proves otherwise.
“It’s extremely difficult to pinpoint a time of death,” said the spokesman, adding, “It’s really hard with skeletal remains.”
Leticia’s disappearance Dec. 16, 1989, as she played outside her family’s modest Bush Street apartment, sparked a massive hunt as police received thousands of leads and 18 reported sightings from California to Florida.
The crime got national television exposure with segments on “Crime Stoppers,” “Unsolved Mysteries” and “America’s Most Wanted.” But the last purported sighting was May 22, and, as late as last week, police had said glumly that they had no new promising leads.
“It’s a case everyone had hoped would end in a different way,” Krunglevich said. “It’s not over; now it begins a different phase.”
For the family, only pain is in their immediate future because of the loss of the little girl with missing front teeth they affectionately called Tita.
On Monday, relatives grieved openly at the Hernandez home, a ground-floor apartment in an Oceanside barrio mostly composed of immigrants from Mexico and their relatives.
Police had told the family late Sunday night that Leticia’s body had been found.
The girl’s mother, also named Leticia, 33, sat stunned on a couch in the two-bedroom apartment where photographs of the missing youngster adorn most every wall.
“I’m sad, very sad,” she said.
“I lost my only sister,” lamented the dead girl’s older sister, Maria Hortelano, 17. Leticia also leaves five brothers and a father who is a farm worker in the Sacramento area.
Outside the apartment, an uncle, Jesus Hernandez, met relatives, friends and other visitors.
“I’m not a judge, but God will judge those who did this someday,” the uncle said, holding back tears. “If they ever have a family, I hope this never happens to them.”
Although Leticia, who was 7 when abducted, was found only about 22 miles from her home, authorities aren’t willing yet to dismiss the reported out-of-state sightings.
“None of the sightings have been discounted as not having occurred,” Krunglevich said.
FBI Agent Ron Orrantia, who visited the site where investigators laboriously searched for clues Monday, said, “The FBI is still actively involved in the investigation because there are quite a few areas that are unclear"--such as whether Leticia was at some point taken out of the state.
If she was taken across state lines, it would be a federal crime and within FBI jurisdiction.
A caretaker happened upon Leticia’s remains in an area with a few houses about 2 miles south of the Riverside County line and east of S16, a two-lane county road through a rugged canyon.
Orrantia described the area as “very rough, with extremely dense undergrowth . . . the terrain is extremely difficult to work in.”
The girl’s skull actually was found Wednesday in a remote gully, a source familiar with the investigation said Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Dozens of FBI agents and police officers are expected to converge on the area again today, to painstakingly seek evidence to a crime with far more questions than answers.
After Leticia’s disappearance, witnesses told police they saw the 4-foot, 60-pound girl taken away in a vehicle.
One of her alleged captors was described as a white man in his mid-30s or early 40s, about 6 feet tall, 230 to 250 pounds, with blond, shoulder-length hair that was thinning on top. He reportedly had a tattoo on the back of his hand of a cross with printing on it.
Another captor was described as a slender white woman, about 30, 5-foot-6 to 5-foot-11, with blond hair and light complexion. A third suspect was said to be a white woman with a deep tan, in her late 40s or early 50s, heavy-set, with dark brown hair and gray streaks.
Krunglevich, when asked how Leticia died and whether there are possible new suspects, replied, “We’re not at liberty to talk about that right now.” He said the investigation is “very sensitive.”
Besides getting nationwide publicity, Leticia’s disappearance brought an outpouring of sympathy and concern from the community.
Benefits were held, raising $10,000 in reward money for the capture of her abductors, and Oceanside policeman Chris McDonough wrote a song to help raise reward money.
In December, at the first anniversary of the kidnaping, Leticia’s mother was downcast, saying there would be no Christmas for the family until Leticia returned.
In a corner of the family’s apartment were the unopened Christmas presents from the year before.
Times staff writer Patrick McDonnell contributed to this report.