Little Kaitlynn Cortez didn't know she was a star.
But the 9-month-old child nonetheless smiled and beamed and cooed and gurgled as a bevy of reporters, photographers and TV crews gathered around her Monday morning. Less than a day earlier, the baby had been a kidnaping victim in Corona, whisked away in a stolen van.
Now, she was back at her home here, and her parents repeatedly called her return "a miracle . . . an answer to our prayers."
"We want to thank everyone who prayed for us," said Kaitlynn's father, Raul Cortez, 24. He even had kind words for the thief who he believed notified police as to the van's location. "We want to thank him because he called the Corona police and told them where they could find our van and our baby," he said.
Kaitlynn was accidentally kidnaped about 5 p.m. Sunday as she was sleeping in a car seat in the back seat of the family's van while her parents stood just steps away.
Raul Cortez and his wife, Melissa, 20, had been in Riverside County looking for a place to rent when they stopped their 1986 Ford Aerostar van in front of a house at 706 W. Grand Blvd. in Corona. He got out to look at the house while his wife used a car phone in the van to call the homeowner. Melissa Cortez then got out and stood by the van, talking to her husband.
"We were only standing five steps from the van," Raul Cortez said. "The van was turned off, but the key was still in and the door was open. This guy must have been hiding right behind the van, waiting. All of a sudden I heard the (van) door slam shut, and I saw the van start moving out, and I started screaming and rushing behind it."
Melissa Cortez also ran behind the fleeing van, yelling and trying to attract attention. But the vehicle picked up speed, turned a corner and disappeared.
"We immediately called police, and they were there in about two minutes," Raul Cortez said.
His wife added: "The police and the community were very supportive."
As police launched an intense search of the Corona area, the young parents stayed at the scene for the next three hours. "We kept hoping he might drive back by the area," Raul Cortez said.
After it was dark, the Cortezes went to Corona police headquarters to continue their anguished wait. In radio and TV broadcasts Sunday night, the couple pleaded with the kidnaper to return the child. Melissa Cortez wept as she issued her plea Sunday night to the kidnaper. "Please don't hurt her," she said.
As the hours passed, their anxiety grew.
Then, shortly after midnight, while the Cortezes were still at the station, a call came to Corona police over the 911 emergency line.
"A male made the call, and we believe the man is the suspect" sought in the theft of the van, Corona Police Sgt. Richard Mardory said on Monday. "The caller said the van could be found on Maple Street (in Corona), near the freeway. The caller wouldn't identify himself."
Police rushed to the specified location, which was about three miles from where the vehicle was stolen. Officers found the van and little Kaitlynn still inside, sleeping. The baby was taken to a nearby hospital for examination, and doctors found she was unharmed, Mardory said.
Raul and Melissa Cortez said they were overjoyed when their baby was found safe.
"The only thing missing from the van was my wife's purse, and it didn't have any money or anything valuable in it," Raul Cortez said. "I had left my billfold, which had money in it, inside the van, and it was still there, with the money, when police found the van."
Both police and the parents say they believe the thief did not know the sleeping baby was inside. Raul Cortez on Monday said he thinks little Kaitlynn woke up and cried shortly after the thief drove off.
"I think the man drove to the (Riverside) Freeway, then drove right off again at the next exit when he found there was a baby on board," Raul Cortez said. "I think he left the van at that place and hoped police would find it. But when they didn't find it, I think he made the call to let them know where it was."
Melissa Cortez had a different theory. "This man who called police told them he wouldn't identify himself because he said he had outstanding warrants," she said. "I don't think it was (the car thief), though, because I don't think he'd say something like that."
Her husband interjected: "We really don't care who it was that called. We're just very grateful that he called. Our baby is home."
Raul Cortez, a deliveryman for a company in Gardena, immigrated to the United States from El Salvador in 1979. He and Melissa began dating in high school, although they went to different schools. Raul Cortez graduated from Redondo Beach High in 1988; Melissa graduated from Cypress High in 1991. They were married two years ago, and they are now living with Melissa's parents in Cypress.
"We've been looking for a place of our own in Corona because prices are cheaper there," Melissa Cortez said. "I don't think we'll move to Corona now, though, because (the car thief) knows our van and everything."
Police described the suspect as about 18 to 20 years old, 5 foot 8, weighing about 135 pounds.
Raul Cortez said he thinks the thief basically has a good heart. Holding his daughter on Monday, he said: "I just thank him for calling us and giving us our baby back."