Police May Have Missed Boy’s Body
Anguished Los Angeles Police Department detectives said Tuesday they may have failed to notice a 7-year-old boy who was lying dead for two days in a swimming pool in Holmby Hills, after saying only hours earlier that someone must have dumped the body there overnight.
The case of Paolo Alexander Ayala, who disappeared Sunday after an afternoon pool party, could be a sloppy police investigation of a drowning or a mysterious killing in one of Los Angeles’ most affluent neighborhoods.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Jun. 06, 2002 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 06, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 316 words Type of Material: Correction
School group--A story in Section A on Wednesday incorrectly identified the school group that is collecting donations for the family of Paolo Ayala, a 7-year-old boy whose body was found Tuesday in a Holmby Hills swimming pool. It is the El Rodeo PTA, not the El Rancho PTA.
Hours after Paolo’s body was spotted by a housekeeper Tuesday morning, face-up on the bottom, police were leaning toward the simpler explanation. A preliminary coroner’s examination showed “signs of drowning,” said LAPD Deputy Chief David Kalish.
The boy was wearing the same blue-and-white swim trunks he wore at the party and showed no obvious signs of trauma, he said. An autopsy is expected today.
“I think if we determine the child was in the pool the entire time... no one should feel guilty. There is nothing anyone could have done,” Kalish said. “Maybe everyone missed him.”
Kalish backed away from his earlier declaration that “there is no way that boy’s body was there yesterday.” He conceded that an extensive police search may have overlooked the child.
Officers checked the pool but never physically swept it, he said, even though the boy was last seen alive in the shallow end with other youngsters. The pool is 35 feet long, 20 feet wide and 9 feet deep at one end, police said. It has a light-colored bottom.
One detective who took part in Monday’s all-day search, Lt. Michelle Veenstra, said she is certain she checked the pool but saw no evidence of the child. The water, she said, was clear.
LAPD Cmdr. Gary Brennan said a number of people had looked in the pool on Sunday, as well as during an extensive search for the missing boy Monday.
“There were dozens of people around, all of whom looked in the pool and came to the same conclusion,” he said: that the pool was empty. “Several officers also made a statement that they looked in the pool and believed he was not in there.”
According to officers on the scene, Brennan said, “It was either the most convincing optical illusion ever, or that body was not in that pool.”
Paolo Ayala could not swim, said his uncle, Daniel Salazar. The boy was one of three children of Franklin and Edwina Ayala, who live in a one-bedroom apartment on Roxbury Drive in Beverly Hills, seemingly a world apart from the posh estates of Holmby Hills.
The father, a maintenance man, and mother, who house-sits and cares for children, “live from paycheck to paycheck” supporting a 12-year-old son and 10-month-old baby, a family friend said.
Paolo had never been to a mansion until he attended Sunday’s birthday party for Alex Farkhondehpour, a classmate at El Rodeo Elementary School. Alex’s parents, Saeed and Kimberly Farkhondehpour, own the eight-bedroom home where the party was held, about a block from Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion.
Jack Zakariaie, an attorney for the Farkhondehpour family, described them as distressed about the incident and said, “They absolutely had nothing to do with it.”
Paolo’s family was shown a photograph of him Tuesday with blood visible around his nose, according to the boy’s uncle. They seemed to immediately go into shock, he said.
“They don’t want to speak to anyone,” he said.
Though emphasizing that it is still unclear how the boy died or came to be in the pool, Brennan said it is not unknown for drowning victims’ bodies to escape detection at first. For reasons that are not clear, there have been cases in recent years in which a person has drowned in a swimming pool, but an initial search found no body, he said. In such cases, he said, the body turns up in the pool hours later.
There was such a case in 1997 in Santa Ana, and another in 1999 in Modesto. In the Modesto case, the death of a 4-year-old girl was investigated as a homicide.
Immediately after the boy’s body was discovered about 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, Kalish seemed to leave no doubt that somebody had dumped the child in the pool after investigators had left the area.
Noting the clarity of the water, the deputy chief said, “There’s no way that body could have been in the pool when we left at 10 last night. There’s no way he could have been missed.
“It appears at this time someone placed the body in the pool early this morning or late last night,” Kalish said.
After the initial evidence of drowning, Kalish retreated from those comments, but police continue to investigate the possibility of foul play. Detectives obtained search warrants Tuesday afternoon and used “cadaver dogs” to search the home in the 10300 block of Wyton Drive for evidence that the body had been moved, said Sgt. John Pasquariello.
The search ended at 5 p.m., but police would not reveal what they found.
During today’s autopsy, coroner’s investigators will try to determine whether the boy drowned. His body temperature and the time of his disappearance will provide clues, said Craig Harvey, the county coroner’s operations chief.
Pathologists will also look for pool chlorine in the lungs and the presence of the foamy mucus that often results from choking. They will examine the boy’s stomach for evidence of food served at the party, police said.
Dr. Thomas Bassler, a retired pathologist and former deputy medical examiner for Los Angeles County in the 1960s, said tests also consider whether stabbing, shooting, suffocation or strangulation might have caused the death.
A body lying in a pool for two days would show “a good dishpan-hand effect” on the tissues, he said. A body dumped more recently would not.
An autopsy also might show signs of a struggle, Bassler said.
“It’s surprising how easy it is to tell,” he said, “because even a small child would show signs, like a broken fingernail, something under the fingernail. You become very strong if you’re fighting for your life.”
Bassler recalled “a lot of cases where bodies were in the pool and no one can see them. You can stand and look in it and you think you’re looking at the bottom, but what you’re looking at is dirty water at the bottom. If he was down at the bottom all this time, the water would have to have that optical illusion.”
Photographs from the party showed the pool looked “murky,” said Kalish, but a pool cleaner visited the home Monday and used chemicals to clean it. The pool cleaner did not sweep the pool, however, the deputy chief said.
The LAPD set up a command post Monday at a nearby country club as part of its effort to locate the missing boy. About 50 officers participated in the search with help from Beverly Hills police.
Bloodhounds tracked the boy’s scent to a nearby park, but investigators later learned that he visited the park before the party. Neighbors and parent volunteers from his elementary school also searched the area.
The housekeeper noticed the boy’s body Tuesday and screamed for help. Residents immediately called 911, Kalish said.
Neighbors said they were shocked by suspicions that the child may have been killed. “This is one of the safest places to live,” said Nor Ghodsian, 48, who lives five houses away. “That’s why I pay $1 million-and-a-half to live here.”
Ghodsian said she walks the neighborhood about 10 p.m. most nights, but didn’t Monday. On Tuesday, members of the El Rancho PTA announced a fund to assist the Ayala family. Contributions to the Paolo Ayala Memorial Fund can be made at City National Bank, 400 N. Roxbury Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90210.
Times staff writers Jane E. Allen, Daren Briscoe, David Ferrell, Jill Leovy, Kenneth Reich and Beth Shuster contributed to this report.