The boy appeared out of nowhere in the middle of a busy east Bakersfield intersection.
He didn’t look or act like any of the thousands of children abandoned each year, police say. He was healthy and clean and wore new white tennis shoes, jeans and a T-shirt with the image of a teddy bear driving a race car. His hair was freshly cut.
Residents of the modest neighborhood did not recognize him, and none claimed him. The boy, believed to be about 2, provided few clues himself as to where he had come from.
Speaking only a child’s Spanish, the boy said his mother’s name was Xochitl, but he could not tell officers where he lived.
When Police Det. Herman Caldas asked if he had any brothers, the boy held up two fingers. When Caldas asked if he had a dog, he held up one.
That was two weeks ago. The boy, who calls himself Mateo, remains a mystery today.
Police have broadcast pleas and distributed fliers across the Central Valley and Mexico, but no relatives have stepped forward.
The child’s plight -- his unknown past and his uncertain future -- has captivated Bakersfield, where residents have been charmed by the playful, well-behaved boy. Many long to adopt him.
“He’s a doll. He’s apparently lovable and has probably been loved. That’s what makes it so sad, " said Bakersfield Police Det. Mary DeGeare. “He doesn’t fit the characteristics of an abused child or an unloved child. That’s what’s so puzzling about it.”
Some speculate that he was smuggled into the country from Mexico by his parents, who somehow became separated from him. The mother and father haven’t claimed him because they fear deportation, people suppose.
Others say the boy may have been kidnapped and hastily abandoned when his abductors panicked.
Or, they say, something bad happened to his parents.
So far, the boy is either unable or unwilling to explain his past, and his behavior continues to raise questions.
He initially told police his name was Jose, but he soon insisted on calling himself Mateo. Police describe him as preternaturally well-behaved for a child his age and say that he has yet to ask for his mother or express any desire to go home.
A week ago, police received what they thought was their first break in the case. It came in the form of a brief phone message.
In a distraught voice, a woman who called herself Xochitl said she was the boy’s mother and asked police to find a good home for him.
The caller told police the boy’s real name was Jesus Perez Florez, and she gave reasons for her actions, which authorities have declined to divulge, citing the ongoing investigation.
Police say the caller may have been the boy’s actual mother, but they are at a loss to explain why the boy doesn’t answer to the name she provided them.
Even as police search for the mother, the boy has no shortage of hopeful adoptive parents.
“Everybody wants this child. He’s just tugged at their hearts,” said Elizabeth Moreno, manager of Lee’s Niles Drugs, a neighborhood gathering spot on the block where the boy was found. “There’s a lot of the mother instinct coming out in everyone, even men.”
What police and residents do know of the boy dates back to 10:10 p.m. on May 18, when a motorist called 911 to report that a child was in the middle of the street.
Andrea Gavin was the first police officer to talk with him.
“At first, he was shy, kind of scared,” Gavin said. The boy gave his name as Jose and looked quite sad but was not crying, she said.
The officer went to a nearby house where a party was underway, thinking that the boy’s parents may have simply lost track of him. A steady stream of partygoers looked the child over and shook their heads.
The boy squirmed uncomfortably under the attention and Gavin placed him in her patrol car. Tears began streaming down his face and his shoulders shook, but he made no sound.
“It broke my heart,” Gavin said. When she took him to an emergency children’s shelter, a worker there said she had never seen a cleaner child at the shelter before.
His good manners also surprised his caretakers.
Det. Caldas said he was amazed to see the way the youngster ate. After taking a bite of a burrito, the boy picked up a napkin, delicately dabbed at his mouth, folded the napkin and placed it back on the table. When Caldas offered to spoon-feed him his rice and beans, the child declined.
“He was taught some manners,” Caldas said.
Experts in child abuse and neglect say the details surrounding the boy’s discovery are unusual.
“It’s not very common that you find a well-nourished, clean, well-dressed, happy child” abandoned, said Dr. Astrid Heger, executive director of the Center for the Vulnerable Child at County-USC Medical Center.
“I don’t think this is the typical abandoned child.”
Most such children, Heger said, are left with baby-sitters, neighbors or relatives or in public areas such as bus stations. It is rare to find one simply wandering the streets, she said.
“I don’t think a loving, caring person who washes the child, dresses the child -- who’s not malnourished, who’s not abused -- I don’t think somebody just walked off and left the child,” Heger said. “Something happened to this mother.”
The boy is now a dependent of the court, a status typically used for children who are abused or neglected. A judge is overseeing his care and will determine what will happen to him if his parents show up -- or not.
He’s in a temporary foster home and will soon be moved into a more permanent setting, said Mark Arnold, a Kern County public defender whose office is representing the boy’s interests before the court.
Arnold said the district attorney’s office could initiate adoption proceedings within six months if the parents are not found. If they do turn up, Arnold said, a judge would have to approve any reunification with the child. Authorities say that so far, the chances of such a reunion are slim.
In an effort to generate new leads, police have turned to the media, especially Spanish-language television. The airwaves have been filled with images of the boy smiling and playing catch with a teddy bear.
When Det. Caldas took him back to the neighborhood where he was found, hoping the child could lead him to his house or that someone would recognize him, TV crews and newspaper photographers followed. The boy didn’t lead them anywhere.
The coverage has brought a flood of tips, but none has revealed the child’s identity. E-mail inquiries number 50 so far and include people’s “parental resumes.”
The messages have come from as far away as New Jersey. All want to know about possibly adopting the child, police say.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Caldas said. “A child so lovable, so beautiful could be left like that.”