Marie and Feilong Wu contend that Orange County sheriff's investigators gave short shrift to leads that pointed to other suspects in the killing of Marie's 2-year-old son.
Three leads that the Wus consider especially significant concerned a young man seen in or near the Villa Marguerite apartments in Mission Viejo, where the Wus lived.
The Sheriff's Department declined to comment on any aspect of its investigation.
Marie Wu reported her son, Cecil Turner, or C.T., missing at 8:45 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 12, 1996.
Kristen Ziencina, a Mission Viejo homemaker, says that about 10:15 that morning she saw a man at a Sav-on drugstore nearby.
Ziencina said she was walking into the store with her three small children when the man brushed past her. He was struggling with a screaming, blond-haired toddler clad only in a diaper, Ziencina said.
The next morning, she saw a newspaper article about the search for C.T., accompanied by a photo of the missing boy. Ziencina said she recognized him as the child she had seen the day before and called the Sheriff's Department.
Ziencina described the young man she saw holding the toddler as white, 16 to 20 years old, with short brown hair. She said he was 5 feet 6 to 5 feet 10 and weighed 140 to 160 pounds.
A sheriff's deputy rushed to the Sav-on to see whether its security system had captured the man and the toddler on videotape, records show. But the system hadn't been working that morning, and employees did not recall seeing a man and child fitting the description given by Ziencina.
Two sheriff's homicide detectives followed up with Ziencina 10 days later, records show. She said they were dismissive of her account and seemed to have made up their minds that the Wus were guilty.
She said the detectives asked her several times whether the man she had seen was Chinese (C.T.'s stepfather, Feilong Wu, is a Chinese immigrant).
"The guy I saw with the kid definitely was not Chinese. But they kept telling me, 'No, it was a Chinese man' and 'It's going to be the parents.' "
On Tuesday, Aug. 13, Karee Delsigne and her 13-year-old daughter, Andrea, were riding in a golf cart on a jogging trail that runs through a ravine behind the apartment complex.
Delsigne said that as they crossed a footbridge over Oso Creek about 2:15 p.m., they saw a young man emerge from the ravine and, soon after, passed within a few feet of him. The man seemed "startled," Delsigne said, and quickly rode off on a bicycle he appeared to have hidden in bushes near the trail.
Searchers discovered C.T.'s body shortly after 3 p.m. that day at the foot of the ravine. Delsigne, who lives close by, said it struck her that the young man she had spotted earlier was emerging from the same area. She approached a sheriff's deputy and related what she had seen.
She described the young man as white, 15 to 18 years old and weighing 150 to 170 pounds, with medium-length, dark brown hair. A sheriff's supervisor took her name and phone number for a follow-up interview.
Weeks went by, and Delsigne heard nothing.
On Sept. 30, Don Long, a private investigator for the Wus, was canvassing the neighborhood and approached Delsigne and her husband, Walt, as they took an afternoon stroll. Long asked if they knew anything that might help solve the killing.
"My wife sure does," replied Walt Delsigne, a Torrance homicide detective.
Long took statements from Karee Delsigne and, later, from her daughter.
Walt Delsigne called sheriff's detectives and told them about the encounter with Long. On Oct. 2, they visited Karee Delsigne and took a statement.
She said the detectives seemed to have made up their mind that Feilong Wu was guilty. She said one investigator held his thumb and forefinger close together and said that Wu "came this close to confessing."
Marie Wu told detectives about a young man who had hovered around her apartment the day she reported C.T. missing. She had never seen him before, she said, but he behaved like an old friend, inviting himself in and addressing her by her first name. Wu said the man reappeared through the afternoon to report how he was assisting in the search.
At one point, he asked Marie for a color photograph of C.T., explaining that his mother was a psychic and the picture might help her divine the child's location.
Detectives learned the young man's name and address and visited his Mission Viejo home on Aug. 19, 1996, a week after C.T.'s disappearance. He was 19, with short brown hair and a medium build -- consistent with the general descriptions given by Ziencina and Delsigne. The Times is withholding his name because he was not charged.
The man told investigators that he saw search activity while driving near Villa Marguerite on Monday, Aug. 12, and joined in the effort after learning that a small child was missing.
The man confirmed that he had gone to the Wus' apartment and told Marie that "he was doing as much as he could to help," according to the detectives' summary of the interview.
The man told detectives he was a recovering drug addict. He said C.T.'s disappearance touched him emotionally because he had two younger siblings and aspired to become a paramedic.
The man said he could account for his whereabouts Sunday night, Aug. 11, and the following morning, the time frame in which detectives believed C.T. was killed.
He said his mother was "highly into psychic stuff" and had asked him to obtain a photograph of the child, according to the detectives' summary. She believed the child had been suffocated, the man told detectives. The Wus say this is significant because authorities had not yet announced the cause of death.
The man was fingerprinted and photographed. But Sheriff's Department files give no indication that investigators questioned his mother or otherwise checked his alibi.
Nor did they show his picture to Ziencina or Delsigne.
A Times reporter recently showed the Sheriff's Department photograph of the man to both women. Each said he could be the man she had seen, but neither was certain of it.
"I only wish they had shown me these pictures ... when the memory was still fresh," Ziencina said.