Death and Deliverance
Trudging through a sun-baked expanse filled with cactus and mesquite, Cesareo Dominguez looked into the sky and saw eight circling vultures.
For 21 days, he had walked the Arizona desert looking for the body of his daughter, Lucresia. She had left their village in the mountains of central Mexico in June. Led by a band of smugglers, she had crossed the border with her son, Jesus, 15, and her 7-year-old daughter, Nora.
The children survived the journey. But Lucresia was still in the desert somewhere. Jesus told his grandfather that he had left her lying on the bank of a wash, exhausted and incoherent.
But where? How could Dominguez hope to find her in this vast wilderness blanketed with dense mesquite forests, giant ocotillo trees and spiny cholla cactuses?
Overhead, the vultures flew toward the craggy Baboquivari Mountains. Tracing their flight, Dominguez and a friend, Jose Lerma, descended into a wash and walked a few feet before a powerful stench stopped them in their tracks. Up ahead, splayed on the creek bed, were skeletal remains.
Animals had picked the corpse clean, scattering bits and pieces of bone over a 20-foot radius.
Sneakers with pink stripes were still laced to the victim’s feet. A woman, Dominguez said. He pulled his T-shirt over his nose for a closer look.
Dominguez, 56, eyed the remains -- their fourth grisly discovery in a week. “My daughter had big feet; these shoes are too small,” said Dominguez, who speaks only Spanish.
“No es mi hija.”
It’s not my daughter.
A profound absence
Lucresia, 35, was Dominguez’s eldest daughter, the second of six children. A talkative, happy woman who liked dancing to Mexican ranchera music, she had married at 15 and started a family.
Her husband, Jesus, moved to Fort Worth six years ago to earn money for the family. He had sent enough back to build a tiny house down the street from Lucresia’s parents in the town of San Martin in northern Zacatecas.
Many days, Dominguez, a retired copper-mine worker, watched Lucresia pass his home, walking hand in hand with her daughter on the way to school. She was a good mother, he said, but she wasn’t happy.
Dominguez offered her work in the grocery store he managed for his son. But Lucresia had not seen her husband in two years and was desperate to reunite their family. Her husband, who was in the U.S. illegally, had stopped returning to Zacatecas for fear that the U.S. Border Patrol would catch him when he crossed back.
Dominguez warned his daughter that the trip north would be dangerous. She weighed more than 200 pounds and became winded easily. “I told her that she was too heavy, that she wouldn’t last, but her mind was made up,” Dominguez recalled. “It was her decision. We had to respect it.”
Lucresia arranged the journey through the local agent of a smuggling ring. The fee was $1,600 each for Lucresia and her son, and $1,200 for Nora. Lucresia’s husband agreed to pay when the family reached Fort Worth.
On the day she left, June 14, Lucresia’s relatives gathered at her home. After tears and hugs, she and the children boarded a truck.
The smugglers drove them to Altar, a staging point about 750 miles north. They stayed there a few nights then boarded vans for the 70-mile trip on dirt roads to Sasabe, a dusty town near the border.
Lucresia and her children crossed into Arizona at dusk June 19, along with 18 other migrants. The three smugglers who accompanied them gave the family tins of tuna fish and four 3-liter bottles of water for the trip through the wilderness, which they said would take one day.
To avoid border authorities, the smugglers guided the group deep into the mostly desolate southern reaches of Pima County, which was enduring a 39-day stretch of 100-degree-plus temperatures.
Sixty-five migrants died in Pima County during July, almost double the county’s previous record for a month.
“It’s the journey of death,” said Allen Williams, a Pima County sheriff’s deputy who patrols the region.
The group walked at night, hiking for half an hour and resting the next half hour. People took turns carrying Nora. During the day, they slept beneath trees or makeshift shelters of leaves and branches. Their route roughly paralleled the ridgeline of the Baboquivari Mountains to the west.
On the third day, the smugglers told the migrants they would have to walk during the day, despite the heat. Cars were waiting to pick them up several miles away on Highway 86. From there, they would be taken to Phoenix, then to Las Vegas for the flight to Texas.
A few minutes into the hike, Lucresia collapsed.
Jesus said later that his mother was severely dehydrated and incoherent. He helped her lie down on the bank of a dry creek and decided to stay with her. The smugglers kept going, taking Nora. Jesus said he could hear the girl’s screams: “I want to stay with Mama! Don’t leave her here!”
For 19 hours, Jesus stayed by his mother’s side. He built a fire to signal rescuers. But no one came and his water soon ran out. His mother had not moved since lying down. He went searching for water, leaving a towel over her head to protect her from the sun.
A few days later, Border Patrol agents found the boy in the desert near Arivaca, a small town about 12 miles from the border. He was sent to Mexico City, where officials put him on a bus to Zacatecas. As for Nora, the smugglers delivered her unharmed to her father in Fort Worth.
Dominguez got his first hint of tragedy June 23. The local woman who worked with the smugglers told him that Lucresia had fallen ill during the trip and was taken to a hospital. Dominguez boarded a bus headed for the border.
Soon after, he spoke by phone with his grandson Jesus, who told him what had really happened to Lucresia.
Dominguez entered the U.S. on a tourist visa, determined to find her remains and bring them back to Mexico. The desert wouldn’t swallow his daughter like it had so many others.
“If I find her I know she’ll be just a pile of bones, but I want to find her,” he said. “I want to bury my daughter in her country.”
A determined quest
Jesus said he had left his mother somewhere between the Baboquivari Mountains and Highway 286, an area of 80 square miles. It would be a needle-in-a-haystack search.
Dominguez, a short, stocky man with bristly salt-and-pepper hair, awoke every day before dawn in a motel room in south Tucson.
He had no map, no compass, no global positioning system.
He did have Jose Lerma. A house painter from Dominguez’s hometown, Lerma has lived in New Hampshire for more than 10 years. He flew to Tucson after hearing of Dominguez’s plight from other immigrants from San Martin.
After stocking up on bottled water and potato chips, each day the two men would drive 30 miles down Highway 86 toward the broad valley stretching east from the slopes of Baboquivari and Kitt peaks.
Then they would walk for hours, avoiding the cholla cactuses covered with barbed needles. Lerma used his command of English to persuade ranchers to let them cross their properties.
When the two searchers saw makeshift migrant shelters along the dry creek beds, they would yell: “Muchachos! Come out! Don’t be afraid. We have water. We can help you.”
Then Dominguez and Lerma would hand out bottles of water and ask questions: Had anyone seen any bodies along the way? Had anyone seen a woman in her 30s, tall, with brown hair?
One day, they saw a 30-year-old woman who had been left behind by smugglers. She was trembling, and her mouth was filled with spines from a cactus from which she had tried to suck water. The men gave her water and called an immigrant aid group, which took her to a hospital.
They discovered the first dead migrant July 16, a Saturday. He was lying under a tree off a dirt road. His body was bloated and smelled so bad that they kept their distance.
Four days later, they found the body of a young woman lying face down on a trail. It was not Lucresia.
Each time, Dominguez and Lerma contacted authorities by cellphone and waited, sometimes hours, for sheriff’s deputies or Border Patrol agents.
“Walking in this desert, you become aware of the horrible deaths people suffer,” Dominguez said. “I know of my daughter’s fate, but many people never know that their loved ones died along the trail.... If someone found my daughter, I would want them to notify the authorities.”
Word of Dominguez’s search generated sympathy and support. A Tucson woman donated the use of her small plane. Dominguez, Lerma and a volunteer searched from the sky one afternoon. They saw no sign of Lucresia.
On some days, Border Patrol agents and volunteers from No More Deaths, an immigrant aid group, walked with Dominguez for miles. “El Cucuy,” the alter ego of Renan Almendarez Coello, a popular radio personality on Spanish-language KLAX-FM (97.9) in Los Angeles, urged listeners to send money and any information they might have.
Family and friends chipped in to pay for Dominguez’s $50-a-night motel room. His son Fermin, who lives in Los Angeles, shipped him his 1989 Chevrolet Astro van. Dominguez ate free lunches at a local Mexican restaurant.
As the days passed, Dominguez and Lerma refined their search. Using disposable cameras, they snapped photos of distinct features in the terrain. Then they would drive 70 miles to the Mexican border town of Nogales to show them to Jesus.
The teenager was living in a small hotel there, brought up from Zacatecas to help in the search. After allowing him to participate in the search early on, U.S. border authorities had barred Jesus from reentering the country because of his immigration status and because, they said, he seemed unsure of where he had left his mother.
Night after night, Jesus examined the photos, looking for something -- a tree, a creek bed, an outcropping -- that might remind him of where he had last seen her.
In the meantime, Dominguez and Lerma kept scouring the desert during the day, hoping to stumble on some sign of Lucresia.
After two weeks of searching, Dominguez grew frustrated. The desert, it seemed, was hiding his daughter, toying with him, playing tricks with his mind -- taunting him to give up.
“The creek beds lie. We follow them, and then they disappear or merge with other creek beds,” he said. “There are moments when your brain stops functioning. You get disoriented. Everything in the desert looks the same.”
One day, Lerma stopped at a wash that branched off in several directions. He turned to Dominguez.
“Which way should we go? This way, or this way, or this way, or this way?”
A crucial landmark
On their nightly visit with Jesus on July 20, the boy recognized something in a photograph: a pond where he had stopped to drink after leaving his mother. Jesus said he had reached the pond after walking north for about an hour. He had crossed four dry creek beds, jumped a barbed-wire fence and followed a narrow road.
The men were encouraged: They could try to retrace Jesus’ footsteps south to his mother’s resting spot.
Two days later, they parked the van near the pond, now dry, and set out. Jesus had drawn a crude map, with creeks represented by rows of lines and barbed-wire fences by squiggly marks.
They walked for two hours and crossed several creeks before they encountered a gust of wind bearing an awful odor. Another body. Was it Lucresia? This unfortunate migrant had died under a bush and been dragged by animals into a clearing. Little flesh remained. But the pink underwear and bra told Dominguez it was the body of a woman.
The corpse had dark blue pants. Lucresia had worn white-washed bluejeans. Also, the location wasn’t right: Lucresia had died in a creek bed, not in a clearing.
“This is not my daughter,” he said.
Dominguez retreated upwind from the smell. Lerma wandered away, struggling to find a cellphone signal to dial 911. The location was so isolated that the Border Patrol sent a helicopter to find them. Five hours later, two sheriff’s deputies arrived to pick up the body.
Deputy Williams, a 13-year veteran, walked up to the skeleton without flinching. He figured the body had been there about a month. He had seen worse.
“This isn’t bad. What’s bad is when it makes you sick. Puking sick,” he said.
Asked what the chances were that Dominguez would find his daughter’s remains, Williams answered without hesitation: “Zero.”
Narrowing the search
The next day dawned cloudy. The night before, Dominguez and Lerma had visited Jesus in Nogales and worked on his map. Today, they would alter their route slightly, walking southwest.
They made their way through several washes cluttered with makeshift shelters, empty water bottles and clothing.
“Muchachos!” they yelled. “Come out. We have water. Don’t be afraid.”
No one emerged.
Lerma called Jesus at the hotel.
“The place you left your mother -- were there many shelters for people to sleep?” Lerma asked.
“No,” he replied. “It was a narrow creek bed, winding, with tall trees.”
“Tall trees?” Lerma repeated.
“Yes, we used them for shade,” Jesus said.
The boy concluded that they had gone too far south, crossed too many washes. They should search north of that spot.
“OK,” Lerma told Jesus. “If you remember anything else, call us.”
On the bumpy drive north, the men saw vultures circling and stopped to investigate. After walking about a mile, they discovered a fourth body.
Dominguez determined quickly it was not his daughter. Lerma called 911. For the second day in a row, they resigned themselves to a long wait for authorities.
Lerma, on the phone with a dispatcher, tried to describe their location. Dominguez wandered back to the wash to take another look.
He saw things he hadn’t noticed before. A barrel cactus, split open, lay near the corpse. A maroon sweater and daypack had been strewn under a tree. Dominguez thought out loud: Hadn’t Jesus said that he had drunk from a cactus? Hadn’t he said there was a maroon sweater and a daypack under a tree?
Dominguez walked into the creek bed. Twenty feet from the skull, he found the left hand. Still shining on the fingers were three rings. His daughter wore three rings on her left hand.
Dominguez fell silent. He spit. He slapped an empty plastic Coke bottle against his thigh. He spit again
“This could be my daughter,” he said. He backed away, held his hands behind his back, and stared a long time at the scattered remains, probably the work of coyotes, vultures or mountain lions.
And yet other parts of the scene didn’t fit. Jesus had said he could see the white-domed observatory atop Kitt Peak from the wash. From here, the observatory was obscured by trees, Dominguez noted. Also, the clumps of hair near the skull seemed too dark to be Lucresia’s.
Dominguez went back to the car and called his daughter Hilda in Los Angeles. He asked what brand of shoes Lucresia wore.
“Roxy,” she answered.
“Have you found her?” she asked Dominguez.
“I don’t think it’s her,” he replied.
“I hope it is,” Hilda said, “so she can finally rest.”
An hour later, two Border Patrol agents arrived and saw something the two men hadn’t noticed: Thirty feet away from the body, a tattered American flag hung from a tree branch.
Who would place a flag in such an isolated place? they asked.
Dominguez and Lerma thought they knew. An anonymous caller to El Cucuy’s radio talk show had said that Dominguez’s daughter was still lying in the place where she died and that the location was marked with a flag.
Had the smugglers who abandoned his daughter shown some humanity after all? Dominguez wondered aloud.
Soon the rumble of car engines filled the desert. Two sheriff’s deputies had arrived, the same ones who picked up the body the day before.
“Uno mas,” Dominguez said to Williams.
“Uno mas, si,” Williams replied.
Williams took in the scene, shook his head, and said: “There are going to be animal chews and gnaw marks all over these bones.”
The grim work of photographing and cataloging the body parts began.
The pinkie ring on the corpse’s left hand had an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The pinkie ring Lucresia wore had an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Dominguez recalled.
Williams picked up the left leg bone and studied the dangling sneaker.
“Are they Roxys?” an agent asked. By this time, the agents were familiar with what Lucresia had been wearing.
“Roxys,” Williams replied.
The cactus. The maroon sweater. The flag. The rings. The shoes. Everyone seemed convinced that Lucresia’s remains had been found. But not her father. Dominguez told Lerma not to call his family yet: “We’re not sure. Don’t worry them.”
Moments later, sheriff’s Deputy Gabriel Foist, a tall, young trainee, found a set of upper dentures in the dirt.
Lucresia wore dentures.
Spreading out a body bag, Foist started scooping up bones. This was his fifth dead migrant case in two weeks. He deposited a handful of rib bones on the bag. Then he noticed a soiled towel near the lower jaw.
Dominguez rushed over. “My grandson, before he left my daughter, covered her face with a towel, a yellow and white towel.”
Foist held the towel in front of him. It was yellow and white.
“There’s no doubt,” Dominguez said.
He turned to look at the pile on the body bag. “This is my daughter. This is my daughter.”
His eyes welled. Lerma patted him on the shoulder. “Tranquilo, tranquilo, amigo,” Lerma said.
Be calm, be calm, my friend.
“Yo aguanto,” Dominguez said.
I can bear it.... “I was resigned to this.”
He sniffled as Foist placed the final pieces of Lucresia’s remains in the bag and zipped it up. His emotions churned. He blamed his daughter for taking such a risk. He faulted the smugglers -- “pigs” -- for leaving her to die in the desert.
He walked back to the van. Williams and Foist followed, carrying the body bag.
A few days later, Dominguez returned to the desert with Lerma, four immigrant aid workers and a priest. They said a prayer and planted a white cross in concrete near the spot where Lucresia died. Dominguez said he would bring his wife to visit someday.
He looked forward to the funeral. The Mexican Consulate had offered to fly Lucresia’s remains home. She would have a proper burial in her hometown, attended by family and friends.
“I was lucky,” Dominguez said. “I thank my family. I thank this man [Lerma]. I thank God. I found what I was looking for.”
ABOUT THIS STORY
Times staff writer Richard Marosi accompanied Cesareo Dominguez and Jose Lerma on the final two days of their search in the desert. Times photographer Robert Gauthier was present on the next-to-last day and at the memorials for Lucresia. Marosi interviewed Dominguez’s grandson, Jesus, in Nogales, Mexico.