Death of girl found in duffel bag on Hacienda Heights trail ruled a homicide
Valerie Wilson, Hacienda Heights residents, pays her respects at a community memorial. (Video by Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
The Los Angeles County coroner’s office took a step Friday toward unraveling the mystery surrounding a dead girl when it completed an autopsy of the child, whose bent body was stuffed into a duffel bag and dumped on an equestrian trail.
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Capt. Kent Wegener, who oversees the homicide bureau, said his investigators are searching for the girl’s identity, and more detectives are being assigned to assist in the investigation given the volume of information related to the child’s body, which was found on a Hacienda Heights trail Tuesday morning.
“We have had thousands of tips come in from across the country,” Wegener said.
Detectives at this stage aren’t making public how the girl died, and they expect to get more information from the autopsy and tests on the child’s body in the next couple of days, he said. A sheriff’s spokesperson late Friday said the girl’s death has been ruled a homicide.
With no obvious signs of trauma, an autopsy and other tests are expected to provide an explanation for the girl’s death. The coroner’s findings have been sealed at the request of detectives, a spokeswoman for the office said.
Wegener said it is likely that when detectives do learn the girl’s identity they won’t immediately make it public because they want to be able to investigate how her body came to be on the trail and try to track down those responsible without tipping their hand.
A makeshift memorial has sprouted up on the popular equestrian trail since the girl’s body was found Tuesday in the light brush.
“Rest in Heaven Princess” read one day-glo pink sign adorning the fence at the entrance of the trail, a seeming reference to the words “Future Princess Hero” emblazoned on the pink shirt the girl was wearing. Stuffed animals, heart balloons, ribbons and bouquets of flowers covered the chain-link fence.
“It absolutely breaks my heart. I have a beautiful princess at home,” said Valerie Wilson, one of many neighbors and strangers who have been affected emotionally by the victim’s enigmatic story. “We just wanted to come and pay our respects. We live close in the community and we just cannot get over it. We pray for her soul and we are sure she is in a great place now: No pain. No suffering.”
As to whoever is responsible, she added, “They need to look inside … they need to turn themselves in.”
A dozen miles along the Pomona Freeway, Los Angeles County sheriff’s homicide detectives at their offices are digging through an avalanche of tips after Sheriff Alex Villaneuva appealed for the public’s help in identifying the small-framed black girl discovered by a park worker Tuesday morning.
Several sources said investigators are also seeking forensic evidence including any other person’s DNA from the clothes and bag that could identify who dumped the child’s body. Such DNA could be run through the state DNA database for a match or even a familial match. They are also seeking camera footage from nearby shopping areas.
Leading the investigation are Dets. Louie Aguilera and Marc Boisvert, who are no strangers to exploring cases of child deaths. It was they who cracked the case of the South Pasadena boy killed by his father two years ago. The father eventually confessed and led them to the child’s body near Lake Cachuma.
In Hacienda Heights, they have a body and not much else. The girl, age 8 to 13 and about 4 feet, 5 inches tall, was found with her head and torso slightly protruding from the black bag.
She hadn’t been there long — less than 48 hours — before she was discovered.
About 100 people attended a candlelight vigil to remember the child near the site Thursday evening. “I hope people can make it just to light a candle and say a prayer for answers and justice,” an organizer said before the event.
“It’s a sad moment for the department, for the community, and we’re going to do our best to figure out” what happened to the girl, Villanueva said Wednesday as he stood next to a sketch of the child.
Sheriff’s officials on Thursday said there was no link between the dead girl and a 13-year-old girl from Lancaster who went missing last month.
Homicide investigators carefully rechecked with those who had provided information on the missing girl — identified as Skylar Mannie — and were certain that the two cases are not related, according to Nicole Nishida, a Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman.
Skylar is described as 5 feet 5 and 130 pounds, a foot taller and more than twice the weight of the girl found on the Hacienda Heights trail.
The dead girl was found wearing black and white loungewear pants with pandas, in addition to the pink shirt, but no shoes.
The trail is a short drive into the hills south of the Pomona Freeway. The body was found at the bottom of an embankment just east of the 3400 block of Hacienda Boulevard.
Sheriff’s Lt. Scott Hoglund said someone probably saw something between late Sunday afternoon and Tuesday morning, when the girl’s body was found.
Hoglund said the body was found about 120 yards from the beginning of the trail. He said his detectives didn’t know whether the bag was left at that spot or pushed off the embankment.
A department sketch artist produced a rendering of the girl in the hope someone would recognize her.
Investigators have reached out to the Los Angeles County Department of Children & Family Services, missing-child groups and school districts across the region, Hoglund said.
A 2016 L.A. Times examination of child homicides found there were more than 400 since Jan. 1, 2000, across Los Angeles County. Many of the children were victims of abuse or violence in their homes, and most died at the homes of parents or guardians.
Dan Scott, a retired L.A. County sheriff’s sergeant who was involved in dozens of child abuse and death investigations, said the circumstances in this one were unusual. “It is extremely rare to see a child’s body dumped,” he said. “I cannot recall one in recent years in the region.”
Scott said that even when a relative killed a child, the attacker often buried or concealed the body.
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