A month after her uncle was found shot to death in an Atwater almond orchard, then 9-year-old Bianka Flores sat down and wrote a short note addressed to “Heaven.”
“I hope you are safe with God and he is taking care you and I (know) you miss us (too) as much as we miss you ...” she wrote.
Her uncle, 21-year-old Bryan Sanchez, was shot and killed just before Thanksgiving last year for reasons his family and even the detectives investigating the case have yet to understand.
There have been few leads in the case and no arrests.
“He was innocent. He was good, would never hurt anybody,” his older sister, Patty Flores, said in an interview Thursday. “Why did this happen to him?”
For the Merced County sheriff’s detectives, Sanchez’s death remains a frustrating mystery.
“By all accounts, he was a good kid with no real friends, who kept to himself,” Deputy Delray Shelton explained. “Why would somebody want to kill this kid who, by all accounts, wouldn’t hurt a fly?”
According to family and investigators, Sanchez was diagnosed with bipolar and obsessive compulsive disorders. His social anxiety kept him from reaching out to many people. He was described as having the mental capacity of a teenager.
Sanchez moved to Atwater to live with his mother, Martha Torres, about a month before he disappeared. Torres last saw him around noon on Nov. 16.
“He asked to borrow some money and left the residence saying he was going to go for a run,” Detective Aaron Rosenberg said.
His body was found by a farmer on Nov.21.
To protect the investigation, Rosenberg declined to elaborate on the number and location of gunshot wounds.
He had no bank account, cellphone or identification, and there was no way for investigators to track Sanchez electronically.
“Obviously, we don’t have a lot of the evidence that we need,” Rosenberg acknowledged.
With little information to go on, investigators struggled even to determine exactly when Sanchez was killed.
Eventually, Rosenberg said, detectives sent an insect larvae found on Sanchez’s body to a forensic entomologist in Southern California.
“It was the fist time we’ve done something like that, and from that we were able to learn that the body had been left there for about five days,” Rosenberg said.
Sometime after his disappearance, Sanchez was spotted with a group of people at an apartment complex in the 800 block of Broadway Avenue. But those leads have not advanced the case.
Sanchez’s family is hoping for a breakthrough.
A family stuck in mourning
With tears streaming down their faces, Patty Flores and her husband, Jose, sat with their daughter, Bianka, on Thursday evening looking at the fliers and posters the family made in the days following Sanchez’s disappearance.
They described a family stuck in mourning, unable to move forward and unwilling to forget the past.
“It’s ruined – it’s changed all of our birthdays,” Patty Flores said. “My mother just goes to his grave on her birthday because she wants him to be part of it and he can’t be.”
Jose Flores wept remembering how his nephew, who was more like his own son, loved to play football and go fishing.
“We have no closure, and it’s torn our family apart,” he said.
Sanchez was the youngest of six siblings. His sister, Patty Flores, was the oldest.
“We all took care of him, tried to protect him,” she said. “It hurts my brothers so much that they couldn’t be there for him.”
Patty Flores said it’s difficult explaining things to her mother, who only speaks Spanish.
“Telling her (in Spanish) what is happening is like reliving everything twice,” she said.
One of the most difficult ideas to cope with for the family is the knowledge that somebody, somewhere, must know something.
“They need to come out with it,” Jose Flores said. “We want to know why. Why would you do that, what was your reason to hurt him?”
He believes those responsible for his nephew’s death may be haunted by it as well.
“I’m sure they think about it every day,” he said. “They know they hurt someone who did not deserve (it) and they hurt his whole family. They’re destroying the whole family.”
They try to remember better times and hope that someone will help them someday.
Bianka, now 10, wiped tears from her face, handed her mother a paper towel and looked back at her note to her uncle.
“I know that you are in good hands now,” her note says. “I hope you (feel) better. Love you, Bryan.”
Anyone with any information about the case is asked to contact Detective Rosenberg at (209) 385-4983 extension 4983 or 209-385-7445. Callers may remain anonymous.