PATTERSON — The search for a kidnap suspect and his 4-year-old victim took another dramatic turn Friday night at the Delta-Mendota Canal when divers brought to the surface an empty Toyota Corolla many believed would contain their bodies.
Jose Esteban Rodriguez and Juliani Cardenas haven’t been seen since about 4 p.m. Jan. 18, when the 27-year-old man allegedly grabbed the boy from his grandmother’s arms at her home in Patterson.
Ten days after the kidnapping, and after numerous searches of a 12-mile stretch of canal in western Stanislaus County, Sheriff Adam Christianson said the search would continue because of the strong possibility their bodies are “still in the canal and somewhere downstream.”
The sheriff said the search in the complex underground tunnels known as the siphon will resume today at 10 a.m. If no bodies are found, efforts likely will be scaled back. They’ll rely on California Highway Patrol aircraft and ground patrols down the canal.
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In cold weather, Christianson said it might take as long as two weeks for a body to surface.
“My concern is little Juliani is not a very big 4-year-old,” the sheriff said. “He is all of 40 pounds. That is going to be problematic for us.”
“For us, this is a tragic event,” Patterson Chief Tori Hughes said after the suspect’s car was located.
“Everything led us here, and I didn’t want to find the vehicle in the water, but (from) the information that we were getting, we believed it was in here. It was a sense of relief to find the vehicle, but it is a tragic ending to a very difficult situation.”
One window on each side of the Toyota was rolled down, Christianson said. The car, which was badly damaged, was pulled to the surface along with two other cars.
“I’ve been cautiously hopeful that I would bring little Juliani home alive,” Christianson said. “There is absolutely no information or evidence or anything else that tells us this car went into the canal and then Jose fled the scene.
“Again, he is not sophisticated enough, doesn’t have the infrastructure, doesn’t have the financing and doesn’t have the support to pull off that type of abduction, and here we are a week later and there is still no sign of the suspect and Juliani.”
Christianson announced shortly after 11 a.m. that the underwater detection equipment had found the car and clearly displayed an image of the license plate belonging to Rodriguez’s car. Investigators declared the area a crime scene.
Hughes said the underwater detection equipment used to search the siphon area last week likely didn’t locate the vehicle due to the murky water. Friday was different because officials from the Bureau of Reclamation turned off three of the five pumps feeding water into the canal.
The water level dropped by about 7 feet and the surface was calm and quiet. The same underwater search technology that has been used during the search for the first time could see the license plate.
Due to the risk of flooding, the Bureau of Reclamation had to turn the pipes back on and level the water before starting the four-hour draining process again.
In fact, shortly after the three cars were pulled from the siphon Friday night, Christianson said, “The water authority called and said they were at critical levels and needed to release the water.”
The scene unfolded in front of dozens of television cameras and even a handful of spectators who had been following the story.
“At this point, it is still a recovery operation and we are certainly saddened by the fact that we found the car even though we knew we would,” Christianson said. “We knew everything led us here and as these days have progressed we knew that the likelihood of bring Juliani home alive was diminishing exponentially.”
Lacking any credible leads from elsewhere, investigators centered their search on the canal. Divers spotted and recovered 13 other vehicles, most of them stolen over the past few years, before the Toyota was identified.
On Friday, crews pulled out a Dodge pickup that was believed stolen from Merced. A short while later, Rodriguez’s car was located.
Christianson said those involved in the recovery mission have endured sleepless nights and some have gone home each night to children the same age as Juliani.
“There are a lot of people who have gone without sleep. They are very, very committed to this operation and we are saddened to learn that it is going to end up tragically. It is an emotional roller-coaster ride for everybody,” Christianson said.
Stanislaus and Merced county divers were assisted by a Fresno company that specializes in underwater recoveries.
“We just did a penetration dive into a 12-foot-by-12-foot pipe and found the car,” said John DeCicco, owner of Action Towing Dive Team. “Tomorrow, we’re going to find the other tube and do another dive.”
Rodriguez is the ex-boyfriend of Juliani’s mother, Tabitha Cardenas, but is not the boy’s father. She is eight months pregnant with Rodriguez’s child.
He and Cardenas had a tumultuous three-year relationship, according to her mother, before splitting up a few months ago. Rodriguez also recently lost his job, Cardenas told investigators.
Rodriguez was convicted of manslaughter in 1999 and also has been charged with unlawful sexual intercourse and drunken driving, law enforcement officials said.
After their breakup, he stalked Cardenas, said her mother, Amparo Cardenas.
On Jan. 18, while Tabitha Cardenas was at school, Rodriguez allegedly drove to the Barros Street home shared by the Cardenas family and took Juliani.
Cardenas said Friday on CNN’s Nancy Grace show that Rodriguez had come to the home earlier on the day Juliani was kidnapped, as Cardenas was getting ready for work. Rodriguez then went to Juliani’s school before returning to the Cardenas home. Juliani stayed home from school that day because he didn’t feel well.
“He told my mom, ‘Oh, I just came to tell Juliani bye,’” Cardenas said. “And then my mom pushed him out of the house. He said, ‘Bye, Papas.’”
Rodriguez returned again that afternoon, and that’s when he took the little boy, she said.
A farmworker told authorities the next day he saw a silver Toyota with a man and boy inside go into the canal about an hour after the abduction.
Tire tracks found on the canal bank were only a few hundred feet from where the Corolla was detected Friday morning, in an especially dangerous area of the canal where it narrows and goes under a creekbed.
Patterson City Councilwoman Annette Smith said Friday that despite the discovery of the car, the Cardenas family remained hopeful Juliani would be found alive.
“Please keep this family in prayer,” she said. “This is so difficult to go day by day and not know.”
Outside the family home, reporters and photographers gathered amid a cluster of TV station news vans with satellite dishes extended. City workers barricaded a portion of the street to ensure a clear lane of traffic.
Check back later this evening with dramatic video from the scene, Christianson's evening press conference and more stories.
Adam Christianson answers reporters' questions in morning
Patterson city councilmember Annette Smith describes mood inside house