February 1, 2011

Body believed to be kidnap victim found in canal near Santa Nella

The body believed to be that of Juliani Cardenas was found this morning in the Delta-Mendota Canal near Santa Nella, 31 miles south of where he was snatched from his grandmother's arms at her home in Patterson.

No positive identification has been made, and DNA results won't be back for a couple of weeks, according to Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson.

However, at about 11:10 this morning, about four hours after the body of a child was discovered by a canal worker, a posting went up on the Facebook page of Juliani's mom, Tabitha Cardenas, that read:

"I have the worst news in the world to tell you all...='( My son's body has been found in the canal no DNA has confirmed it but its his clothes and shoes have and it's a 4 year old boy. So I want everyone to pray that Jose's body is found so we can all know that he's burning in HELL and I don't have to worry about him taking my unborn baby girl....='("

She then followed up two minutes later:

"I'm not talking to the press or anyone else I just had to let you all know before the news does... I love you all very much and my son does too. He's my lil angel now and believe me I'm crying as I am writing this to you all......"

Christianson, speaking at a noon press conference on the steps of Patterson City Hall to media from throughout Central California and the Bay Area, said: "We've lost the life of a little boy. ... We want to offer our deepest condolences to the Cardenas family."

The body was found 31 miles south of Zacharais Road in Patterson, where investigators believe Juliani and abductor Jose Esteban Rodriguez entered the canal in the kidnapper's car on Jan. 18.

The search for Juliani was focused on the canal, from which the Toyota belonging to Rodriguez was pulled out Friday. No bodies were in the car.

Even though investigators believe the body of Rodriguez is in the canal, Christianson said "this is a homicide case" and issued a warrant for the arrest of Rodriguez.

Juliani's family members were informed this morning, and an FBI victim's advocate was with the family at their home on Barros Street, about three miles from where Rodriguez's car went into the canal, said deputy Royjindar Singh, a sheriff's department spokesman.

Father Bernard Quinn, of Sacred Heart Catholic Parish in Patterson, said he baptized Juliani.

He was inside the house this morning after Tabitha Cardenas, and Juliani's grandmother, Amparo Cardenas, learned of the discovery.

He said the two were holding up "amazingly well."

"They feel supported and strengthened by the community," Quinn said.

Late this morning, an ambulance was parked in front of the home.

Rodriguez, who had a criminal past, was Tabitha Cardenas' ex-boyfriend. She is almost nine months pregnant with his child.

Christianson said there will be no search for Rodriguez, although canal workers and others along the canal have been alerted to be on the lookout for a body.

Canal workers were doing their normal maintenance today when they spotted the child's body floating in the canal, Christianson said.

Juliani's body has been taken to the Stanislaus County Coroner's Office.

Christianson said Rodriguez's car, which was pulled from the canal on Friday, was impounded and it still being examined. He had no information on any evidence pulled from the Toyota Corolla.

Cymberlynn Hastings, who identified herself as a family friend, said this morning that a vigil had been planned for today. There were initial reports that it had been canceled at Tabitha Cardenas' request, but as of 5 p.m., it was scheduled to take place at 7 o'clock tonight at a park near downtown.

Tabitha Cardenas has maintained since the kidnapping that Rodriguez would not hurt her son to get back at her, rejecting the idea that he would have driven the car into the canal. She also urged authorities to conduct a wider search for him. She believed he could be in hiding with her child.

There had been no electronic signal from Rodriguez other than a Patterson convenience store security camera spotting him two weeks ago before the abduction. Rodriguez had not used a credit card, ATM card or his cell phone since the kidnapping.

Investigators also said they had no information that made them think Rodriguez and the boy were not in the canal.

Since ending the search of canal water by divers Saturday, authorities have relied on a California Highway Patrol airplane and sheriff’s patrols along the canal bank to spot any bodies in the water. The patrols have been searching along the canal bank since Monday.

Christianson said last week that in cold weather it might take as long as two weeks for a body to float to the surface.

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, according to her mother, Amparo Cardenas.

About 4 p.m. Jan. 18, while Tabitha Cardenas was at college, sheriff’s officials said, Rodriguez drove to the Barros Street home where Juliani lived with his mother and grandmother.

Rodriguez drove up in the Toyota Corolla, pulled Juliani from his grandmother’s arms and drove away, officials said.

About 5 p.m., a farmworker on his way home spotted a car matching the description of the suspect’s vehicle, with a boy and a man inside, on the canal bank just north of Zacharias Road and the water siphon, a series of pipes that funnels the canal’s water underneath Del Puerto Creek.

The witness said he saw the car drive into the canal, but he panicked and didn’t inform sheriff’s officials until the following day.

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