Merced woman abducted, burned and left for dead

BALLICO -- A Merced woman who was kidnapped near Turlock and nearly burned to death on a country road early Wednesday is struggling to survive after what investigators called one of the cruelest crimes they've ever seen.

Merced County sheriff's officials were scheduled to hold a news conference at 2 p.m. Thursday at which they were expected to release new details.

Detectives were searching for suspects and other possible victims. The 27-year-old woman was so badly disfigured that deputies could not immediately determine her gender.

A group of farmworkers found the woman lying in the front yard of a farm property at South and Ballico avenues about 7:30 a.m., said sheriff's spokesman Paul Barile.

Although details of the crime are sketchy, detectives are investigating leads that the woman may have been kidnapped during a home invasion or robbery, possibly in the Delhi or Turlock areas, Barile said.

Investigators said they believe the suspects took the woman to a remote location on South Avenue, between Pepper Street and Ballico Avenue, tied her hands behind her back and set her on fire. After the suspects left, Ba-rile said, the woman walked nearly a half-mile on South Avenue before she collapsed.

The woman suffered second- and third-degree burns over her entire body, Barile said. Her hands were partially tied behind her back when investigators responded to the scene.

Detectives would not release the woman's name, pending confirmation of her identification and family notification. She was flown to the burn unit at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose and managed to share some details of the crime with investigators, Barile said.

"This is a horrendous crime -- somebody who was unable to defend themselves and then left for dead as they burned," Barile said. "What people are capable of doing to each other just never surprises me. It's just unbelievable."

Barile said investigators have information that the victim may have been taken with one or two other women and there may be additional victims.

About 25 sheriff's investigators, along with search and rescue crews -- some on horseback and all-terrain vehicles -- spent Wednesday combing orchards and groves for additional victims and clues.

They placed yellow tape around three crime scenes -- the location where the woman was burned, where she collapsed and a third location that sheriff's investigators would not disclose.

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