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Body of Girl, 9, Found in North Park Canyon : Crime: Amanda Lee Gaeke had been missing for 11 days. She is second 9-year-old to turn up dead after mysteriously disappearing. Another girl the same age is still missing.

October 15, 1991|LISA CASTIGLIONE and LEONARD BERNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The badly decomposed body of 9-year-old Amanda Leigh Gaeke was found in a North Park canyon Monday, triggering a police homicide investigation into the disappearance of the Landis Street fourth-grader who had been missing since Oct. 3.

The medical examiner identified the child's remains through dental records, but the cause of death will be determined in an autopsy scheduled today.

The discovery and identification of the remains ended an 11-day search for the girl that began when Amanda's mother, Marlene Przybylak, returned home to find her missing. Amanda was last seen earlier in the day by a classmate after an open house at McKinley Elementary School.

The classmate told police she saw Amanda sitting in a pickup truck with a Latino man with a ponytail who was wearing sunglasses, Police Sgt. Ed Casamassima said.

About 7:30 p.m., Amanda's grandmother talked to her on the telephone, but did not get any sign that there was anything wrong, Casamassima said. About 15 minutes later, Przybylak returned home to find Amanda missing.

"I'm very shocked. Today, I've been very nervous," said Ron Shammas, owner of the Parkside Market, who started and contributed to a $1,200 reward fund offered for anyone who could provide information on Amanda's whereabouts. The Thorn Street market, not far from where Amanda's body was found, has a sign in the window that reads: "Amanda, Where Are You?"

"I didn't think it was going to wind up like this," he said. "I thought she was going to come home."

Shammas said the reward money probably will be donated to funeral expenses for the young girl, who bought a dollar's worth of snack cakes from him every morning before school.

"She used to talk to me like an adult," Shammas said. "She was a talker type. She was a leader."

Pete Garrett, who lives in the 3100 block of 32nd Street, said he found the body in a clump of eucalyptus about 11:30 a.m., when he investigated an odor that he and his wife first noticed Wednesday.

Garrett's wife, Mari, said the couple assumed the odor was sewage or dead animals until it grew so strong that "it was filling up my house."

The body was "naked and wrapped in a blanket," Mari Garrett said. "And you can pretty much guess from there what happened."

Lt. Paul Ybarrondo, head of the San Diego Police Department's homicide unit, would not confirm that the body was naked or wrapped in a blanket. He said the body was probably thrown onto the spot where it was found, about 20 feet below the rim of a small canyon on 32nd Street between Redwood and Thorn streets.

Detectives were scheduled to canvass the North Park neighborhood for the last time Monday afternoon before the case is classified as inactive.

Police have consistently said they have no leads or witnesses in Amanda's case, and, until her body was found Monday, they said they had no evidence to suggest foul play after questioning neighbors, friends and relatives.

They interviewed known sex offenders who live in the North Park neighborhood or near McKinley school.

Hours before the girl's body was discovered, police gave an acquaintance of Amanda's father a polygraph test but nothing new was uncovered.

Amanda's disappearance is one of two, both involving 9-year-olds, being investigated by San Diego police.

Rasheeyda Wilson disappeared July 15 a block from her home on F Street downtown and has not been found. Sgt. Jimmie McCaskill said he received information after Rasheeyda's picture aired on "America's Most Wanted" last week that she "could possibly be south of the border."

In yet another case involving a 9-year-old, Laura Arroyo disappeared June 19 after answering the doorbell at her San Ysidro home. Her body was found the next morning in front of a Chula Vista industrial complex. She had been hit on the head and stabbed repeatedly. Her killer has not been found.

Other than the fact that all three girls are the same age, investigators have no evidence that the cases are connected, police said.

"We cannot connect anything or any single person to these cases," McCaskill said.

"The only thing that is similar is that the girls are 9 years old and they disappeared under mysterious circumstances."

Asked whether police were investigating any connection between the disappearances and Laura Arroyo's slaying, Ybarrondo said that "we're looking at all aspects of this case."

Before the body was discovered, Amanda's mother said she still had hope that "Mandy," as she was called, was alive.

"The only way I maintain and keep my sanity is that I feel that she is OK," Przybylak said, about an hour before she was told about the discovery of the body, which wasn't positively identified until 6 p.m. "I feel that she is OK, and that someone is keeping her from coming home or calling the family.

"She wouldn't want me to worry. She'd call if she could. Deep in my heart, I feel that someone has taken her."

Police detectives screening calls at Przybylak's home after the discovery of the body said Przybylak had no comment.

Earlier in the day, Przybylak said family and friends were to gather today at St. Augustine's chapel for a Mass in Amanda's honor.

Purple ribbons were to be distributed and pinned on clothes or tied to car antennas in the neighborhood. The color was chosen because purple was Amanda's favorite color, and she was wearing a purple T-shirt when she disappeared.

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