A school crossing guard, kidnaped by suspected carjackers only moments after she reported to work Monday on a Long Beach street, was found dead hours later in the trunk of her car near Long Beach Municipal Airport, police said.
Catherine Tucker, 46, a single mother who had struggled to raise seven children, was abducted at 6:55 a.m. from the intersection where she had worked for years helping students reach Lafayette Elementary School, authorities said. Her body was found by police five hours later, after the kidnapers apparently crashed her blue 1981 Pontiac Grand Prix into a parked van and fled on foot, said Karen Kerr, a Long Beach Police Department spokeswoman.
Tucker had been shot once in the head.
Acting on eyewitness reports of the crash, police arrested three suspects, two of whom were booked on suspicion of kidnaping and murder, Kerr said. Police identified one suspect as Virgil Jason Clarke, 18, of Long Beach. A 17-year-old also will be charged with kidnaping and murder, she said. The third suspect, also a juvenile, was questioned and released for lack of evidence, she said.
Tucker had just arrived for her regular morning shift at the year-round school when she was forcibly taken from the intersection of Burnett Street and Pacific Avenue, one of the two main crossing points for those attending the 930-student campus, school officials and witnesses said.
One witness, a teen-ager who asked that her name not be used, recalled standing at a window and hearing what sounded like a single gunshot.
"I looked outside and I saw two guys," the witness said. "One was pushing her. . . . You could see he was struggling with her, trying to push her down. The other was trying to get in the car."
The crossing guard appeared to be fighting back before being forced into her car, the teen-ager said. The witness ran into a bedroom to get her mother, and together they saw one of the men trying to start the car. By that point, the crossing guard was nowhere in sight, the mother said.
While the teen-ager dialed 911, her mother watched the driver try several more times to start the car before the two men drove away, the mother said. The mother then ran outside to look for Tucker.
"I didn't think they would kill her," she said. "They (didn't) have to kill her--just tell her to get out of the car. They have no conscience."
Items from the trunk of Tucker's car were found in a nearby alley, perhaps indicating where Tucker's body was placed in the trunk, police said. The car crashed less than two miles from the point of abduction when the kidnapers apparently lost control turning from eastbound Wardlow Road to northbound Cerritos Avenue, a few blocks west of the airport, Kerr said.
Police, who had obtained Tucker's license plate number, matched it to the wrecked car. The three suspects were taken into custody less than 10 minutes later, two at a service station at 31st Street and Atlantic Avenue and the other a short distance away, police said. Tucker's body was found soon after that, police said.
The apparent carjacking was one of 118 such incidents recorded this year in Long Beach, police said. One of those attacks resulted in the shooting of a Belmont Heights man, who was paralyzed. No statistics were available on other injuries or deaths, police said.
The site of Tucker's kidnaping is a busy intersection surrounded by aging stucco offices and a smattering of restaurants. Apartment buildings fill much of a neighborhood that residents say is crowded and noisy during the day and noisier and more dangerous at night.
Tucker, described as friendly and dedicated to her city-paid job, was considered a fixture at the intersection, where an anonymous mourner placed a bouquet of yellow flowers Monday with a card saying, "We'll miss you."
She was known for arriving early and staying well past the time school got out. During the school day, she often stayed in the neighborhood, reading in her car.
"I don't know of any other crossing guard that will stay after her time and even walk adults across (the street)," said Audrey Lawrence, a nearby resident. "She worked over and above the call of duty."
After school Monday, several children said their teachers had talked to them about Tucker. "They said she was kidnaped," said one third-grade girl.
"She's in the hospital now, ain't she?" asked a boy.
"No, she's dead," the girl replied.
As news of Tucker's abduction and death reached her close-knit west Long Beach neighborhood, family and friends gathered at the blue-trimmed home to be near Tucker's children. Shock and tears were evident on almost every face.
Tucker was known widely as "the crossing guard lady" and recognized as the woman who played tennis almost every afternoon at the Silverado Park courts, said daughter Tracy Tucker, 28.