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Girl's Slaying Shocks Central Valley Town : Tragedy: 8-year-old's body was found 13 days after she disappeared while on a trip to the store. 'It's not the happy little community anymore. We've lost something,' a neighbor says.

April 12, 1995|MARK ARAX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LEMOORE, Calif. — Maria Joanna Piceno was a pudgy 8-year-old third-grader, wise beyond her years, who set the table and cleaned her room and helped tend her two younger siblings.

So when her mother needed a can of tuna, she didn't hesitate to send her oldest daughter to the market two blocks from home--a trip the girl made once before in this safe, tight-knit farm community in the San Joaquin Valley.

Maria skipped out the front door of the apartment in the late afternoon of March 27, wearing a favorite pink shirt and clutching $3. She never returned.

On Monday, after a 13-day search in which law enforcement officers and hundreds of volunteers from Lemoore and nearby towns combed 500 square miles with no luck, three boys on a raft found the body.

She had been dumped in a Kern County creek 60 miles from home. Authorities believe Maria was abducted and killed shortly after buying the tuna. A preliminary autopsy did not reveal an exact cause of death.

"It's a shock to our community because nothing like this has ever happened," said Ramona Harp, standing Tuesday outside the apartment complex where Maria's family lives. "It's not the happy little community anymore. We've lost something."

Others in this town of 15,000 agree. Something has changed. Kids cling to mothers. Mothers shout at kids for wandering off a few feet. There is a vigilance that was not here before. Nothing is taken for granted.

"The only thing we can do is watch out for each other's children," said Rosalba Sanchez, another neighbor.

Inside the apartment, Maria's 28-year-old mother, Arcelia Ferrel, who left Mexico a decade ago to work the cotton and alfalfa fields on the valley's vast west side, had not eaten or slept in days. She said she had been hospitalized and drugged but nothing could numb the pain.

"She was a child full of life," Ferrel said in Spanish. "She told me, 'Momma, when I get bigger, I'm going to buy you a car and a house with big rooms. I'm going to get married in a white wedding gown.' Everything (was) ahead of her."

Ferrel began to weep and then vowed: "I'm not going to leave. I'm not going to rest until justice is done. There's a monster out there."

FBI and local authorities are trying to determine whether Maria's death is related to the March, 1994, kidnaping and murder of 10-year-old Victoria Ramirez of nearby Hanford.

The girl disappeared from a swap meet and her body, strangled and molested, was found two days later in a canal.

"We're working every angle and no one has been ruled out as a suspect," said Lemoore Police Sgt. Bill Hudson. "We're a small town and there's never been a kidnaping in my 27 years on the force."

From almost the moment her daughter walked out the front door that day, Ferrel said, she was overcome with a feeling of dread.

Not more than 15 minutes after Maria left, Ferrel ran out the door to find her. She forgot her purse and keys and locked herself out of the apartment. By the time she climbed through a window, got the keys and made her way to the market, another five minutes had passed. Maria was nowhere to be found.

One woman told Ferrel that she saw two men in a van carrying away a kicking and screaming Maria. Another told her the men were driving a white car. Someone said they found the can of tuna near some palm trees next to the market.

"I hear so many rumors I don't know what to believe," Ferrel said.

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