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Missing Girl Is Recovered at L.A. Clinic; Woman Arrested

Abduction: Child is apparently unhurt. Echo Park neighborhood erupts in cheers at news.

August 14, 2002|ANTHONY MCCARTNEY and HECTOR BECERRA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Almost two days after her disappearance triggered a citywide search, 4-year-old Jessica Cortez walked into a Los Angeles clinic on Tuesday and was quickly reunited with her parents.

Jessica's mother, Maria Hernandez, "cried hysterically" as the two embraced, according to LAPD Acting Chief Martin Pomeroy. The girl laughed, then cried, he said.

The girl, "clung to her mother," Pomeroy said, and "she continued to cling to her mother and, as of last report, is still clinging to her mother."

Police arrested Patricia Cornejo, 34, late Tuesday and booked her on suspicion of kidnapping. Cornejo had been detained after she accompanied Jessica when she appeared at the clinic at about 4:30 Tuesday afternoon, according to LAPD Lt. Don Hartwell.

"There are no accomplices," Hartwell said late Tuesday.

Police had executed search warrants at two Los Angeles locations late Tuesday and questioned two other people.

The head of the clinic where Jessica appeared described her as barefoot, disheveled and confused but said she did bear any visible signs of injury.

"She seemed to be in good condition," Steve Rutledge, spokesman for Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles, said after doctors there had examined the girl Tuesday evening. Jessica also met with social workers, he said.

News that Jessica was alive was greeted with cheers of relief by a crowd of people who had gathered at Echo Park Lake, where the girl had vanished Sunday evening and police had set up a command post to direct the search.

Some in the crowd began chanting the girl's name.

On her knees, hands clasped in prayer, an emotional Maria Mendoza turned to police officers and remarked, "Mission accomplished."

"I knew she was alive," Mendoza said. "I had great faith in God."

Another Echo Park resident, Maria Manzanero, said that "We prayed hard, and maybe our prayers sent fear to her abductor."

Late Tuesday evening, shortly before Jessica was transferred from Childrens Hospital to Los Angeles County USC Medical Center, police used a battering ram to break into an apartment south of downtown Los Angeles in a search they said was related to the girl's disappearance. No arrests were made.

Sometime later, in a search of another home on 91st Street, two men were detained for questioning. Three children at the house were taken into protective custody.

Jim Mangia, executive director of the St. John's Well Child Center just off the 110 Freeway at West Adams Boulevard, said that a well-dressed woman came in to the clinic with Jessica just after 4:30 p.m.

The girl seemed disoriented and confused and did not speak, he said.

She was dressed differently than when she disappeared, police said. According to clinic workers, she was wearing a pair of dark-green shorts and a white T-shirt. Her hair was cut haphazardly, Mangia said.

The woman requested an examination for the girl, but would not identify their relationship, causing the staff to become suspicious.

The woman would not fill out forms asking for Jessica's date of birth, Mangia said. And clinic workers thought they recognized the girl.

Anxious that the woman might leave, Mangia ordered a nurse to conduct a lengthy exam in order to hold the girl as long as possible.

"We were not going to let her leave with the child," Mangia said.

While the woman was in a bathroom, a nurse asked the girl her name.

"She said, 'My name is Jessica,' " Mangia said.

The girl then told the nurse the woman was not her mother.

What followed was tense episode in which staff members took positions to block the woman's exit. Staffers had been following the case on television, Mangia said. Police then arrived and took the woman into custody.

Surrounded by several hundred jubilant onlookers, Acting Chief Pomeroy announced the girl's safe recovery.

"We wanted so badly to find Jessica. Somtimes these things end in bad results that break our hearts, so we are glad that this search lifted our spirits," he said.

"We won't rest" until those involved are in custody, Pomeroy said.

Earlier in the day, hundreds of police officers had fanned out across northeast Los Angeles, and divers continued to search murky Echo Park Lake as efforts to find the girl stretched into a third day.

The mood was somber and neighbors were increasingly pessimistic as the hours wore on. Investigators had so little to go on that late in the day, they were carrying out two investigations at the same time--one a possible drowning, the other a possible kidnapping.

The drama had begun Sunday evening when Jessica's parents, Rafael Cortez and Maria Hernandez, lost sight of her at about 7:30 p.m.

Early leads--mainly the account of her 5-year-old brother--pointed investigators toward a drowning. But Monday, new information suggested Jessica had been lured away by an abductor.

The LAPD then circulated a composite sketch of a suspect, described as a dark-skinned male with a cross tattooed on his left leg. The man had a chihuahua, and was with a little girl, they said.

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