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The State

A Mystery Boy Baffles and Enchants Bakersfield

May 31, 2003|Li Fellers and Monte Morin | Times Staff Writers

BAKERSFIELD — The boy appeared out of nowhere in the middle of a busy east Bakersfield intersection.

He didn't look or act like any of the thousands of children abandoned each year, police say. He was healthy and clean and wore new white tennis shoes, jeans and a T-shirt with the image of a teddy bear driving a race car. His hair was freshly cut.

Residents of the modest neighborhood did not recognize him, and none claimed him. The boy, believed to be about 2, provided few clues himself as to where he had come from.

Speaking only a child's Spanish, the boy said his mother's name was Xochitl, but he could not tell officers where he lived.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 05, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Abandoned boy -- An article in Saturday's Section A about an abandoned boy found in Bakersfield incorrectly said the district attorney's office might initiate adoption proceedings. It is the public defender's office that might begin such proceedings.

When Police Det. Herman Caldas asked if he had any brothers, the boy held up two fingers. When Caldas asked if he had a dog, he held up one.

That was two weeks ago. The boy, who calls himself Mateo, remains a mystery today.

Police have broadcast pleas and distributed fliers across the Central Valley and Mexico, but no relatives have stepped forward.

The child's plight -- his unknown past and his uncertain future -- has captivated Bakersfield, where residents have been charmed by the playful, well-behaved boy. Many long to adopt him.

"He's a doll. He's apparently lovable and has probably been loved. That's what makes it so sad, " said Bakersfield Police Det. Mary DeGeare. "He doesn't fit the characteristics of an abused child or an unloved child. That's what's so puzzling about it."

Some speculate that he was smuggled into the country from Mexico by his parents, who somehow became separated from him. The mother and father haven't claimed him because they fear deportation, people suppose.

Others say the boy may have been kidnapped and hastily abandoned when his abductors panicked.

Or, they say, something bad happened to his parents.

So far, the boy is either unable or unwilling to explain his past, and his behavior continues to raise questions.

He initially told police his name was Jose, but he soon insisted on calling himself Mateo. Police describe him as preternaturally well-behaved for a child his age and say that he has yet to ask for his mother or express any desire to go home.

A week ago, police received what they thought was their first break in the case. It came in the form of a brief phone message.

In a distraught voice, a woman who called herself Xochitl said she was the boy's mother and asked police to find a good home for him.

The caller told police the boy's real name was Jesus Perez Florez, and she gave reasons for her actions, which authorities have declined to divulge, citing the ongoing investigation.

Police say the caller may have been the boy's actual mother, but they are at a loss to explain why the boy doesn't answer to the name she provided them.

Even as police search for the mother, the boy has no shortage of hopeful adoptive parents.

"Everybody wants this child. He's just tugged at their hearts," said Elizabeth Moreno, manager of Lee's Niles Drugs, a neighborhood gathering spot on the block where the boy was found. "There's a lot of the mother instinct coming out in everyone, even men."

What police and residents do know of the boy dates back to 10:10 p.m. on May 18, when a motorist called 911 to report that a child was in the middle of the street.

Andrea Gavin was the first police officer to talk with him.

"At first, he was shy, kind of scared," Gavin said. The boy gave his name as Jose and looked quite sad but was not crying, she said.

The officer went to a nearby house where a party was underway, thinking that the boy's parents may have simply lost track of him. A steady stream of partygoers looked the child over and shook their heads.

The boy squirmed uncomfortably under the attention and Gavin placed him in her patrol car. Tears began streaming down his face and his shoulders shook, but he made no sound.

"It broke my heart," Gavin said. When she took him to an emergency children's shelter, a worker there said she had never seen a cleaner child at the shelter before.

His good manners also surprised his caretakers.

Det. Caldas said he was amazed to see the way the youngster ate. After taking a bite of a burrito, the boy picked up a napkin, delicately dabbed at his mouth, folded the napkin and placed it back on the table. When Caldas offered to spoon-feed him his rice and beans, the child declined.

"He was taught some manners," Caldas said.

Experts in child abuse and neglect say the details surrounding the boy's discovery are unusual.

"It's not very common that you find a well-nourished, clean, well-dressed, happy child" abandoned, said Dr. Astrid Heger, executive director of the Center for the Vulnerable Child at County-USC Medical Center.

"I don't think this is the typical abandoned child."

Most such children, Heger said, are left with baby-sitters, neighbors or relatives or in public areas such as bus stations. It is rare to find one simply wandering the streets, she said.

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