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Suspect Arrested After Chase on Interstate 5 in Girl's 1991 Slaying

Former neighbor is held in beating and stabbing of a 9-year-old abducted from her family's home.

October 26, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Twelve years after the kidnapping and brutal killing of a 9-year-old girl terrified residents and set off a bizarre incident involving a supposed apparition, police in suburban Chula Vista on Saturday arrested a former neighbor in connection with the case.

Police arrested Manuel Bracamontes Jr., 40, in the slaying of Laura Arroyo after a high-speed chase on Interstate 5 in which Bracamontes allegedly rammed a police car before rolling his sport utility vehicle on the shoulder of the busy freeway.

Police obtained a warrant on Thursday for Bracamontes' arrest. He now also faces three counts of assault on a police officer, officials said.

Police did not provide additional information about what led them to Bracamontes.

"We hope this is a large step toward the family finally getting closure," said Chula Vista Police Lt. Gary Wedge. "Everyone in this department is elated that we have a suspect in custody."

The case took an unusual twist within months after the killing when people began claiming to see Laura's image on a blank billboard in downtown Chula Vista, a blue-collar town 10 miles south of San Diego.

Upward of 25,000 people came to the billboard on some nights believing they could see the image illuminated in the shadows. Some thought the girl was speaking to them, others that it was a miracle from God. People left crucifixes, flowers and votive candles.

Finally, the billboard company, in hopes of helping police solve the slaying, put the girl's picture on the 14-by-48-foot billboard along with a telephone number for tipsters.

The tow truck company where Laura's father, Luis, was a driver offered a $5,000 reward. Hundreds of tips were received.

In the years after her slaying, Laura's mother and father and her two brothers visited her grave daily, sometimes spending four to five hours there. "This is a family that has been in agony for 12 years," a neighbor said.

Within days of the killing, police had announced that they had a suspect, but did not release a name. Laura's family had told police they suspected a former neighbor whose daughter was a friend of Laura's.

But even using hairs found on Laura's body and possibly from her killer, police were unable to make an arrest. Using the rudimentary DNA testing that was then available, police said the results were inconclusive.

The third-grade student with the big eyes and warm laugh was taken from the family apartment in the San Ysidro neighborhood of San Diego after answering the door when someone knocked at 9:15 p.m. on June 19, 1991.

Her family remembers hearing her yell out "I'll get it" as she ran for the door. Police believe her kidnapper grabbed her when she opened the door. Nine hours later, her beaten and stabbed body was found dumped in an industrial park in Chula Vista about five miles from her home. Chula Vista police assumed responsibility for the investigation.

As the investigation stalled, Laura's father expressed frustration, particularly at the refusal of police to tell him the name of the suspect or whether it was the former neighbor whom he suspected. "The police don't want to tell me who this man is," Luis Arroyo said a year after the slaying. "I think they're afraid I might try to kill him."

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