In the meantime, Dominguez and Lerma kept scouring the desert during the day, hoping to stumble on some sign of Lucresia.
After two weeks of searching, Dominguez grew frustrated. The desert, it seemed, was hiding his daughter, toying with him, playing tricks with his mind -- taunting him to give up.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 09, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Desert map -- A map with an article in Sunday's Section A about a man's search for the body of his daughter in the southern Arizona desert mislabeled an area west of Tucson as the Papago Indian Reservation. It is the Tohono O'odham (Papago) Reservation.
"The creek beds lie. We follow them, and then they disappear or merge with other creek beds," he said. "There are moments when your brain stops functioning. You get disoriented. Everything in the desert looks the same."
One day, Lerma stopped at a wash that branched off in several directions. He turned to Dominguez.
"Which way should we go? This way, or this way, or this way, or this way?"
A crucial landmark
On their nightly visit with Jesus on July 20, the boy recognized something in a photograph: a pond where he had stopped to drink after leaving his mother. Jesus said he had reached the pond after walking north for about an hour. He had crossed four dry creek beds, jumped a barbed-wire fence and followed a narrow road.
The men were encouraged: They could try to retrace Jesus' footsteps south to his mother's resting spot.
Two days later, they parked the van near the pond, now dry, and set out. Jesus had drawn a crude map, with creeks represented by rows of lines and barbed-wire fences by squiggly marks.
They walked for two hours and crossed several creeks before they encountered a gust of wind bearing an awful odor. Another body. Was it Lucresia? This unfortunate migrant had died under a bush and been dragged by animals into a clearing. Little flesh remained. But the pink underwear and bra told Dominguez it was the body of a woman.
The corpse had dark blue pants. Lucresia had worn white-washed bluejeans. Also, the location wasn't right: Lucresia had died in a creek bed, not in a clearing.
"This is not my daughter," he said.
Dominguez retreated upwind from the smell. Lerma wandered away, struggling to find a cellphone signal to dial 911. The location was so isolated that the Border Patrol sent a helicopter to find them. Five hours later, two sheriff's deputies arrived to pick up the body.
Deputy Williams, a 13-year veteran, walked up to the skeleton without flinching. He figured the body had been there about a month. He had seen worse.
"This isn't bad. What's bad is when it makes you sick. Puking sick," he said.
Asked what the chances were that Dominguez would find his daughter's remains, Williams answered without hesitation: "Zero."
Narrowing the search
The next day dawned cloudy. The night before, Dominguez and Lerma had visited Jesus in Nogales and worked on his map. Today, they would alter their route slightly, walking southwest.
They made their way through several washes cluttered with makeshift shelters, empty water bottles and clothing.
"\o7Muchachos\f7!" they yelled. "Come out. We have water. Don't be afraid."
No one emerged.
Lerma called Jesus at the hotel.
"The place you left your mother -- were there many shelters for people to sleep?" Lerma asked.
"No," he replied. "It was a narrow creek bed, winding, with tall trees."
"Tall trees?" Lerma repeated.
"Yes, we used them for shade," Jesus said.
The boy concluded that they had gone too far south, crossed too many washes. They should search north of that spot.
"OK," Lerma told Jesus. "If you remember anything else, call us."
On the bumpy drive north, the men saw vultures circling and stopped to investigate. After walking about a mile, they discovered a fourth body.
Dominguez determined quickly it was not his daughter. Lerma called 911. For the second day in a row, they resigned themselves to a long wait for authorities.
Lerma, on the phone with a dispatcher, tried to describe their location. Dominguez wandered back to the wash to take another look.
He saw things he hadn't noticed before. A barrel cactus, split open, lay near the corpse. A maroon sweater and daypack had been strewn under a tree. Dominguez thought out loud: Hadn't Jesus said that he had drunk from a cactus? Hadn't he said there was a maroon sweater and a daypack under a tree?
Dominguez walked into the creek bed. Twenty feet from the skull, he found the left hand. Still shining on the fingers were three rings. His daughter wore three rings on her left hand.
Dominguez fell silent. He spit. He slapped an empty plastic Coke bottle against his thigh. He spit again
"This could be my daughter," he said. He backed away, held his hands behind his back, and stared a long time at the scattered remains, probably the work of coyotes, vultures or mountain lions.
And yet other parts of the scene didn't fit. Jesus had said he could see the white-domed observatory atop Kitt Peak from the wash. From here, the observatory was obscured by trees, Dominguez noted. Also, the clumps of hair near the skull seemed too dark to be Lucresia's.
Dominguez went back to the car and called his daughter Hilda in Los Angeles. He asked what brand of shoes Lucresia wore.
"Roxy," she answered.
"Have you found her?" she asked Dominguez.