CHICAGO — The priest sat near a small white casket, looking at the empty funeral home chapel. A 5-year-old girl's body lay in repose, her head resting on white linen.
It was Thursday, April 7, the morning of the little girl's wake, and no one had come. Father Matt Foley stared at the chapel doors. About half an hour had passed. Where was the family?
Eventually six people showed up, one claiming to be the child's aunt. It wasn't clear who the others were or how they might have known Jessica Chavez.
Foley didn't see Jessica's mother, the desperate woman who had come to him four days earlier saying that her daughter had died at a Kansas City, Mo., hospital and that she couldn't afford to bring the body home to Chicago.
Foley made arrangements to transport the body, covered the costs, set up this wake, a Mass and a proper burial. He asked the aunt and the others of the mother's whereabouts. They said they didn't know, lowered their heads and said no more. He recalls their faces revealing no emotion.
The priest felt it wasn't his place to judge how others chose to grieve. But he couldn't stop wondering how a beautiful 5-year-old child could die and have only six mourners. How could a mother miss her little girl's funeral?
He sat in silence, praying. Who was this little girl? Who was Jessica Chavez?
Police in Kansas City know this much: A woman who identified herself as Mariam Chavez arrived at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City in the early morning of Saturday, April 2, with a 5-year-old girl she said was her daughter, Jessica Chavez. In a police report, an emergency room nurse said it appeared Jessica had been dead for several hours.
Police arrived at the hospital at 3:35 a.m.
A medical examiner would later determine that Jessica had died of natural causes: sepsis, a blood infection, brought on by a severe case of bronchopneumonia. She had marks all over her body that looked like bruises but were a side effect of her illness, not the result of trauma.
"This was a very, very ill child," said Thomas Young, chief investigator at the Jackson County medical examiner's office.
Her death certificate gave few details. She was born Aug. 7, 1999, in Mexico. No city was listed; neither was her father's name.
The woman, speaking broken English, told police she had been living in Chicago while Jessica stayed with relatives in Mexico, but Jessica had fallen ill so Chavez had come to get her, hoping to bring her to a U.S. hospital.
She said they boarded a bus in Dallas the previous morning en route to Chicago.
But Jorge Mares, office manager for El Conejo Bus Lines in Chicago, said he remembered the woman and little girl boarding a southbound bus toward Kansas City, which left Chicago on the afternoon of Friday, April 1. He said the bus was bound for Dallas, but the woman and girl were going only as far as Kansas City.
The woman told police that Jessica started throwing up on the bus near Kansas City. When the bus stopped, El Conejo officials called an ambulance, Mares said.
At the hospital, the mother gave authorities a Chicago address and a telephone number with a 312 area code. Sgt. James McAdams, who was at the hospital, said the little girl's body was emaciated, her hair unkempt and dirty.
He said the mother's behavior was erratic.
"Part of the time she'd be just normal, then the next moment she'd be despondent," he said. "She didn't seem to understand what was going on."
Fearing the mother might be suicidal, police took her to a nearby mental health center for observation. Police left the hospital about 6 a.m.
McAdams said that despite the circumstances of the girl's death, there was no cause to keep Chavez in custody. Once she was cleared to leave the Western Missouri Mental Health Center, he said, she was free to go. The health center, citing privacy laws, would not confirm that she was ever there.
That was the last time any officials in Kansas City saw Mariam Chavez.
At 10 the next morning, 28 hours later, a woman claiming to be Mariam Chavez sat in the parish office of St. Agnes of Bohemia Catholic Church in the Little Village area of Chicago, about 530 miles from Kansas City. It was a Sunday, and Foley had just finished the second of the day's nine Masses. He walked into the parish rectory to check messages and was approached by a weary-looking woman.
She pulled a wrinkled Polaroid picture from her pocket and showed the priest an image of a small girl, with shoulder-length black hair, dark skin and a sweet smile.
The woman explained to Foley that the girl, her daughter, had died in Kansas City the previous day, that she had been up all night and was searching for someone to help her bring the child's body back to Chicago.
She spoke perfect English, unlike the woman in Kansas City who claimed to be Jessica's mother. "She never cried," Foley recalled. "But I could tell the woman was desperate."