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Boy's Remains Identified; Cause of Death Still Uncertain

Authorities say evidence suggests the 9-year-old, who was last seen alive in July at a campsite in the Big Bear area, was killed by a mountain lion.

June 03, 2005|Lance Pugmire and Veronica Torrejon | Times Staff Writers

Coroner's officials have determined that the skull and bones found near a Big Bear area campsite last weekend are those of 9-year-old David Gonzalez, but the cause of his death is still under investigation, authorities said Thursday.

The boy's dental records were used to positively identify the remains, which were found by hikers and San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies along a creek near the Hanna Flat campground. David disappeared during a family outing in July.

"My heart is sad, but my soul is in joy, for I now know where my son is: He's in heaven with God," Jose Gonzalez, David's father, said during a morning news conference called to announce the coroner's findings.

Gonzalez said he lost sight of his son for only three minutes before be began searching for the boy. David strayed from his parents after he asked for keys to the family pickup so he could retrieve some cookies.

"A second is an eternity," Gonzalez said, fighting back tears. "Witnesses will tell you, I take good care of my children .... This was a tragedy."

Experts studying the boy's remains, and the remote area where they were found, said the evidence suggested that he was the victim of a mountain lion attack.

The scattering of the boy's bones was "consistent with animal activity," a wildlife biologist said, and body decomposition indicated the remains stayed where David died, said Sgt. Frank Bell of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's homicide unit.

A sheriff's spokesman said there was no obvious trauma to David's skull or bones to indicate foul play. When the boy disappeared, detectives interviewed all registered sex offenders living in the area and took statements from most of the people who camped at the site to determine if he had been abducted.

"Everything we're finding is pointing toward a natural death, and nothing that we're finding is leading us to believe anything criminal occurred," Bell said. "The location would be too difficult for a murder suspect to carry a boy to. It would've taken hiking down a steep ravine and carrying the boy nearly a mile to get back there. A murder suspect is not going to do that."

Bell said another possibility was that David fell near the creek and either sustained fatal injuries or was attacked by a mountain lion as he tried to crawl or walk alone back to camp.

Deputy Coroner David Van Norman said a thorough examination of the remains was scheduled to be performed today by a forensic pathologist and a forensic anthropologist. Only about 25% of the boy's bones have been recovered, he said.

"This phase [of establishing how the boy died] will be the most difficult," Van Norman said. "It's important to have gathered evidence and consider the possibilities."

Douglas Updike, a senior wildlife biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game, said if the coroner's team finds that markings on David's bones match the teeth of a mountain lion, it would almost certainly point to a fatal attack. Mountain lions are not scavengers, and they prefer eating their own prey, Updike said.

"There are many aspects consistent with the possibility that a mountain lion attacked this young boy: where he was found, the [animal's] swift ability to take prey quietly and take it away from the site of an attack," Updike said.

After the boy vanished, a search ensued, with hundreds of volunteers assisting in the operation.

Even though searchers combed the area near where David's remains were found, mountain lions often cover their prey in branches, leaves and pine needles, Updike said. The big cats also can deflect the attention of search dogs that are trained, for safety reasons, to not lead humans to sites when dangerous animals are nearby.

"Mountain lions ... are such an effective predator, we are no match for them," Updike said.

He said mountain lions are quick, efficient killers and stealthy enough that they usually take their prey by surprise by attacking from behind, which could explain why searchers never heard David cry for help.

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