Eileen Nicole Ponce-Orta, 22, had been missing for four days when Pomona police called her family last Friday to retrieve her minivan that was found illegally parked in a lot near the police station.
"They said they located Eileen's van and that there were no signs of foul play and no blood," said Tracy Ponce, the victim's mother. "I said, oh well, that's a relief."
Ponce said that when family members arrived at the lot, they found her daughter's maroon Plymouth Voyager with the front windows rolled down. She opened the van's sliding door, then lifted up some blankets in the back seat and saw part of a leg. Ponce knew it was her daughter, because of her purple toenail polish.
"Oh, my God," she said.
Her son, Ricky, quickly pulled her away. He and Ponce-Orta's husband, Nick, jumped in the back seat and threw off the blankets.
"Mom, don't go in there!" Ricky said. "It's Eileen! It's Eileen!"
Authorities said Ponce-Orta, the La Puente mother of a 2-year-old, had been stabbed in the neck. She was pronounced dead at the scene.
But family members say they are dumbfounded as to why officers didn't check inside the van before releasing it to them.
"No mother should have to find their daughter like this," Ponce said.
Pomona Police Chief Joe Romero defended his department, saying officers had followed proper protocol. When the van was located, Romero said officers were sent to inspect the vehicle. After running a check of the license plate, they learned it was part of a missing person's report filed in Covina.
He said the officers called Covina police and were told to release the van to the family or it would be impounded, Romero said.
"There is no way the officers could have known" there was a dead body inside, Romero said. "There's no mistake on our part. We have no right to go inside the vehicle."
But the victim's family disagreed. They said that because Ponce-Orta was missing and in possible trouble, police had an obligation to conduct a thorough search of the van.
Pomona Mayor Norma Torres said she wants to know more about the department's protocols in dealing with such cases.
"It's certainly upsetting to hear, and my heart goes out to the family, who had to discover the body," Torres said. "I have a lot of questions that require follow-up."
Ponce-Orta's family filed the missing person's report on Valentine's Day after they hadn't heard from her in two days.
The report gave a full description of Ponce-Orta and her van, including its license plate, said Lt. Ron McDonald of the Pomona Police Department. The missing person's warrant was entered into a national law enforcement database, McDonald said.
Ponce said Ponce-Orta and her husband had been having trouble, and it was unusual for her to stay away from home for more than one night. She said the couple were in counseling and that Ponce-Orta hadn't been heard from since Tuesday.
Ponce said she filed the police report on Thursday after authorities showed up at her Covina home earlier in the day to tell her that Ponce-Orta's 2-year-old daughter had been dropped off at the local police station. She said a relative of her daughter's husband had left the child with another family member, who then took the girl to the station.
"Eileen and her daughter were almost never separated," Ponce said. "That's how we knew something was wrong. An alarm went off."
Police declined to discuss any details of the homicide investigation. No arrests have been made.
Although she has begun talking with family members about possible legal action against the Police Department, Ponce said she hopes only that her daughter's killer is found.
"My heart and my husband's heart have been torn in half," Ponce said.