Cars are pulled from the Delta-Mendota Canal in the search for a kidnapper… (Paul Sakuma / Associated…)
Reporting from Fresno — Divers searching the Delta-Mendota Canal on Friday found the car used by a kidnapper who grabbed a 4-year-old boy from his grandmother's arms. The bodies were not in the vehicle.
All evidence, from tire tracks to an eyewitness, had indicated that the silver Toyota of kidnapper Jose Esteban Rodriguez was in the canal. A farmworker who saw the car go into the canal told police it was airborne and that two people — one much smaller than the other — were inside. Detectives had been careful to not extend hope.
Nevertheless, the small town of Patterson had fervently cast about for a different explanation. Juliani Cardenas' mother, Tabitha Cardenas, said she knew her son was not in the canal. At nightly candlelight vigils, people prayed that Juliani would be returned.
"We're saddened that we found the car, even though we knew we would," Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson told reporters Friday.
Christianson said a search of the canal would probably resume Monday, this time looking for the bodies. The car was found lodged in a siphon where the canal drops to a tunnel beneath a creek. Both front windows were rolled down.
On Jan. 18, Rodriguez rushed Amparo Cardenas, knocking her over and grabbing Juliani from her arms.
Rodriguez, the ex-boyfriend of Tabitha Cardenas, who is 8 months pregnant with his child, was not Juliani's biological father, although the boy had once called him Daddy. Juliani was crying as Rodriguez ran away with him, according to authorities. Police said Rodriguez has a record of domestic abuse and manslaughter.
Forty-five minutes later, the farmworker saw a car go into the canal.
That stretch of the canal is a notorious dumping spot. Recovery teams pulled up 13 other vehicles, most of them stolen, before finding the car they were looking for.
On Friday, authorities lowered the water level 10 feet to calm the canal and improve operating conditions for sonar equipment. Even with the water lowered, it was dangerous for divers to be near the siphon.
They located the car in the morning and workers pulled it out in the evening.
Amparo Cardenas, the grandmother, waits tables at Damasco Fine Foods and Spirits, a main hub in town that holds Rotary Club meetings.
"Everyone in Patterson knows her. She's hardworking and sweet and loves everybody," restaurant owner Steve Ceron said.
"She really loved that little boy. She took care of him all the time and always talked abut him. The whole town is just silent today. When it's this sad, there's nothing to say."