Kidnap suspect's car found, no bodies inside

An Amber Alert has been issued for 4-year-old Juliani Cardenas who was taken from his grandmother by a 27-year-old man.

January 29, 2011 12:49:26 AM PST
Earlier on Friday, authorities located the vehicle belonging to the suspect in the abduction of a 4-year-old Central California boy and pulled it to the surface. By early Friday evening, they brought the car to the surface, but there were no bodies found inside.

In fact, search teams pulled up three cars at once out of the Delta-Mendota Canal, one of them being the silver Toyota Corolla they were looking for.

The sheriff's department has been looking for 4-year-old Juliani Cardenas of Patterson since January 18 when his grandmother said the boy was taken by his mother's ex-boyfriend 27-year-old Jose Rodriguez.

A witness told the sheriff's department he saw the silver Corolla being driven into the canal shortly after the boy was taken.

On Friday, the water level in the Delta-Mendota Canal was lowered twice during the day in an effort to remove the car. Divers and crews have about a two hour window, before they had to start pumping water back into the canal.

Commercial divers from Fresno, with a lot of experience in dangerous water recovery missions, volunteered to help search the canal.

"It's exactly like diving in a cave except one where you can't see," says Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson.

A sophisticated sonar device, brought in for the first time by the FBI, was able to go deep into this siphon system -- then a second sonar rover with a small camera attached, was able to get closer to the bumper of the car.

The siphon system is located between two sections of the canal. The siphon is designed to move water under the creek bed, through three 15 by 15 foot square tubes. They found the silver Corolla lodged inside one of those tubes. Juliani's mother was told as soon as they knew they had found the suspect's car.

"Fortunately for us they were able to get close enough where they could actually read a license plate and with that we were able to confirm it was the vehicle we've been looking for," says Stanislaus County Sheriff's Deputy Royjindar Singh.

"Unfortunately, the vehicle is empty. Jose and Juliani are not in the car. Remember that our witness, who at this point remains our most credible lead, saw this car being driven into the canal, saw a boy and a man with the car. The windows of the vehicle were down, at least two of them, so we're going to continue our search at this point. Most likely our next step beyond tonight is to come back and continue to search the siphon to be absolutely sure," says Christianson.

The Corolla had four windows; two of the windows were up, and the driver's window was open as well as the passenger's side window. The car was also found badly damaged. The bodies may be inside the siphon system, but investigators don't know. They said Rodriguez is not that sophisticated and don't think he drove the car into the canal and that he managed to escape.

"Again, he's not sophisticated enough, doesn't have the infrastructure, doesn't have the financing, doesn't have the support to pull off that kind of abduction and here we are a week later, or better than a week later, and there's still no sign of the suspect and Juliani. So, what are our next steps? We're going to continue to search the siphon, we're going to continue to search the canal downstream and we're going to continue to look and hold out hope," says Christianson.

The search will continue on Saturday in the canal for the bodies. However, the sheriff's department may have to wait until the bodies surface, if the two are inside the siphon system.

The total number of cars pulled out of the canal is 14 and there is still one more car inside the siphon that has not yet been pulled up.

"The mood in the home is still hopeful and faith that this child will come home safely," says family spokesperson Annette Smith.

Neighbors set candles on the family's home after watching the car being pulled out of the water. Neighbor Alice Yvanes says she "broke down. I broke down." She described how Rodriguez would act at times saying, "He would threaten them, threaten to kill them."

However, Juliani's mother, Tabitha Cardenas, still hopes out hope and appeared at a vigil Friday night and she expressed eternal hope.

"As a mom, you would think I would get a gut feeling like something's wrong, but I've never gotten that feeling. That's why I still believe that he's out there somewhere," says Tabitha.