What went wrong in search for 3 Camden boys? As a report nears release, new details show possible instances of confusion.

Posted: July 25, 2005

When the father of a missing Camden boy opened a car trunk and saw his son and two friends dead last month as television cameras recorded the scene, an intimate moment of horror became a public flash point that ruptured a city with grief, guilt and blame.

A two-day, two-state search for the children had gained national attention and become a dramatic display of unity in struggling Camden. Lifting the trunk lid yielded one tragic answer while unleashing a swarm of complicated questions:

How could 150 law enforcement officers, armed with search dogs, all-terrain vehicles, mounted equestrian units and thermal- imaging equipment, not find the children in the very yard where they were last seen playing? How could no one - not police, parents, or even the dozens of neighbors who helped search - have thought to check that trunk?

These questions may be answered by an official report on the search, expected next week. Meanwhile, several new details shed more light on why the boys - who, the medical examiner says, were alive for at least the beginning of the search - were not found more quickly. Anibal "Juni" Cruz, 11, Daniel Agosto, 6, and Jesstin "Manny" Pagan, 5, died of accidental suffocation.

Exposed scene. The yard of the Cruz family where the boys were last seen on June 22 was not immediately cordoned off when they were reported missing on that Wednesday night, leading to possible contamination of the scene.

This severely cut the potential effectiveness of search dogs, which were not called to the scene until the next morning, according to several police and canine experts.

"If the cops made a mistake, if the detectives made mistake, if everybody made a mistake, the dogs could have rectified that - had the dogs been deployed right away," said Michael Chitwood Jr., a former Philadelphia homicide lieutenant who is now a police chief in Oklahoma.

Moving scents. Daisy, a bloodhound from the Cherry Hill Police Department that arrived at the house around 11 a.m. Thursday, picked up a scent in the Cruz household and led police several blocks away to the Delaware River, refocusing the massive search to the water.

But more than 17 hours after the children went missing, the search would have been "beyond the canine officer's control - all the people moving and the scent moving," said Perry Parks, the regional president of the U.S. Police Canine Association. Parks said a searcher could have come into contact with something belonging to one of the boys and unintentionally spread the scent to the river, confusing Daisy.

Help refused. The New Jersey State Police offered Camden authorities three of its dogs, which were in the city for a festival. Camden police refused their request, and no state police dogs were used in the search, according to state police spokesman Al Della Fave. Camden police spokesman Michael Lynch did not return two messages seeking comment.

Another experienced dog handler brought several search dogs to the scene Thursday and was not used that day, according to City Councilman Gilbert "Whip" Wilson.

A distraction? Two police officers who arrived on the scene the night the children disappeared were interrupted as they searched the yard, said John Williamson, president of Camden's Fraternal Order of Police.

Williamson said one officer searched the shed, and the other was looking in the car when a relative said the Cruz family got a call that the children were at a nearby pizza parlor.

The officers stopped the search and diverted to the pizza place, he said. The children were not there, so the officers began a search of that area instead of returning to the yard, Williamson said.

Chitwood said interrupting a search of the initial scene is contrary to standard police practice when someone is missing.

"You come in, you search the top and bottom of that property, in and out. You search that house top to bottom, then you go outside, and you search the immediate area, and obviously a car," he said.

"Hey, cops ain't perfect. We make mistakes, but something like this, it just leaves a bad taste in my mouth."

Confusion at the beginning of the search has been spotlighted because the Camden County medical examiner ruled that the boys lived 13 to 33 hours after they went missing - meaning they were alive at least into Thursday morning.

Police "were in control of the search area, the car, the yard, everything, and were fully responsible for that when the boys would have died," said Peter Villari, an attorney for Elba Cruz, Anibal's mother.

Even the investigative report expected next week has come under fire from police unions and local politicians because two of the three members of the panel helped lead the search. "Who is going to indict themselves?" asked Wilson, a former city police officer who has been collecting information informally. Another group led by former mayoral candidate Keith Walker is investigating on its own.

The offices of Camden County Prosecutor Vincent P. Sarubbi - who appointed the three-member panel - and of Camden Police Chief Edwin Figueroa have declined to comment on the case until after the panel's report is released.

As the families decide whether to bring legal action against authorities for not searching the trunk, they have also encountered public criticism for not calling police until nearly three hours after the boys went missing and for not searching the trunk themselves.

Villari says the trunk was locked, the keys were kept in the house, and Elba Cruz did not realize the boys could climb into the trunk by folding down the backseat of the car. "How could the kids get in a locked trunk?" Villari asked.

The Cruz family was new to the 900 block of Bergen - though not to Cramer Hill, having recently moved from nearby North 33d Street.

Anibal, who functioned at the mental capacity of a much younger child, was well known among neighbors. On hot afternoons like that Wednesday, he often walked nearby to buy water ice and could also be seen in his front yard, blasting his two young friends with a garden hose.

It was a common playtime in a city where half the population is under 25 years old, and there are few recreational facilities.

After the boys' disappearance, many residents in the quiet, mostly Latino neighborhood joined in the hunt, some forfeiting sleep to search abandoned homes and cars.

On the morning after the boys disappeared, volunteers passed out missing-persons flyers, and neighbors clustered on stoops, consoling one another and exchanging theories.

Much of the talk was of predators.

"You can't trust nobody," Maria Torres, 25, who lives a block away from the Cruzes, said at the time. "They could take your kids."

Elba Cruz was worried that Anibal might have been kidnapped. "Anibal was not the type of kid to run away from the house," said Paul Brandes, an attorney for Cruz.

At press conferences, held every two hours at the Camden police station, authorities said repeatedly that they looked into area sex offenders.

Another grim possibility circulated: the Delaware River. Several boats patrolled the water, and searchers scoured both banks from Petty's Island to the Ben Franklin Bridge.

On Friday, June 24, Rich Goodwin, vice president of West Jersey Canine Search and Rescue, arrived with his six search dogs. He said city officials asked him to search some areas along the river.

Keeping in mind that "the rule of thumb is, you start at the point last seen," Goodwin said, "just in conversation we had asked if the house and everything was checked out, and they said yeah." Goodwin also said he was struck by how crowded the area was.

Police spokesman Lynch said that day that the "hot weather" and "thousands of contaminating odors" could have thrown off the search dogs.

As Friday afternoon wound down, Anibal's uncle, Luis Borges, who had driven down from Paterson, N.J., needed jumper cables and wanted to see if any were in Elba Cruz's old car, which had sat in a shady, weedy area of the lawn for a little more than a week.

It was Borges who first discovered the boys, according to the Prosecutor's Office and the Cruz family. From across the yard, he motioned Daniel Agosto's father, David, over to the car.

The cameras rolled while David Agosto strode across the yard, popped the trunk from inside, and lifted the lid.

Contact staff writer Adam Fifield at 856-779-3917 or afifield@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer John Shiffman contributed to this article.

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