Car Was Children's Playground Newly released reports on three boys' deaths point to "communications failures" among family and police.

Posted: August 13, 2005

A burgundy Toyota Camry was a neighborhood plaything before it became a coffin for three young Camden boys found suffocated in the trunk of the car two months ago, according to investigative reports made public yesterday by the Camden County Prosecutor's Office.

Children and adults, questioned in the aftermath of the tragic deaths, told investigators that one of the victims, Anibal Cruz, 11, frequently played in and around the car with other children.

A 9-year-old, questioned by investigators days after Cruz and two younger boys were found dead in the trunk, told of a game called "Monsters" in which she and another girl would hide in the car. Cruz and others would climb over and around it, she said, jumping on the hood and the roof, trying to scare one another.

FOR THE RECORD - CLEARING THE RECORD, PUBLISHED AUGUST 19, 2005, FOLLOWS: An article Saturday about the release of police reports on the search for three boys who died in a car trunk in Camden wrongly stated that the documents made public did not include reports by two responding officers. The reports of Lt. Nicole Martin and Officer Merari Pimentel were among the documents made public.

The girl also told investigators that she and other children knew how to get into the trunk by pushing a button that allowed them to pull down the backseat.

The documents made public yesterday offer an anatomy of the massive search for the three missing boys, Cruz, Daniel Agosto, 6, and Jesstin Pagan, 5, who were found dead 48 hours after they disappeared.

Dozens of reports totaling hundreds of pages detail how police searched and re-searched the boys' Cramer Hill neighborhood, pursued reports of abductions and possible connections to sexual predators, brought in bloodhounds, used helicopters and boats, and even tracked freight trains that had been through the area.

None of the reports, however, indicate that anyone opened the trunk of the car. None of the reports indicate what police may have asked family and neighbors about the children's play habits.

Officials with the Prosecutor's Office and the Camden Police Department declined to comment yesterday.

The information contained in the documents was summarized in a Prosecutor's Office report issued Aug. 1 that was critical of the way certain aspects of the search were conducted.

Among other things, the report concluded that the trunk and interior of the car should have been searched when police were first called to the scene. It also noted that the children's family members should have mentioned to investigators that the children frequently played in and around the car.

"It must be noted that communications failures played a large part in this tragedy," the report reads in part.

The 1992 Toyota belonged to a grandmother of Anibal Cruz and had been parked in the backyard of his home in the 900 block of Bergen Avenue for several weeks, apparently with a dead battery.

The families reported the boys missing around 8:25 p.m. on June 22, more than three hours after they were last seen and after relatives had frantically combed the neighborhood looking for them.

The reports released yesterday include statements taken from relatives and friends, some of which were tape-recorded. They also include reports from Camden police commanders and officers who took part in the search. In many of those reports, the officers noted they were putting their words on paper only because the department had ordered them to.

The acknowledgment and disclaimer were apparently designed to prevent the statements from being used against them in any criminal prosecution.

"Every officer that participated in the search went beyond and above the call of duty," said John Williamson, president of Lodge 1 of the Fraternal Order of Police.

The reports indicate that the first two police officers on the scene searched the backyard and looked in the car, which was locked from the inside. Family members, according to the report, said they had already checked out the car.

Over the next two days, police revisited the car at least twice and a family member also checked the car over, according to the reports.

One officer, Dean Gransden, wrote that he arrived about 1:30 a.m. on June 23 to check on the possibility that a sex offender "related to the family" might be involved.

While in the yard, Gransden ventured over to the car in the darkness.

"I shined my flashlight in the vehicle and saw nothing," Gransden wrote. "I banged on the trunk lid approximately three to four times and heard nothing."

A medical examiner's report said the boys could have remained alive anywhere from 13 to 33 hours after climbing into the trunk.

The reports made public yesterday indicate relatives or police checked the car at least three times in the first nine hours after the boys disappeared.

The reports detailing the contemporaneous investigation contain no references to anyone mentioning that Cruz and other children frequently played in and around the car.

But in the aftermath of the discovery of the bodies, investigators found several people who made that point.

In an interview with detectives from the police and Prosecutor's Offices on June 28, Brittany Mendez, 9, told of how she and others played in the car.

Mendez, interviewed in the presence of her mother, told investigators that she and another girl would get into the car while Cruz and other boys "used to climb . . . on the window and then they go back and then jump, and they would jump on the thing and kick it."

The boys would climb on the roof and jump up and down, she said, while she and the other girl would call them names and shout.

"OK," a detective said. "And that's 'Monsters?' "

"Yeah," she replied.

She also told how she and others would get into the trunk from inside the car by "pushing . . . the button that opens the seat to pull it."

The button is near the backseat.

Asked whether she ever saw anyone else go into the trunk that way, she replied, "Juny."

"Juny" is Anibal Cruz's nickname.

Various officers and investigators at the scene early in the search were told that two police officers had checked the Toyota and the yard.

The reports indicate that no one pressed for a more thorough search of the car because word had spread that it had already been searched.

The shoes the three boys were wearing were later found on the floor of the car. There were also stuffed animals in the car and a soccer ball and football on the ground outside it.

According to a report from Capt. Harry Leon, the uniform operations commander, the call about the missing boys came in at 9:15 p.m. June 22.

Lt. Nicole Martin was on the scene within a minute, according to the report. When she arrived, the parents of all three children said they had been searching more than four hours for the boys.

Martin was joined in her search by Officer Merari Pimentel.

Martin reported to superiors arriving on the scene that "the shed and a Toyota Camry in the yard of 957 Bergen were checked," according to Leon's report.

The report adds, "however, the trunk of the vehicle was not opened."

Martin, who was off duty last night, could not be reached yesterday for comment. She was the watch commander when the search began.

No written reports by either Martin or Pimentel were included in the documents released yesterday.

Pimentel will not comment, according to officials with the Camden Fraternal Order of Police.

Union officials have said Martin and Pimentel were called away from their original backyard search by a report from the family that the boys had been spotted at a pizzeria.

About 6:30 p.m. June 24, roughly 48 hours after the boys disappeared, Anibal Cruz's uncle, Luis Borges, went to the Toyota looking for jumper cables.

When he didn't find them in the car, he opened the trunk.

Contact staff writer George Anastasia at 856-779-3846 or

Inspecting the Car

State police Sgt. D. Yeager in exchange with investigators:

"Mrs. (Jessica) Pagan [mother of one of the boys] asked us if we were having any luck locating the children. . . . I asked Ms. Pagan if anyone had checked that vehicle (pointing to same). Ms. Pagan advised that the vehicle already had been checked by the family as well as the Camden Police Department."

Playing "Monsters"

A detective's exchange with Brittany Mendez, 9, neighbor of the boys.

Detective: . . . One of the games you played was "Monsters," could you explain that to us?

A: Me and Stephanie was in the car while they used to climb . . . on the window and then they go back and then jump, and they would jump on the thing and kick it. . . ."

Q: So they would jump on the top of the car?

A: Yeah on the roof. . . .

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