July 20, 2010 -- Arrest warrants have been issued for a Southern California couple who may have fled to Mexico after abandoning their 4-year-old nephew with the battered body of his 3-year-old sister.
A relative found the 4-year-old boy sleeping in one room of a home in southwest Bakersfield; the body of his sister, identified as Serenity Julia Gandara, was found on the floor of another room, police said.
The two children had been living with Alberto Garcia and Carla Torres Garcia, both 26, whom authorizes believe may have crossed the border into Mexico along with their own three children after Serenity's death.
Bakersfield Police Sgt. Mary DeGeare said arrest warrants were issued, charging the couple with murder and felony child abandonment. They also face federal charges for unlawful flight.
DeGeare said investigators believe the couple was already in Mexico when Torres called her sister to inform her of the death.
DeGeare said the two children exhibted signs of abuse.
"Both of these children had injuries, old and new," she said. "They had scars and marks in various stages of healing, including recent injuries."
The death and abandonment surprised neighbors, who described the couple as caring and preoccupied with the well-being of their children.
"I never saw any cruelty there to any of those children," neighbor Patty Clemons told ABCNews.com. "I feel it must have been an accident."
Police said Serenity had trauma to her head and torso, and that both she and her brother had injuries that were still healing. An autopsy was performed on Monday but the exact cause of death was pending. The boy, whose name was not released, was placed in foster care.
The children were apparently being adopted by the couple. Alberto Garcia did auto body work, which enabled him to stay home with the children and do repair jobs outside, according to neighbors. Carla Garcia cleaned homes.
"The guy was very nice and always very happy," said another neighbor, who asked not to be identified by name. "You wonder why this happened. They were very nice people."
Neighbors said Carla Garcia called her sister Sunday morning and asked her to come to the home in southwest Bakersfield. The sister found Serenity's body on the floor in one room while her brother slept in another room. The Garcias and their three young children – ages 4 to 10 – were gone.
Maria Garcia, the maternal grandmother of the foster children, told television staton KGET in Bakersfield that she had warned a child protective services social worker about abuse in the Garcia household but nothing was done.
"I told her many times something happened with these kids," Maria Garcia told the station.
Girl Dead, Boy Abandoned in Bakersfield, California Home
The two children belonged to Alberto Garcia's sister, but he and Carla were in the process of adopting them, according to neighbors.
Clemons said she never witnessed the abuse although Serenity and her brother were rarely seen outside.
"I never saw cruelty to any of those children," she said. "Now all these people are coming out of the woodwork saying these children were abused. I never saw it but I don't know what happened behind closed doors."
Clemons said the Garcia and Torres were pleasant neighbors who sometimes stopped by with plates of Mexican food. Alberto Garcia occasionally rode the younger children on a red wagon when he picked his children up from school.
"They always made sure all the children got ice cream," Clemons said. "The children were always well dressed. She worked all day cleaning and then came home and always cooked for the family. I used to tell them you guys need some time for yourselves."
The FBI was assisting in the investigation. The family vehicle was described as a white Ford Eddie Bauer Expedition, license plate 5FLC681.