Planada family welcomes home baby

12/16/2010 11:38 AM

12/17/2010 8:18 AM

If there are Christmas miracles, one happened in Merced on Thursday night.

At least 20 people from the DeCeja and Diaz families gathered in a tiny house in Merced, crowding around 2-month old Anthony Ceja-Diaz, the baby who was kidnapped from his mother, Ana Lila Diaz DeCeja, on Dec. 2.

The baby was found on a doorstep in Le Grand five days later. Child Protective Services delivered the baby back home Thursday night. The baby's mother was killed in Planada more than two weeks ago, a few miles from her home, and her badly burned body was found near Snelling the same day. Two suspects were arrested Wednesday night in the murder.

On Thursday night, Luis De- Ceja, the father of the baby and the husband of Ana DeCeja, held his sleeping son on his lap. His son Luis Jr., 5, sat beside him on the couch.

Speaking Spanish, DeCeja had said in an earlier phone interview that he felt relieved "because these people are going to pay for what they did. But the emptiness of my wife is going to be there forever."

Rodolfo Diaz, Ana DeCeja's 18-year-old brother, said he was satisfied that investigators found the people responsible for his sister's death, but that nothing would bring her back. He said the family wants justice and is seeking the death penalty.

The bizarre and gruesome turn of events had plagued this family for 15 days.

Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin revealed details of the crime during a news conference Thursday morning.

Teresa Ceja Robles, 33, and Jose Augustine Velarde, 37, confessed to luring DeCeja to their home Dec. 2 in a plot to steal her 2-month old baby. The husband is suspected of strangling DeCeja, Pazin said.

Sheriff's deputies arrested the couple at their Market Street, Planada, home.

The two were charged with murder and kidnapping.

DeCeja and her 2-month-old son disappeared Dec. 2 from her home in the 1500 block of Plainsburg Road. Her body was found burned beyond recognition at an orchard in Snelling that same day.

According to Pazin, the couple's motive for stealing the child and killing the mother stemmed from a miscarriage the couple suffered over the summer. The couple longed for a baby boy, Pazin said, so they began plotting to steal DeCeja's child. The couple has three other children.

Witnesses had told deputies they were approached in Merced by the suspects and asked if they would help in stealing a baby.

The couple abandoned that plot after they discovered DeCeja had a baby, according to Pazin.

The suspects and DeCeja are from the same small town and knew one another. They became better acquainted at a health clinic in Planada days before the murder. That's when the couple began to conspire to snatch DeCeja's baby, authorities said.

"The suspects used a ruse to lure Ana to their house," Pazin said. "Ana was then attacked by the husband, strangled, then driven dead to an orchard outside Snelling."

The husband tried to get rid of the evidence by setting DeCeja's body on fire, Pazin said.

When authorities discovered the body Dec. 2, they could identify the body only through dental records. Deputies made a positive identification Dec. 7.

Hours after the murder, the couple brought the baby home and told their three children, ages 13, 11 and 8, that this was Robles' new baby, "Jose," Pazin said.

Intense local media scrutiny into the incident apparently caused the couple to panic.

They decided they couldn't keep the baby, so they left him in front of a home in Le Grand, authorities said. A neighbor heard cries and discovered the baby wrapped in a blanket at 6:30 a.m. Dec. 7 in the 4000 block of Fresno Street.

The baby nearly died from exposure after his body temperature dropped to 86 degrees, Pazin said.

The baby was taken to Mercy Medical Center for treatment and has recovered.

As a way to explain the baby's sudden absence, the couple told their children that the baby was ill and had to be taken to a Fresno hospital, Pazin said, and planned to tell their family that the infant had died at the hospital.

Before DeCeja disappeared, she told family members she was going to a health clinic. But she never returned home. DeCeja's husband reported her missing that night. DeCeja last was seen getting into her blue 2002 Chevrolet Avalanche, neighbors said.

The vehicle was later found seven miles away from where DeCeja's incinerated body was found. The car seat was missing, but the base was inside the vehicle, still attached.

The first clue to a possible baby theft came when a couple walking along a path Dec. 3 near Bear Creek and Parsons Avenue found the car seat.

Another witness told detectives that early Dec. 3, near 27th Street and Midge Avenue in Merced, a man and woman carrying a baby in a car seat asked if the witness "wanted to buy a baby," according to authorities.

Deputies said they are confident the baby found on the doorstep is Anthony Ceja-Diaz, but they are still awaiting the results of a DNA test to confirm the child's identity.

Typically in cases like this one, the suspect is someone closely related to the victim, Pazin said. In this case, the husband wasn't considered a suspect because he was working at the time of the crime.

The suspects have no criminal history. They are being held in Merced County Jail without bail. The couples' three children have been taken into the custody of Child Protective Services.

Reporter Jamie Oppenheim can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or joppenheim@mercedsun-star.com. Reporter Yesenia Amaro contributed to this story.

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