Crime

Snelling homicide, missing Planada woman and baby being jointly investigated by sheriff's office

The Merced County Sheriff's Department Patrol Division took a missing person's report Thursday night in the 1500 block of Plainsburg Road in Planada for Ana Lila Diaz DeCeja, 26, and her infant son, Anthony Ceja-Diaz, who is 2 months old.

Meanwhile, the sheriff's Major Crimes Division said it continued its investigation through Thursday night in the apparent homicide of a person burned beyond recognition near Snelling.

Positive identification hasn't been made on the body found near Snelling, and an autopsy is still pending.

The Sheriff's Department said it's conducting a parallel investigation into the missing person case and the burned body, according to a news release from the department.

Neighbors last saw DeCeja getting into her blue 2002 Chevrolet Avalanche, California license plate 7J73455, sometime Thursday, according to the news release. The vehicle is also missing.

Late Friday afternoon, DeCeja's immediate family and relatives congregated at the missing woman's parents' home in Merced.

"Since yesterday, we don't know the exact time, probably 11:30 a.m. onwards, she's been missing. She took her car, and we don't know anything," said her 18-year-old brother, Rodolfo Diaz. "She had an appointment at Golden Valley (Health Centers, but she never went."

"It's weird, her bed wasn't done and she didn't take any formula for the baby," he said. "She hasn't called to say, 'I'm fine, don't worry.' "

Diaz said DeCeja's older son, Luis, 5, was asking about his younger brother Friday.

"He was asking about his brother and saying, 'Will he be hungry? Will he be cold?' " said Diaz, and then broke down in tears. Moments before, his mother had rushed past him, also crying, into the bathroom from the living room.

No further details will be released on either case, at least for a while, to protect the integrity of both investigations. No suspects have been named and no arrests have been made.

Deputy Tom MacKenzie, sheriff's spokesman, said the office is asking the public's help with both cases. If anyone has any knowledge of the homicide or missing person's case, or has seen the vehicle (2002 Chevrolet Avalanche 7J73455), contact the Merced County Sheriff's Department Detective Division at (209) 385-7472.

Ana DeCeja is described as 26, 5-feet-6-inches tall, 160 pounds, with black hair, brown eyes and a mole on her upper right lip.

Anthony Ceja-Diaz is 2 months old, weighs 7 pounds, 3 ounces, is 20 inches tall and has black hair and brown eyes.

On Thursday, farmworkers found a badly burned body in an orchard west of Snelling, in the 3200 block of Keyes Road. The workers reported seeing smoke rising several yards away about 9:30 a.m. They weren't suspicious because they thought someone might be burning garbage. Detectives said the identity and gender of the victim haven't been determined. The body was burned beyond recognition.

MacKenzie said it's unknown whether the victim was burned alive. Detectives are awaiting the results of an autopsy to determine cause of death. Preliminary results from that autopsy probably won't be available until next week.

Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or abutt@mercedsun-star.com.

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