3 Camden Boys Found Dead in Trunk of Car in Yard

Published: June 25, 2005

CAMDEN, N. J., June 24 - The father of one of three boys who vanished from Camden's hardscrabble streets made a horrifying discovery Friday night when he lifted the trunk of a car parked just feet away from where the boys were last seen and found his son and two playmates dead.

It was not clear whether the boys, who had been missing since Wednesday, climbed into the trunk and got locked in by accident or whether they were put there by someone.

"We have not determined if there was foul play or if this was just a tragic accident," the Camden County prosecutor, Vincent P. Sarubbi, said at a news conference Friday night. "It's too early to tell."

It was also not clear why the 150 police officers who had been searching rivers, drainpipes and tick-infested woods for the last two days had not searched the trunk of a car parked in the yard of the home where the boys disappeared.

"We're still looking into that," said Camden's police chief, Edwin J. Figueroa.

Police officials were also unable to explain why none of the bloodhounds used in the search did not pick up the scent of the children near the car, a maroon Toyota Camry.

Police said the boys - Anibal Cruz, 11, Daniel Agosto, 6, and Jesstin Pagan, 5 - had been last seen Wednesday evening licking Italian ice under a tree in the fenced yard of Anibal's home in the Cramer Hill neighborhood.

According to witnesses, around 7 p.m. on Friday, Daniel's father, David Agosto, decided to check the Toyota sedan parked in the yard. He opened the trunk, then started screaming as he saw the three boys curled up inside.

As Mr. Agosto ran from the car, he fell to his knees and collapsed on the ground.Horrified neighbors and relatives roped their arms around him and dragged him from the yard. Minutes later he was taken away in an ambulance.

"It's so awful, it's unspeakable," said Wendy White, who joined the crowd of stunned onlookers, holding their breath as police officers began stretching white sheets across the yard.

Police officials said there were no visible signs of trauma on the boys' bodies, leading relatives and others to speculate that the boys had suffocated. On Friday night the car - with the boys' bodies still inside - was placed on a flatbed truck and taken for further tests and autopsies on the boys' bodies.

Tragedy is a familiar face in Camden, one of the poorest, most violent cities in America. Each year, children are cut down by the drug wars, and all across the city are sidewalk memorials marking where they fell.

But that did not make the news of the three boys' deaths any easier to absorb.

As word spread, the volunteers who had spent the past two days standing in the middle of Camden's streets, passing out pictures of the boys, gathered on street corners and collapsed on each other's shoulders. Some reached for their cellphones to relay the news in hushed tones. Others sobbed.

Earlier in the day, Lt. Mike Lynch of the Camden Police Department said officers had conducted an exhaustive search of the neighborhood, scouring "every nook and cranny where a 5-year-old could hide."

Much of that attention had been focused on a stretch of weedy riverfront about a half-mile from where the children were last seen. Camden is surrounded by water, with the Cooper River on the east side and the churning Delaware River to the west. The leading theory was that the boys had slipped into the water and drowned, though kidnapping had not been ruled out.

All day Friday, police boats buzzed back and forth along the rivers, with specially trained police dogs hanging over the bows, sniffing the surface. Officers on foot, on horseback and on mud-splattered all-terrain vehicles hacked their way through the underbrush, which marks the edge of Camden's dilapidated industrial zone.

By Friday afternoon, Camden police officials were desperate for a clue. They organized an emotional news conference in which the three mothers stood before television cameras and begged their boys to return - or for anyone who knew what had happened to them to come forward. "If you know where my son is, please bring him back," Elba Nelly Cruz said as she started to cry. "I want my son. I need my son."

Jessica Pagan could barely speak, she was sobbing so hard. "You're not in trouble, baby," she said. "We just want you back. Please come back."

When it came time for Iraida Roman, Daniel's mother, to speak, her face was a mask of grief. "We want them back home as soon as possible," she said flatly. "We love them."

Ms. Cruz and Ms. Pagan told the police they were the last members of their family to see the boys before they vanished. They said they were watching the children from the front porch of the Cruz home about 5 p.m. on Wednesday, then went inside to make dinner. Thirty minutes later, when they came out, the boys were gone.

The boys were described as close friends, especially Anibal and Daniel Anibal was the oldest - though friends said he didn't always act that way. He was taking prescription medication for hyperactivity and impulsive behavior, and boys in the neighborhood said that he often played with younger children because he related to them better.

Daniel's uncle, Mario Rivera, said Daniel, who disappeared a day before his last day of kindergarten, was a sweet boy who was always coming home with some new plant he had just discovered. He also liked animals - especially cats.

"He loves cats," Mr. Rivera said.

Daniel seemed to be a budding athlete. Children in the neighborhood marveled at how he could jump over high, chain-linked gates at just 6 years old.

He had never gone off the block alone before, his mother, Ms. Roman, told The Associated Press. She called her son a regular kid who liked to "ride bikes, play in the dirt - simple kid stuff."

Jesstin, who was 3 feet 6 and weighed 63 pounds, was known by other children in the neighborhood as happy and playful. He also attended a special needs school, a family friend, Cornell Worlds Jr., told The Associated Press. Jesstin idolized the Los Angeles Lakers and its star player Kobe Bryant, Mr. Worlds said, describing him as "a good-spirited type of kid."