CAMDEN, N.J. – Three boys whose bodies were found in the trunk of a car following a massive, two-day search died from accidental suffocation, not foul play, authorities said Saturday.
The bodies were discovered Friday when David Agosto lifted the trunk of a banged-up maroon Toyota Camry (search) in the yard where the boys were last seen. There, he found the bodies of his 6-year-old son Daniel Agosto; 5-year-old Jesstin Pagan and 11-year-old Anibal Cruz.
Officials said no foul play was suspected, but it was not clear why searchers — who combed the yard next to Cruz family home — did not find the boys sooner.
The car was searched when police first responded to the report of the missing children Wednesday at about 8:30 p.m., Police Chief Edwin Figueroa (search) said, though prosecutor Vincent Sarubbi said it can be inferred that the trunk of the battered car had not been checked. He said police and prosecutors will issue a report on the handling of the search within 30 days.
A neighbor was watching when David Agosto made the tragic discovery. He broke out in tears, throwing himself against a car, and was later taken away on a stretcher by paramedics, crying and flailing his arms and legs.
"I saw him open the trunk and he just started screaming and he collapsed to the ground," said Carmen Villa, 37, who lives across the street.
"It's just a tragedy," said Melissa Martinez, 25, weeping as she watched from Villa's front yard across the street as police began cordoning off the scene. "They've been there all the time. We were just standing here yesterday saying `Where could they be?' and the whole time, they were right there. It's just heartbreaking."
The boys vanished without a trace Wednesday night while playing in the yard, according to authorities.
For two days, searchers combed alleyways and woods, abandoned houses and vacant lots. Helicopters scanned from the sky, and boats searched the nearby Delaware River (search).
Strangers handed out missing persons fliers to passing motorists, civilians aided in the search and everyone wondered how three children could suddenly go missing at once.
Sarubbi said an uncle of one of the boys wanted to look in the trunk because he was searching for a set of jumper cables. Agosto accompanied him because "the thought may have crossed his mind that the boys may have been in that trunk," the prosecutor said.
The car belonged to Carmen Lopez, the maternal grandmother of Anibal Cruz. The car was not working properly and had been parked in the shady, weedy area for about three weeks, Sarubbi said. He said one of the boys had in the past played in the car, but did not say which one.
The prosecutor said the hydraulic plunger that keeps the trunk from closing was not working, so the lid was able to swing close and lock as soon as the boys stopped propping it up.
Some periods of hard rain on Wednesday evening may have muffled any noises from the well-insulated trunk, which was parked far enough from the house to make it difficult to hear any voices coming from it.
A full report from the medical examiner is expected, but no timeline for that was made public. That report is also expected to reveal the time the boys died, which authorities said they did not yet know.
Figueroa said if any law enforcement officials broke department rules in the search they would be disciplined, but otherwise he might simply order more training for officers.
"I feel very bad, just like the community and law enforcement agencies, that three children were found in the trunk of the vehicle," Figueroa said.
Cruz and Agosto both lived in the vibrant multiethnic Cramer Hill neighborhood where the bodies were found. Pagan lived in neighboring Mount Ephraim and was visiting Cruz's home when they disappeared.
Relatives said Cruz often played with younger children, in part because he suffered from neurological problems and had just finished the fifth grade at a school for special needs students.
"He may be 11 years old, but his mind is more like a 4- or 3-year-old," said his grandmother, Carmen Cruz.
Agosto, who disappeared a day before his last day of kindergarten at the H.C. Sharp Elementary School just down the block from his house, had never been off the block alone before, according to his mother, Iraida Roman.
She described him as a regular kid who liked to "ride bikes, play in the dirt — simple kid stuff."
Pagan also attended a special needs school, said a family friend, Cornell Worlds Jr. The boy idolized the Los Angeles Lakers and star player Kobe Bryant, Worlds said.
He was "a good-spirited type of kid," Worlds said.