CAMDEN, N.J. – For two tortured days, searchers combed alleyways and woods, abandoned houses and vacant lots, looking for clues to the disappearance of three young boys. In one heartbreaking moment Friday, the search ended — right where it began — when David Agosto (search) lifted the trunk of a maroon Toyota Camry sitting in tall grass in the yard where the boys were last seen.
There, he found the bodies of son Daniel Agosto (search), 6, his 5-year-old friend Jesstin Pagan and 11-year-old Anibal Cruz.
Investigators weren't certain how the boys got there, and the bodies were being examined to determine the cause of their deaths.
"We haven't determined whether this was foul play or whether it was just a tragic accident," said Camden County Prosecutor Vincent Sarubbi (search). Autopsies were planned, as was an examination of the car, which had dents in the right rear and right front.
A neighbor was watching when David Agosto made the tragic discovery.
"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.
With that, part of the mystery was solved, but in other ways it was only deepened.
At this point, Sarubbi conceded, "There are more questions than answers." Not only how the boys got into the trunk, but why didn't searchers — who combed the yard next to Cruz family home — find them sooner?
"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, 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.
The disappearances triggered a search in which 150 police, firefighters and other law enforcement personnel scoured the neighborhoods of this poor city across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.
But it turned up nothing, until Agosto's father made the grisly 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.
According to Police Chief Edwin Figueroa, the vehicle — which neighbors said had sat unused in the yard for three months — had been searched before, but apparently the trunk went unchecked.
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.