NEW YORK – A Queens man was charged Saturday with murdering his live-in girlfriend, the latest twist in a weeklong mystery that began when the slain woman's 4-year-old daughter was found wandering barefoot on a city street.
Cesar Ascarrunz (search), 32, was arrested on murder charges two days after he was picked up by investigators, police said. Authorities were still searching Saturday for 26-year-old Monica Lozada-Rivaineira's (search) remains.
Police were led to Ascarrunz by a dozen tips that came in from the public after 4-year-old Valery Lozada (search) appeared on television Thursday. The child, with her hair in pigtails, described her mother as looking "like a princess." Police ultimately used records from Valery's day care center to figure out her mother's identity.
"This child has captured the hearts of all New Yorkers," said Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown. "I hope she can grow up to lead a normal life."
Child welfare officials took the unusual step of putting her on television in the hopes that it would produce more information. Authorities were unable to find her mother since she was discovered crying and shivering on the street in Queens. She told neighbors her father left her there and drove away.
Kevin Flood, a city firefighter who gave her a drink and a fruit snack that night, said her hair was tousled as if she had just been awakened. But she showed no signs of abuse and neglect, authorities said.
"She was scared. She was crying," said Flood, 34. "She said her daddy had left her on the corner."
Valery was asking to see her mother, but authorities were waiting to break the tragic news to the child, said John Mattingly, commissioner of the city Administration for Children's Services (search). Dozens of people have volunteered to adopt her, he said.
Ascarrunz also was charged with reckless endangerment, endangering the welfare of a child, child abandonment and evidence tampering, Brown said. If convicted on the murder charge, he faces 25 years to life in prison.
Lozada-Rivaineira was last seen at the apartment she shared with Ascarrunz late on Sept. 24, authorities said. According to a criminal complaint, Ascarrunz choked Lozada-Rivaineira to death in their apartment, put her body in a plastic bag and left it in the living room for two days.
On Sept. 26, he took her body from the apartment and dumped it in a pile of trash on a Queens street corner, the complaint said.
It was unclear why Ascarrunz would have attacked his girlfriend. The complaint did not mention a motive for the slaying.