NEW YORK – Police said they believe a body recovered at a Pennsylvania landfill Thursday is the mother of a 4-year-old girl found abandoned on a city street at night.
A woman's corpse — unclothed and wrapped in black plastic bags — was found under 18 feet of trash in the landfill in Vintondale, Pa. (search), said police spokesman Paul Browne. Vintondale is about 60 miles east of Pittsburgh.
The body was not positively identified, but investigators believe it is that of 26-year-old Monica Lozada-Rivadineira (search), Browne said.
Police, who suspect the woman's companion of killing her and dumping her body in a trash pile, had been searching two landfills in Pennsylvania where New York City's garbage is hauled. An autopsy was planned Friday in New York.
Police had been searching for the Bolivian-born woman since Sept. 25, when her daughter, Valery Belen Saavedra Lozada (search), was found wandering in the middle of the night in Queens.
The pigtailed girl with a cute smile captured the public's affection after child welfare officials took the unusual step of putting her on television to try to identify her and her mother. She described her mother as looking "like a princess."
A team of child trauma specialists told the little girl Wednesday that her mother was dead, officials said. A relative and a foster parent were present.
Officials declined to discuss her reaction, but described her in a statement as a "resilient child."
Lozada-Rivadineira's companion, Cesar Ascarrunz, is being held without bail on charges of murder and child endangerment for strangling her, dumping her body and abandoning her daughter on the street.
Police say in an alleged confession, he told detectives he strangled the mother during an argument in their Queens apartment, dumped her body in a pile of trash and abandoned her 4-year-old daughter Valery the next day on the street.
"There is no confession," Ascarrunz said in a jailhouse interview published in several New York dailies Thursday. "I did not make a confession. That's a lie."
Browne said that Ascarrunz's alleged confession was credible.
Lozada-Rivadineira's mother, Roxana Rivadineira, had obtained her travel documents in Bolivia and was in the country's capital of La Paz arranging her travel to New York, consulate officials said.
On hearing of the body found at the landfill, Rivadineira said, "I am in so much pain."
"I am the mother. She was born from my womb. She was my life, my soul. She was a very good woman," she said.
Rivadineira, 40, Valery's maternal grandmother said Wednesday that she hoped to travel to New York within days.
"Once I get the visa, and go to New York, I want Valery to be with me, because she's the blood of my blood," she told The Associated Press.
Valery's paternal grandmother, Ana Maria Rivera, arrived in New York from Arizona on Thursday morning to seek custody in the name of Valery's father, Juan Carlos Saavedra.
Rivera sobbed when asked about the discovery of the woman's body.
"She loved her as her own daughter," her goddaughter and companion, Marina Bernal, translated to reporters at the Bolivian Consulate (search). "Her main concern now is Valery and her future."
Her son, Juan Carlos Saavedra, was divorced from Lozada-Rivadineira and has been serving time for drug trafficking since January, according to a spokesman for the Bolivian Interior Department.
Valery "is my daughter, and my family is already taking the necessary steps to gain legal custody," Saavedra told the Bolivian newspaper Los Tiempos (search). He said he will work to be a better father for Valery and the former couple's 3-year-old son, whom his family is already caring for.
Rivera disputed that she was here to wage any custody battle over Valery. She was hoping to visit the girl Thursday, and also planned to meet as soon as possible with the other grandmother, Roxana Rivadineira, whom she said she spoke with frequently on the telephone.
A family court judge will decide where to place the girl, who has been staying with a foster family since her mother's disappearance.