According to reports, the toddler discovered dead in a duffel bag at a Tijuana border crossing last Tuesday died of drowning. The couple who allegedly attempted to transport the dead toddler from San Diego to Mexico has been arrested and appeared in court on Friday. Johnny Lewis Hartley, 39, and Mercy Maria Becerra, 43 were arraigned together in a San Diego courtroom, and were charged with first-degree murder in the toddler’s death.
Bail has been set at $2 million apiece, according to NBC San Diego.
Prosecutors officially cited the cause of death in the case of the dead toddler, who was about two-years-old at the time of her death, as “residential-type drowning.” In another disturbing detail, the dead toddler discovered in a duffel bag at the U.S./Mexico border crossing also reportedly showed signs of long-term malnutrition, dehydration and additional physical trauma according to Deputy District Attorney Kurt Mechals.
The prosecution in the case of the toddler discovered dead in a duffel bag is being very tight-lipped when it comes to details in the case, citing the ongoing investigation. Police, however, do reportedly have a theory regarding a motive in the toddler’s death. They are not, at this time, sharing that theory with the public.
If convicted of the first-degree murder charges levied against them in connection to the death of the toddler discovered in their duffel bag, Hartley and Becerra face up to 25 years in prison. During their Friday arraignment in downtown San Diego, both pleaded not guilty. They remain incarcerated at this time.
Investigators in the case of the dead toddler found in the duffel bag say that they have reason to believe that the little girl drowned in Whittier, California, possibly at a motel. They are working diligently to discover the exact relationship of the incarcerated murder suspects to the dead toddler, but have told the public that they are not the child’s parents.
The couple was arrested at a border crossing south of San Diego at about noon on August 9. They were stopped by Mexican border control agents as they attempted to cross into Tijuana and sent to a secondary inspection location, according to reports. It was then that the duffel bag they were carrying was passed through an X-ray scanner and Mexican authorities realized at that time that it contained the remains of a dead toddler.
Reportedly, when the body of the dead toddler was discovered, 43-year-old Mercy Maria Becerra attempted to flee, running from authorities. The alleged child murderer didn’t make it far, however, and was almost immediately nabbed by Mexican law enforcement. She and her partner were quickly arrested and deported back to the United States to face the music.
Ultimately, the couple ended up in the custody of the San Diego Police Department Homicide Unit and were booked into a San Diego jail on charges related to child cruelty and first-degree murder, reports ABC 7.
Police investigators soon began to interrogate the pair who had been discovered in possession of the remains of the dead toddler. Within hours, authorities uncovered that the toddler had died in Whittier, California and began working with the Whittier Police Department to bring closure to the case and justice to the as-yet unidentified dead toddler, a toddler who has been referred to only as “Jane Doe” in legal documents.
While the couple suspected in the murder of the dead toddler have been charged in her death, the investigation is still in its early stages and police have a lot of information to sort out before the case goes to trial. First and foremost, investigators want to know if the child was deliberately murdered with premeditation and why in the world the little girl’s parents didn’t report her missing.
“There are a lot of moving parts.”
Authorities have determined that the pair discovered at the Mexico border crossing with the dead child in their bag was likely dropped off at or near the pedestrian border crossing and that they were definitely driven the roughly 150 miles from Whittier to San Diego. Investigators are trying to determine if the parents (or a parent) of the dead toddler were responsible for the incarcerated couple’s transportation to the border.
However, at this time, no additional persons are expected to be charged in the girl’s death.
According to reports, Mercy Maria Becerra is the mother of nine, something law enforcement determined while pouring through a social media account that has since been deleted.
The couple charged with the murder of the dead toddler are expected back in a San Diego courtroom on August 18. Anyone with any information or tips in the case of the dead toddler discovered in the couple’s duffel bag is encouraged to call Crime Stoppers at (888) 580-8477 or SDPD’s Homicide Department at 619) 531-2293.
[Photo by San Diego Police Department]