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Baby recovered, but mystery remains about why she was abducted

Rosa Sirilo-Francisco and Andres Cruz leave the Plant City Police Center with their 2-month-old daughter, Sandra Cruz-Francisco, on Tuesday.

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

Rosa Sirilo-Francisco and Andres Cruz leave the Plant City Police Center with their 2-month-old daughter, Sandra Cruz-Francisco, on Tuesday.

PLANT CITY — Safely swaddled in a blanket, 2-month-old Sandra Cruz-Francisco was handed back to her parents by authorities.

She wore the same pink shirt she had on when she was abducted 27 hours earlier. The baby's mother and father cradled her in their arms and left the Plant City Police Department for home, declining to speak to the media.

With the child safe Tuesday night, investigators turned their focus to 43-year-old Amalia Tabata Pereira, the kidnapping suspect. With no apparent motive, it's not clear why the wife of a highly regarded Pittsburgh Pirates minor league outfielder would kidnap the child in the first place.

The bizarre story began Monday afternoon when a woman approached 30-year-old Rosa Sirilo-Francisco as she left the Plant City Health Center with Sandra after a routine baby checkup around 2:30 p.m.

The mother told authorities the woman, who called herself "Janet," posed as an immigration official and said that if Francisco didn't want her family deported, she should give the baby to her.

Six hours later, once she realized that "Janet" was a sham, Francisco contacted police and told them that her daughter had been kidnapped.

By midnight, after overcoming the language barrier between police and Francisco, Plant City officers sent out an Amber Alert for Sandra. The search was on.

Authorities fielded hundreds of tips before an anonymous caller alerted the Manatee County Sheriff's Office that a woman and a baby matching the description of Sandra were in Bradenton around 2 p.m. Tuesday.

By this point, Plant City officers had also pinpointed Pereira as a "person of interest," based on one of those tips. But explanations of how the baby was found differed Tuesday.

According to Manatee sheriff's spokesman Dave Bristow, the anonymous caller told authorities that Pereira would be found standing at the corner of 60th Avenue and 34th Street W with Sandra in her arms.

But Capt. Darrell Wilson, a Plant City spokesman, said Pereira walked into the Sheriff's Office and surrendered.

Bristow said paramedics came to the scene and examined the child before both were taken to Child Protection offices until two Plant City detectives arrived.

Both agencies said that one detective came to take the 10-pound baby girl home. And the other questioned Pereira, who was charged with interference with child custody, kidnapping, false imprisonment and impersonating a social service worker.

She was expected to spend the night in a Manatee County Jail and later be taken to Hillsborough County.

Pereira married 20-year-old Jose Tabata in January 2008, according to Hillsborough County records. A highly regarded outfielder for the Pirates, he is currently on the roster of the Pirates' Double-A affiliate, the Altoona (Pa.) Curve.

A native of Venezuela, Tabata was 16 when he was signed by the New York Yankees. A top prospect for the Yankees, he was traded to the Pirates in 2008.

The Pirates train in Bradenton.

Pirates president Frank Coonelly released a statement Tuesday night regarding the abduction. With no indication that Jose Tabata was involved in the matter, Coonelly said it would be inappropriate to comment further.

But said that "this is an extremely serious matter and we have given the matter our full attention."

Pereira's family moved from Chicago to Tampa two decades ago, said her brother, Edwin Rivera. The only daughter in a Puerto Rican family, she's served nearly three years in prison on an arson conviction before being released in 2003.

According to authorities, she also goes by the names Alalia Rivera, Amalia Segui and Almalia Maldonado.

At her parents' West Tampa home Tuesday afternoon, Pereira's mother was too distraught to talk to reporters, Rivera said. A church pastor, the mother learned the news from one of the deacons.

Pereira has been estranged from the family for a year, since the death of her father.

"She's sort of sequestered herself," Rivera said.

He said that his sister has four children of her own, all teenagers and adults. He also didn't know of any psychological problems that his sister may have had.

"I don't know what to say," he said.

It wasn't clear Tuesday night whether Immigration and Customs Enforcement would pursue the case of Sandra's parents, who are both believed to be undocumented residents.

Under privacy policies, ICE does not disclose a person's immigration status, officials said. But the agency said it has launched an investigation into Pereira's alleged impersonation of a federal agent.

Plant City Police Chief Bill McDaniel said that fear of law enforcement in migrant communities often stops them from asking for help. Police also bring a certain skepticism to the situation, he said.

"I'm not going to say that didn't occur," McDaniel said, "but the believability factor was extremely high. We were extremely fortunate, given the delay in reporting the incident."

Tips from the public helped the most, he said.

"She's going home," he said of Rosa Francisco, "and she's got her baby."

Staff writer Robbyn Mitchell contributed to this report. Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com, or (813) 661-2454.

Baby recovered, but mystery remains about why she was abducted 03/24/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 25, 2009 2:12am]
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