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Fierce questions followed report of Plant City baby's kidnapping

PLANT CITY — Did you fight? Did you hit your baby? Did you kill your baby?

Those are the questions Plant City police asked when two farm workers reported that their 2-month-old daughter had been kidnapped, the parents said Thursday in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times.

Rosa Sirilo-Francisco, 33, and her boyfriend Andres Cruz, 28, are not angry, they say. They are grateful that their baby was returned safely, and they know police were doing their job.

But the account may help to explain why at least three hours lapsed before police issued a statewide Amber Alert.

Sirilo-Francisco said "Janet," later identified by police as Amalia Tabata Pereira, approached her in the waiting room of the Plant City Health Center, where the baby had been vaccinated.

She had something important to tell the baby's mother.

She led Sirilo-Francisco outside to a car, telling not to worry. The mother noticed a car seat. Inside the car, "Janet" told her that other immigration officials were at the couple's home preparing to deport them to Mexico. She could help, she said, but would need to take the baby.

"She said she would take care of the baby," Sirilo-Francisco recalled.

The mother directed "Janet" to the strawberry field where Cruz, the baby's father, worked.

Cruz looked at the woman. She wore nice slacks and a blouse and looked legitimate.

"I didn't know what to say," Cruz said Thursday morning inside the couple's home. "We didn't want problems."

The woman said she'd bring the baby back to visit and that everything would be cleared up by April 5, when they'd get the baby back for good.

"I was very sad that this was happening," he said. "This has never happened to my friends."

The woman gave the mother a ride back to the clinic to get her car, then left with baby Sandra.

Cruz waited for his wife at their mobile home, which sits amid a long string of trailers at the end of a dirt road abutting acres of strawberry fields. They share it with two nephews.

When she returned, they called Rosa's brother in Georgia, who just a week before, had lost his wife and sister-in-law in a fatal car crash.

After hearing their tale, he concluded that the baby had been stolen. The couple drove to see a friend who spoke English. She told them to call police.

They did, sometime between 8 and 9 p.m.

Officers came and listened to the abduction story. But then they asked hard questions.

Had Rosa and Andres done something to make the baby disappear?

"I'm telling you the truth," Rosa remembers saying.

At midnight, officers drove them to the Plant City Police Department. They were put in separate rooms and asked more questions about the abduction and about their own actions. Sometimes the same questions were repeated over and over.

One officer made a face, like she didn't believe what she was hearing, the mother said.

Near midnight, police put out the Amber Alert.

At 4 a.m., they sent the couple home to sleep, promising to return in the morning.

Once home, the two couldn't sleep. They stayed awake, fretting and crying and pacing through the small trailer.

Distraught, Sirilo-Francisco longed to be able to call her sister-in-law, who had died the week before. The two were close, and Sirilo-Francisco turned to her for advice throughout her pregnancy and birth of Sandra.

At 8 a.m., Tuesday, they saw the police car pull up, with two detectives inside.

That's when they decided police finally believed them.

"We weren't afraid (for ourselves)," Cruz said. "We were telling the truth. We were afraid for the baby."

In the early afternoon, the officers got out of their car and knocked on the door, smiling.

"Sandra! Sandra is good," Cruz remembers hearing.

The baby had been surrendered to Manatee County deputies.

The detectives threw their arms around the couple.

Police drove them to the station, feeding them sandwiches and sodas. The officer who had looked skeptical was smiling.

About 6:20 p.m., police brought the baby into the station, into the arms of her parents.

"We were so happy to be able to come back home with the baby," the father said.

Plant City police officials couldn't be reached for comment Thursday.

When the baby was first found, police Chief Bill McDaniel said police bring a certain degree of skeptism to any investigation.

But Capt. Darrell Wilson said Wednesday there was no skepticism, adding that officers have no time for doubts when a child is reported missing.

David Couvertier, spokesman for the FBI in Tampa, said it isn't unusual for investigators to question family members in such cases. Half the time, family members or acquaintances are involved in disappearances.

"All the individuals who last had contact with the victim are contacted and interviewed, not just for elimination purposes, but for tips," Couvertier said.

Wilson said earlier this week police must determine that a case satisfies certain criteria before requesting an Amber Alert.

The baby's parents say they have no idea why "Janet" targeted them.

On Thursday, the couple rested in their mobile home.

They cooed and took turns holding Sandra.

The two met picking crops about two years ago.

They plan to marry one day.

Both came from Mexico — he's from Oaxaca and she's from Hidalgo — because they couldn't find work back home.

Neither is here legally.

They say they're not worried about being deported.

Local attorneys have told the St. Petersburg Times that the couple could be eligible to apply for legal status under the U visa, which is available for immigrants who are victims of violent crimes, including kidnapping.

Coworkers told Cruz that a man in a suit and tie claiming to be an attorney came to the fields trying to find him Wednesday.

Now it is Cruz's turn to be skeptical.

After all this, he wants to focus on helping police prosecute the woman who stole Sandra. That, and returning to work.

Saundra Amrhein can be reached at amrhein@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2441.

Fierce questions followed report of Plant City baby's kidnapping 03/26/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 28, 2009 12:57pm]

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