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Family turns to God for strength as they mourn 11-year-old Riverview girl

Jennifer Caballero’s body was found in a retention pond behind Rodgers Middle School on Oct. 22. The 11-year-old had Down syndrome and wandered away from multiple teacher’s aides.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Jennifer Caballero’s body was found in a retention pond behind Rodgers Middle School on Oct. 22. The 11-year-old had Down syndrome and wandered away from multiple teacher’s aides.

RIVERVIEW — As the deputy approached him with tears in his eyes, Tarsicio Caballero-Perez knew.

His 11-year-old daughter, Jennifer, was missing from Rodgers Middle School.

About six hours later, after waiting inside a classroom as deputies searched, Caballero-Perez and his family heard the news.

Jennifer was dead.

"We felt so horrible inside," Caballero-Perez said Thursday. "And we continue to feel horrible."

As the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office investigates the girl's disappearance from the school on Oct. 22, her family struggles to cope with the loss.

They blame the middle school for her death.

"The truth is they didn't take care of her," Caballero-Perez said. "Those teachers need to watch over those children. Children with special needs need care."

It's been more than a week since Caballero-Perez lost his youngest daughter, who had Down syndrome. On Thursday morning, he slouched on the beige couch inside his house along Greenlee Way. His hands fidgeted with a piece of paper as he recalled the details of the day his little girl died.

He drove to Rodgers Middle, where he met with his wife, Elizabeth Rosas, and one of their daughters. Once there, school staff asked them to wait inside a classroom. A deputy stayed with them.

Several deputies and K-9s were already searching the school. Caballero-Perez heard the hum of a helicopter above.

The family waited.

"I had so much faith," Caballero-Perez said. "I thought maybe she had walked onto the street and that a good person had picked her up and taken her to the police station. I had that faith that we would find her."

Rosas prayed they would find her before dark so Jennifer wouldn't become more frightened.

Hours passed. Other sheriff's officials periodically dropped by. Calm down, they told the family. They would find her.

Rosas also got involved in the search. She walked the school grounds with a bullhorn for about 20 minutes.

"Jenny! Come out!" she yelled. "It's your mom. We're going home now."

Then the divers came. They searched the school's retention ponds.

About 6:15 p.m., they discovered Jennifer.

"Unfortunately," Caballero-Perez said, "they found her because she was dead."

The parents asked to see where their daughter had died. In the dark, deputies took them to the retention pond behind the school about 100 yards from the gym.

Since then, Caballero-Perez said he and his wife have had time to think about one question: How could six teacher's aides fail to notice their daughter was gone?

The Sheriff's Office is investigating. Detectives were still conducting interviews Thursday with the aides who were supervising Jenny and about 140 other students that day at the gym.

The Hillsborough County School District is cooperating with the Sheriff's Office, said schools spokesman Steve Hegarty.

During the last School Board meeting, superintendent MaryEllen Elia said the district also plans to investigate what happened and make sure it does not happen again.

"At this time not all the facts are in, and we're not going to reach a conclusion," Hegarty said Thursday.

Caballero-Perez took several days off from his job at a plant nursery.

The house is quiet without Jenny, her father said. The girl giggled and laughed and ran in the living room and watched Disney shows on television.

She slept in a little bed next to her parents. About 5 a.m., she'd crawl into her parents' bed and curl up between them.

During dinner, Jennifer always sat next to her dad.

Now, only photographs of the smiling girl in pigtails remain. They lean against the wood-paneled walls of the family's living room flanked by candles and pink and red roses.

Her favorite toy, a Little Mermaid doll, is missing. It was tucked away inside her coffin.

The family has turned to church for support and prayer.

Nothing is worse than losing a child, Caballero-Perez said.

"God is giving us strength."

Staff writers Jessica Vander Velde and Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Laura C. Morel can be reached at (727)893-8713, or lmorel@tampabay.com

Family turns to God for strength as they mourn 11-year-old Riverview girl 11/01/12 [Last modified: Thursday, November 1, 2012 11:11pm]
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