VALRICO –– Hundreds of volunteers spent hours searching for a missing 2-year-old Valrico boy. Some scoured country roads until 3 a.m. Saturday and returned after daybreak, armed with coffee, mittens and walking canes.
So when Sheriff David Gee announced early Saturday afternoon that the toddler was found dead in a septic tank near his family's trailer home, the crowd gasped. Many started sobbing. People who had just met Saturday clutched each other, their hand trembling and mouths quivering.
"To know he's still down there..." Brenda Heisler, 62, said, wiping away tears.
Though they had never met Luis Martinez, the news devastated the crowd that gathered on the corner of State Road 60 and Mulrennan Road.
"He was just a baby," said Heisler, of Seffner. "We had our chance to live. He didn't."
Luis was located at about 2 p.m. after someone who lives in the area called authorities and suggested that they check the septic tank, Gee said. The tank is located a short distance from a neighbor's home where Luis was last seen asking for ice cream Friday afternoon.
The mobile home is located in the 4100 block of Silver Lane, off Mulrennan Road. The boy's parents, Juan Martinez, 30, and Rosalina Ramirez, 20, declined to speak with reporters Saturday afternoon.
"By all indications, it looks like the child fell into the septic tank," Gee said.
The tank has an 11-inch hole in its concrete lid that had been open for some time, Gee said. Authorities searched the area where Luis was found earlier Saturday and saw a small hole, but it was unclear that it led to a septic tank. The hole had been covered by overgrown grass that may have been there for months, Gee said.
After the tip, authorities called a septic service company, which started emptying the sewage-filled tank. That's when they found the boy.
After hearing the news, volunteer searcher Clarice Frye, 51, started sobbing. She had searched for Luis on Friday night and Saturday.
"I don't regret coming out," said Frye, a retired teacher. "What I do regret is that we didn't find him last night."
The Sheriff's Office has not released a time of death yet because the Medical Examiner's Office is still investigating.
Earlier Saturday, about 400 volunteers and deputies fanned out to continue the search for Luis.
By late Saturday morning, the search area had grown to a 1.5-mile radius around the boy's mobile home park, sheriff's Col. Greg Brown said. Volunteer searchers were being turned away from the site because there were no more deputies to guide them.
The search Saturday was methodical. Deputies carried detailed maps to mark their progress, but the search parties were sometimes hindered by fences and retention ponds. Groups scoured areas along State Road 60 and areas off Mulrennan Road as well as the Strawberry Ridge Mobile Home Park.
Civilian volunteers were kept away from the area closest to the family's mobile home as a routine precaution because it was considered a potential crime scene. The septic tank was in that area.
A dive team was en route because there are number of ponds and retention basins. Mounted deputies and K-9 units also searched nearby.
Pete Feuerlein was walking his dog early Saturday morning when he saw a neighbor leaving. The neighbor remarked that he was going to search for the little boy, and Feuerlein didn't hesitate to join.
By mid-morning Saturday, he was with a group of about 20 searchers being led by Deputy Ray Sheppard. His eyes scanned the thicket along Mulrennan Road as he walked toward a retention pond.
"A 2-year-old would fit into about anything," said Feuerlein, who is retired from the Navy and has an 8-year-old grandson.
Deputies interviewed the boy's parents Friday. Brown could not say if Luis was being supervised by an adult when he disappeared.
He said the boy was known to wander the neighborhood.
Luis has a 2-month-old sister and often plays in a grassy area in front of the mobile home, his uncle, José Manuel Martinez, said Saturday. The family's home sits amid a cluster of a dozen mobile and manufactured homes along Silver Lane.
Information from Bay News 9 was used in this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.