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Tragic truth emerges

In one hand, Pauline Zile clutched a stuffed animal. With the other, she wiped the tears streaming from her red, swollen eyes.

Looking into the TV camera, she made a near-hysterical plea for the return of her 7-year-old daughter, saying Christina Holt had been abducted from a restroom at a flea market.

One problem: The woman kept referring to her daughter in the past tense.

Days later, police announced that Mrs. Zile had concocted the abduction tale to cover up her daughter's beating death more than a month earlier at the hands of the girl's stepfather.

Mrs. Zile's grammatical slip was just one of the inconsistencies investigators uncovered in the death of the second-grader, whose body was found Friday in a shallow grave behind a store in Tequesta, about 20 miles north of West Palm Beach.

"If you think your daughter's just been missing for a few hours, you're not going to be talking about her, every line, in the past tense," said Jim Leljedal, a spokesman for the Broward County Sheriff's Office.

The girl's stepfather, Walter John Zile, 32, was jailed without bail Thursday on charges of murder as well as aggravated child abuse for two previous beatings the child allegedly suffered. He led police to the body.

After more than 10 hours of interrogation, with Mrs. Zile having confessed after failing a lie detector test, Zile had decided to tell his story.

He told police that he was in his living room Sept. 16 and was questioning Christina when she soiled her pants. He hit her several times in the face and on the buttocks, and when she wouldn't stop crying, he covered her mouth with his hand, the affidavit said. She then started to bleed and go into seizures, police said.

The Ziles tried to revive the girl by giving her cardiopulmonary resuscitation and even dunking her in a tub of cold water, Zile told police. They were unable to revive her, and kept her body in a closet for four days while Zile looked for a place to bury her.

He wrapped the girl's body in a blanket, sheets and blue tarp and buried her in a field, according to police.

Investigators believe that Mrs. Zile, 24, witnessed but did not participate in the beating. She tearfully told police her story in exchange for limited immunity. If prosecutors were to establish a crime independent of her statements, she could still be charged.

The tale began last weekend with Mrs. Zile's gripping, detailed account of her daughter's purported abduction. Mrs. Zile said she and Christina had wanted some special mother-daughter time, so they drove from their motel apartment in Riviera Beach to the Swap Shop flea market in Fort Lauderdale on Saturday.

When they arrived, she said, they immediately looked for the nearest restroom. Mrs. Zile said she went into a stall and heard someone go into the stall next to her and assumed it was Christina. She told investigators she was talking to the girl and realized something was wrong when Christina didn't respond.

Mrs. Zile said she yelled Christina's name and no one responded. Her daughter had vanished, she said.

The Sheriff's Office and Riviera Beach police opened child abduction investigations and called in the FBI.

Now, investigators say, it was all a well-rehearsed performance by Mrs. Zile.

"We had somebody who called us this week and they said, "This seems strange, but we saw her calling out for the girl. But it wasn't on Saturday; it was on Thursday,'

" Leljedal said.

Mrs. Zile even had left a half-full bottle of juice and part of a bag of candy in her car so it would look as if there had been a child with her.

And the doll she clutched, claiming it was Christina's favorite, was new, Leljedal said. "We had a couple of people tell us they had never seen the doll before," he said.

Then, none of the 32 surveillance cameras at the Swap Shop showed that anyone had arrived with Zile on Saturday.

"The more we tried to find people who had seen Christina, the more we found people who hadn't seen her for weeks," Leljedal said.

Charges were filed a day after the Ziles missed an appointment at which Mrs. Zile was to give a blood sample for genetic typing, a common procedure in missing-children cases. A nationwide alert for the couple was issued after investigators found traces of blood in their apartment and the trunk of their car.

Before dawn Thursday, a trucker spotted the Ziles at a store in Port St. Lucie. After nine hours of questioning, Zile led police to the grave site.

The Ziles' two other children, ages 3 and 5, were taken into state custody. A baby Mrs. Zile gave birth to on Oct. 4, about two weeks after the death of Christina, was put up for adoption.

Christina had been the subject of a custody battle most of her life. But unlike most cases, her natural parents weren't fighting to keep her.

Until she was 5, the girl lived with her stepgreat-grandmother, Dorothy Money, in Poolsville, Md. Money was the stepgrandmother of Christina's biological father, Franklin Holt.

Money then turned the girl over to Judy Holt, Christina's paternal grandmother, who brought her to Florida in June to live with Pauline Zile.