Police claim friendly neighbor was kidnap-rapist

GILLIAN FLACCUS TAMI ABDOLLAH Associated Press Published:

SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) -- In the neighborhood where Tomas Medrano lived, he was known as a hardworking, churchgoing man who doted on his wife and toddler daughter.

There were elaborate parties, neighbors say, and Medrano bought his wife her own car.

But police investigators say everything about that life was built on a lie.

The reality, detectives contend, is that a decade ago a man named Isidro Garcia drugged and kidnapped a 15-year-old girl, raped her and beat her after failed escapes, moved at least four times to hide her identity under a fake name and, after years of psychological abuse, married her and fathered a child.

Garcia, 41, of Bell Gardens, was arrested Monday after the now-25-year-old woman came forward to police after finding her sister on Facebook.

Garcia was jailed on suspicion of kidnapping for rape, lewd acts with a minor and false imprisonment. He was expected to make a court appearance today.

Meanwhile, his accuser told KABC-TV she felt happy and blessed to reunite with her family. She said her neighbors believed her captor was a good man because he worked hard.

"He worked hard for me and my daughter and he bought everything I want. But I didn't want that," she said with her mother, sister and daughter at her side. "I need love from my family, not things."

KABC-TV didn't identify the woman because she is a victim of sexual abuse. The station had interviewed the woman's mother when she went missing 10 years ago.

In the Los Angeles suburb of Bell Gardens -- 20 miles from where the girl originally vanished -- stunned neighbors found the woman's portrait of Garcia hard to reconcile with the man they knew.

"He treats her like a queen. He does his best to do whatever she wants," next-door neighbor Maria Sanchez said in Spanish on Wednesday after police announced Garcia's arrest.

Santa Ana police Cpl. Anthony Bertagna said his department's investigation concluded the following:

The girl -- whose name was withheld by police -- arrived from Mexico in February 2004 to join her mother and sister in Santa Ana, about 30 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. She had entered the United States illegally and spoke no English.

Garcia was her mother's boyfriend. After one fight between the girl's mother and Garcia in August 2004, the girl's mother left the house and the girl went to a nearby park.

Garcia followed the girl. When he caught up with her, she said she had a headache and wanted to go home.

Garcia began threatening the girl.

"He told her then, 'You can't go home. You're here illegally, you don't speak the language, your mom's called the police, they will send you back. I'm your only hope,'" Bertagna said.

Garcia gave her five pills that he said would help her headache but instead knocked her out. When the girl awoke, she was locked in a garage in Compton, a city between Santa Ana and Los Angeles.

The mother "filed a police report and for 10 years (police) did due diligence. But they were changing their names and dates of birth and physical locations so that made it exceedingly difficult," Bertagna said.

In 2007, Garcia got documents from Mexico that gave the girl a new name and date of birth. Using those documents, he married her at a courthouse. Police said their daughter was born in 2012.

Police said the woman tried to escape twice but was severely beaten.

The case comes just over a year after kidnapping and rape victims Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight, three women who had gone missing separately about a decade earlier while in their teens or early 20s, were rescued from a house in Cleveland.

Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped from her Utah bedroom at 14 and held captive for nine months, told The Associated Press that people cannot know what victims are going through and should not question why the woman didn't escape sooner.

"We don't know what these evil people are holding over them -- whether it's their families' lives, their lives, whatever it is," Smart said.

Garcia lived in Bell Gardens for about four years. The family had the second-floor corner unit of a stucco apartment building in a quiet working-class neighborhood across from a park.

Neighbors said Garcia always said hello, joked with neighbors and sometimes brought them fruit. His wife worked for a nearby janitorial service and he held at least two jobs -- including one making egg rolls -- and also collected cardboard and recyclable items to sell.

Garcia said he wanted to save money so that his wife didn't have to work, said Lourdes Hernandez, who babysat their child for a year.

The family threw elaborate parties that included costumed characters and raffle giveaways. A video shot at their daughter's birthday party last year shows the mother with the girl in her arms, line-dancing behind her husband as he wiggles his hips.

Hernandez said the woman took Zumba classes in South Los Angeles and sometimes invited her along.

She said she found the woman's story hard to believe.

"He worked hard for her," she said.

Maria Sanchez said the woman had her own car.

"Sometimes she just leaves with her daughter in the car, she never looked scared," she said.

Neighbors said the family took trips together to Disneyland and the beach, and even up north to visit Garcia's family.

"I'm astounded she waited so long to say something," said Rita Salazar.

Police said Garcia repeatedly told the victim her family had given up looking for her.

Only recently, she contacted her sister on Facebook on the woman's birthday and they started to communicate, police said. She also learned that her mother had indeed tried to find her, going to a Spanish-language television station and newspaper in 2004.

Small gifts of kindness from a captor, a bit of food, a trip to the bathroom, can create positive feelings within the victim, said Dr. Frank Ochberg, an expert on the psychology of captives.

"Someone takes away the fear, the isolation, and we have positive feelings," he said. "That could be the beginning of a trauma bond."

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Associated Press writers Michael R. Blood and Justin Pritchard in Los Angeles, and Michelle Price in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.

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