Six-year-old Isabel Celis was snatched from her bedroom in her family’s midtown home three years ago.
It remains a mystery who took her, and why.
It was during the night, while the family slept. No one heard sounds, not even from the dogs — two in kennels in the master bedroom, and one, age 17, who was deaf and blind in the back yard.
This is what the child’s parents, Becky and Sergio Celis, recalled last week from their midtown home where they relived the disappearance of their only daughter, who would be 9 now.
Not far from where they sat in the family room, stands an entertainment center with photos of Isabel in front of a nearly 3-foot-tall statue of Our Lady of Fatima — a gift from Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas, of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson, and the Rev. Miguel Mariano, pastor at St. Joseph Catholic Church, which is the family’s parish. A lighted candle, the Bible and rosaries are by Isabel’s photos.
The couple — who were interrogated early in the case that spurred a massive law enforcement search and attracted national media attention — still remain hopeful their daughter is alive. As a parent, Becky said, she “feels” her daughter is alive: “I am not going to give up on that. Never.”
The Celis family’s house near Park Place mall still has a banner displayed with the face of Isabel pictured with long, brown hair, hazel eyes and a sweet smile. Other banners inform the public about an 88-CRIME reward, which is now at $9,000.
Becky has returned to gardening and planted flowers, including roses, along the outer wall that encloses the front yard. She mentioned she and “Isa,” a nickname for Isabel, loved to garden together. Painted rocks — some displaying messages of support — are spread along a walkway.
This year the family requests people donate money in honor of Isabel to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to help families keep the hope alive about the recovery of their missing children. May 25 is National Missing Children’s Day.
The national center is asking the public for help in locating Isabel, who was reported missing by her father on the morning of April 21, 2012.
Three years ago
The last time anyone saw her was when she went to bed the night before.
At 8 a.m., Sergio said he discovered his daughter missing when he went to wake her so she could get ready for her Little League game. Becky had already left for work.
He said he and his sons searched the house before calling 911. In a 911 recording, Sergio, tells a dispatcher that “my oldest son noticed that her window was wide open and the screen was laying in the back yard.”
About 250 law enforcement officers from multiple agencies scoured the neighborhood area, and fanned out into sections of the city and county. Tracking dogs, including a special FBI search dog, were used. FBI profilers, behavioral analysts and an evidence-recovery team were brought in.
Sex-offenders living within a three-mile radius of Isabel’s home were questioned. So were Isabel’s family, relatives and people known to the family. Becky and Sergio faced intense public scrutiny in the weeks after their daughter went missing.
Becky said they all are coping because of the support from their family, faith in God and the love they each have for one another.
“God is listening to us. We just have to be patient. We have to have faith in God. God has a plan, and eventually He will bring her home,” said Becky, adding that she feels frustrated and anxious about not knowing how or where Isabel is. “That anxiety doesn’t go away,” said the 38-year-old mother who is a nurse at Tucson Medical Center.
For Sergio, 44, an oral surgery assistant at a dental office who also performs opera, the not knowing about his little girl is creating “a lot of frustration, a lot of anger, a lot of wanting to shake your fists and constantly saying why, and why and why.”
The couple said they are frustrated over the investigation. Sergio said he works through it every day, and tends to focus on Becky, and his boys, Sergio, 17, a senior at University High School, and Julian, 13, who takes school courses online.
Tucson Police Lt. Matt Ronstadt, head of family and sex crimes section, said he understands the family’s frustration. “We all understand that as a parent of a missing child it has to be incredibly, emotionally draining to them. As tips come in, we work those tips to their completion.
Since the case is open, Ronstadt said he cannot give specifics on who has been identified as suspects and who has been ruled out.
“People that have been brought forward to us as potential suspects have been looked at and if there was information that would allow us to establish probable cause that somebody committed a crime we would have charged them,” said Ronstadt. “We do not have any active or open tips we are investigating. We have had fewer than 10 so far this year.”
Detectives have looked into more than 2,200 leads and have investigated tips across the country and in Mexico.
The case is an active open investigation, and two detectives are the primary investigators who have worked it since day one. A team of eight detectives, who have in-depth knowledge of the case, are called in as needed, Ronstadt said.
Re-canvassing of the neighborhood has been done several times, and in January 2014 about 50 officers and detectives went to more than 500 homes in the Celis neighborhood trying to stir up new information. “All leads were investigated and closed,” Ronstadt said.
“I want to stress how important it is that people continue to contact us about this case. That is going to be the key to bringing it to a conclusion. Somebody, somewhere knows something,” he said.