Toddler girl found dead in duffel bag as couple tried to cross border

The Faces of Vibrancy

The Faces of Vibrancy

SAN YSIDRO (CNS) – Two Los Angeles County residents were behind bars in San Diego Wednesday after a young child was found dead in a duffel bag as the pair tried to cross into Mexico at the San Ysidro border crossing, possibly to conceal the homicide.

Mercy Mary Becerra (and mother of 9), 43, and 38-year-old Johnny Lewis Hartley (street name of “Sneeks”) entered Tijuana in a pedestrian lane about noon Tuesday, according to San Diego police.

Becerra ran off as Mexican customs agents approached the pair, SDPD Lt. Ray Valentin said. Authorities chased her and took her companion into custody.

The dead child, a girl believed to be about 2 years old, was discovered during an X-ray examination of the bag Hartley had been carrying.

After being interrogated by homicide detectives, Becerra and Hartley were booked into county jail this morning on suspicion of murder and child cruelty leading to death.

Investigators do not believe the suspects are related to the child and are working with Whittier police to identify her and her parents, the lieutenant said.

Valentin declined to disclose whether the toddler’s body bore signs of suspicious injuries. A cause-of-death ruling was on hold pending an autopsy.

At the couple’s former apartment on Pickering Avenue in Whittier, neighbor Robert Diaz, 39, said Becerra and Hartley moved out about two years ago. They lived in the one-bedroom apartment for about two years with a dozen or so other people, including children and babies.

“It’s a shock,” he said of the news that the couple had been apprehended at the border with a child’s body.

“I don’t know what to think,” Diaz said. “It makes my mind boggle.”

Diaz said he was eager to learn more about what happened.

He noted that some people in the apartment building found the heavily tattooed couple, who also had facial tattoos, intimidating. But Diaz said Becerra and Hartley never caused any trouble.

“My kids even played with their kids,” he said.

Whittier police visited the apartment complex late Tuesday to question residents about their ex-neighbors, Diaz said.

San Diego police described both suspects’ current hometown as Whittier. However, their most recent address was unclear.

Booking records show Hartley is being held at San Diego Central Jail in San Diego while Becerra is at the Las Colinas Detention and Reentry Facility in Santee. They will be arraigned Friday at the Central Courthouse in San Diego.

The couple may have had prior run-ins with the law.

A man with the same name as Hartley pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and to possessing or selling a deadly weapon on Jan. 28, 1999, and received a sentence of two years and eight months in prison, according to Orange County Superior Court records. Weapons and gang allegations were found true. But details about the May 18, 1997, crimes weren’t available.

On June 7, 2010, a Johnny Lewis Hartley pleaded guilty to possession of a firearm by a felon and was sentenced to three years in prison. He was also convicted on Jan. 19, 2005 of possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell and possession of drug paraphernalia. He received 32 months in prison.

Court records in Los Angeles show Becerra pleaded no contest to driving without a license on Jan. 23, 2014. A second charge of driving on a suspended license was dismissed. She received probation.

A defendant named Mercy Mary Becerra was sentenced to 180 days in jail and three years probation after pleading guilty on July 16, 1992, to selling or transporting a controlled substance, according to Orange County Superior Court records. A Mercy Mary Becerra was also fined $150 in Feb. 27, 2012, for driving without a license and for failure to appear in an Orange County court.