HOUSTON -- The desire to have a child and the pain of losing one may have been the sole motivating factor that drove one woman to brutally murder another, then abduct her newborn and pretend the baby was her own, according to details released by Houston Police Department Chief Art Acevedo.
Erika Jisela Miranda-Alvarez, 28, has been charged with capital murder in the death of Carolina Flores.
The heinous crime kept the Houston community on edge and an immigrant community is credited with helping law enforcement quickly bring the 6-week-old girl home.
Flores' lifeless body was discovered around noon Tuesday at her apartment in the 100 block of Goodson Street in the Greenspoint area. She had been stabbed multiple times. Investigators believe Flores was killed sometime between 6:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. Her baby girl, Shamali, was nowhere to be found.
An Amber Alert was immediately issued and investigators began to search the state in hopes of finding the girl alive.
Police initially believed Shamali was with her father, Thomas Bernardez, and a description of the father and his car was distributed to the public. Bernardez was located in San Antonio Tuesday night, but his daughter was not with him. Investigators questioned him as a person of interest, but determined he was not involved.
"He was forthright and cooperative with investigators," Acevedo said at a press conference Wednesday.
Acevedo said the murder suspect likely was familiar with the family and the neighborhood, and said investigators were searching for a woman who was possibly pretending to be the child's mother.
"The individual who abducted Shamali may be a woman who has or will represent the child as her own and may even indicate the child was recently born," Acevedo said.
That prediction came true, as police found Shamali Wednesday night with a Miranda-Alvarez and her boyfriend at the Windscape Apartments in the 9700 block of South Gessner.
"After a coordinated canvass involving the Homicide Division, the FBI, the SWAT team and patrol officers, detectives were alerted to a suspicious male and female holding a newborn outside building #32, possibly attempting to leave the area," Acevedo explained at a news briefing Thursday morning. "Based off pictures, detectives quickly determined the infant child was Shamali Flores."
The newborn was taken to the hospital, determined to be healthy and unharmed, and is currently in the custody of Children's Protective Services.
Miranda-Alvarez went peacefully with law enforcement officers, and charges were filed.
"She did not put up a fight, she was cooperative, she cooperated with investigators," Acevedo said. "It's hard to put up a fight when you have a lot of cops in the location."
No charges have been filed against her boyfriend at this time.
How did the suspect gain access to the child?
According to investigators, Miranda-Alvarez has known the family for at least five years. She initially was a friend of Flores' brother, and from there, she befriended her alleged victim.
"A theory was developed early on by our investigators about motive. If you recall, we talked about this was probably a woman who either lost a baby recently or desperate to have a child. This proved to be accurate," Acevedo said.
Miranda-Alvarez had recently had a miscarriage, but she kept that secret to herself. She told her boyfriend, and others who knew her, that the baby was due in January but came early. She said her baby was in the hospital, then after taking Shamali, she introduced what she said was her baby to those around her.
"Lo and behold on Dec. 19, she showed up with a baby and pretended that it was hers," Acevedo said.
Joint efforts by immigrant community and law enforcement
Acevedo said everything, including their notion that the suspect knew the victim and the neighborhood, turned out to be true. He added that it took a community of immigrants who ignored all fears, opened up and talked to police which helped things get moving in the right direction.
"A big part of that relied on community policing, community trust, and because of a lot of those early interviews we did in that complex helped clue us in on what we were dealing with," Acevedo said. "I bring that up because -- but for our ability to be able to build that relationship, to tear down the mistrust to try to get people out of the shadows and into the light to be full participants as it relates to our collective safety -- we would not have developed those theories early on and that is something we should be happy about."
Acevedo said this case involved no economic, race or gender biases.
"The family of this victim is not rich. As a matter of fact, they are a very humble family in terms of being on the lower socio-economic scale. We don't know about their immigration status -- even though we know they are immigrants -- because we are not interested," Acevedo said. "But for those who say that law enforcement does not care about people of color, for those that say that law enforcement does not care about poor people, let me just say this. This child was born to a poor family, this child was taken from a family of color, this child was taken from an immigrant family and our investigators didn't care about color... ethnicity...religion...economic standing....immigration standing. All they cared about is justice for a human being."
Shamali "mattered," Acevedo stressed.
He also praised Mayor Sylvester Turner and the joint efforts by the FBI, who returned praise to HPD.
"The Federal Bureau of Investigations offers our condolences to the Flores family, as well as our relief that baby Shamali was found quickly," FBI Special Agent Charles Turner said. "The quick partnering between the Houston Police Department and the FBI to help recover Baby Shamali illustrates the strong alliance between our two agencies. Our greatest weapon is unity."
The investigation now turns to bringing Flores' killer to justice.
"You can not bring her back. Once you know a baby was missing, there wasn't a member of the department that didn't want to recover that baby. There wasn't a member of the FBI that was involved that didn't want to recover that baby," Acevedo said. "While we mourn for that mom that will never see her daughter grow up, walk, run the first time...but we brought her back and that is the most important part."