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Missing L.A. Girl Found Unharmed

August 14, 2002

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LOS ANGELES (AP) _ A 4-year-old girl who disappeared from a city park had a joyful reunion with her family after she turned up dirty and barefoot but unharmed at a medical clinic with her hair cut short.

The woman who accompanied Jessica Cortez to the clinic was arrested and booked on kidnapping charges after clinic staff recognized Jessica and called police.

``The mother, as you might expect, was weeping hysterically, and little Jessica threw her arms around her mother and began to laugh hysterically. And then after a few minutes, she also began to weep,″ Police Chief Martin Pomeroy said.

``We think it will be a long time before they let go of one another,″ he said.

Authorities were still looking for the man witnesses said they saw walking with Jessica on Sunday night and trying to determine his connection to the woman who brought Jessica to the clinic about five miles away. Pomeroy said Wednesday on ABC’s ``Good Morning America″ that the man was not considered a primary suspect but that the woman was.

He said authorities had not determined a motive.

Jessica apparently ended up at the clinic because she had complained of a sore throat, Pomeroy said.

Jim Mangia, executive director of the St. John’s Well Child Center, said Jessica was brought in by a well-dressed woman in sunglasses who refused to sign the clinic’s forms and wrote that the child’s name was Maria Ortiz.

The clinic’s receptionist recognized the little girl.

When the woman went to the bathroom, clinic staff questioned the girl, who said her name was Jessica and that the woman with her was not her mother, Mangia said.

Jessica was examined at a hospital, then sent home with her parents. Police and a hospital official said she was unhurt.

Pomeroy said Jessica appeared in good spirits, although she expressed some concern that her pretty hair had been cut. He said detectives assured her she still looked fine.

Police divers had scoured Echo Park lake since Sunday night, while hundreds of detectives went door to door in search of clues to Jessica’s whereabouts.

Rafael Cortez, the girl’s father, and Maria Hernandez, her mother, sell tacos from a small stand across the street from the park.

A statewide ``Amber Alert″ was issued Sunday night for the missing girl, then rescinded after Jessica’s brother told police he thought he saw Jessica’s dress in the water. The alert was reissued Monday, distributing information to law enforcement agencies, news media and motorists through traffic signs.

The system was adopted in California after the slaying of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, and was credited with assisting the recent rescue of two teenage girls. The alerts are named for a 9-year-old Texas girl kidnapped in 1996 and later found dead.

Cheers rang out through the park Tuesday afternoon when Mayor James Hahn announced, ``Little Jessica’s been found!″ Bells sounded at a nearby church and people in the park cried and embraced.

Maria Ramirez wrapped her arms around her 7-year-old granddaughter.

``I didn’t know her but I have goose bumps,″ Ramirez said. ``I’m just so happy.″


Associated Press Writer Laura Wides contributed to this report.

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