Near a Thornton bar, Ramon Avila Cervantes picks up a gnarled plastic drinking straw from a trash-riddled mound of loose dirt and draws a map on the ground. “In the river,” he says in Spanish. “They found her in the river.”
Some five days earlier, someone told him Alicia Sandoval’s body had been pulled from a river near Eight Mile Road. He says a cross was placed in the ground close to where the body, wrapped in a black plastic bag, was found.
But that’s just a rumor. Several crosses do sit in the area, but none bear Sandoval’s name.
By all accounts, Sandoval has vanished.
The woman, who also goes by the first name of Ofelia and the last name of Santoyo, hasn’t been seen for five weeks.
She could have driven into the Delta waters.
She may have returned to Mexico.
For all police know, the 44-year-old Lodi woman could be alive and simply starting a new life elsewhere. After all, she was last seen driving her car, so she had a way of traveling.
However, there has been no activity on Sandoval’s bank account since she was last seen in the early morning hours of Easter Sunday. She had been drinking at the Thornton bar, it was late and she didn’t even have her identification with her.
More than 47,000 people across the country are listed as missing adults.
Some, like Modesto school teacher Laci Peterson and a bride-to-be from Georgia, raise nationwide attention and overwhelm investigators with tips. Others, like Sandoval, only get the attention of the local newspaper and a couple of TV stations.
Locally, previous missing adults — including Larry McNabney, Kristin Smart and Cyndi Vanderheiden — have gotten publicity when family members began asking for help and offering rewards.
“Usually when you have a missing person, there’s family around,” said Lodi police Detective Scott Bratton, lead investigator in the Sandoval case. “Unfortunately, if you don’t have anybody that’s a next of kin, it’s hard.”
Sandoval wasn’t close to her family, but now her friend, Rebecca Alvarado, wonders why a family member has only made one trip here from Reno — to pick up some of Sandoval’s things. The Reno resident had apparently planned to distribute fliers in the Lodi area, Bratton said, but that didn’t happen.
“Hopefully someone will just give us an anonymous call,” said Bratton, who hasn’t gotten a single call even though Sandoval’s name and photo have been entered in a national database.
The case is classified as that of a missing person under suspicious circumstances — in part because the disappearance is not characteristic of Sandoval, and also because she missed several scheduled appointments.
Investigators also consider the fact that Sandoval is a transgender woman: She was born a male but acts, dresses and lives as a woman.
Even her property managers had no idea she had ever been any different.
“She was always dressed nicely,” said Shelley Schmidt of Lodi Property Management. “In fact, we used to comment because she was always dressed very nicely when she’d come in here.”
In the two-and-a-half years Sandoval had lived in her North Church Street apartment, her $595 monthly rent payment was never late. But when her April rent went unpaid, Schmidt and co-worker Kathy Thompson had to treat it like an abandonment situation.
“How does somebody just disappear off the face of the earth?” Thompson asked.
Search for a better life
Little is known about Sandoval’s past. She was born in Nayarit, Mexico and came to Lodi about 20 years ago, according to friends.
“She wanted to get a better life,” said Alvarado, of Thornton. The two met through mutual acquaintances and became friends about eight years ago.
Sandoval left behind a mother and sister in Mexico, according to Alvarado who said she was Sandoval’s best friend.
After meeting a man around 1985, Sandoval moved to Lodi from Soledad and served drinks at a bar on Sacramento Street, said her friend, Lupe Reyes. She later took a job at Pacific Coast Producers, where she worked as a sorter, Reyes said.
Near the first of each month, Alvarado and Sandoval would get together and go over Sandoval’s bills, since she couldn’t read or write English. She was on disability from a job at the cannery, and Alvarado helped keep her doctor appointments straight.
“She had two very important workman’s (compensation) appointments coming up,” Alvarado said. The appointments were not kept.
In 2000, according to Alvarado, Sandoval’s boyfriend of 10 years left her for a woman. Sandoval became depressed and almost suicidal, and began getting counseling, Alvarado said.
Life went on, and Sandoval moved on.
She had been living on East Lodi Avenue, then moved to a first-floor apartment in the 700 block of North Church Street.
Though Sandoval has been missing for more than a month, a pot of brightly colored geraniums still blooms in the patio outside the apartment. A white plastic bottle of motor oil covered with oily fingerprints sits on a nearby shelf.
Virginia Gardner, a 42-year-old redhead, has lived in the apartment across from Sandoval’s for the past two years. She said Sandoval was always friendly with neighbors in the two-story complex.
Neighbors would sometimes see Sandoval, her hair pulled back under a hair net, leaving for work around 10 p.m.
Most weekends would find Sandoval at dance clubs in Stockton and Lodi, where she would dance to live Mexican music, Reyes said.
“That was her life — dancing and drinking,” she added.
Some Saturday nights, neighbors would hear the clicks of Sandoval’s high heels as she came home around 2 a.m. with a friend or two to listen to Spanish-language music. Sandoval would sometimes sit in the patio area and smoke cigars.
Then she disappeared.
“I noticed she wasn’t coming around as much. I didn’t see her smiling face,” Gardner said.
Gardner recalled Sandoval often wore pantsuits and dresses. Her favorite garment was a leopard-print dress — the same one she wears in a picture posted on a missing persons Web site.
“She was gorgeous, but I never knew what she did (for work),” Gardner said
Sandoval and a boyfriend lived together in the apartment.
“They kept to themselves,” Gardner said. “They had problems with break-ins.”
Break-ins and auto thefts
Until December, Lodi police had no reason to contact apartment No. 5, where Sandoval lived.
“She never had a problem before. Then things just started happening,” said a neighbor who did not want to be identified.
From mid-December until Sandoval disappeared, police were called to the residence eight times, according to numbers provided by Crime Prevention Officer Andrea Patterson.
Bratton doesn’t have any reason to believe those incidents are connected to Sandoval’s disappearance. But Sandoval’s acquaintances aren’t so sure, and Alvarado said her friend was scared.
Police reports tell the story of the months leading up to Sandoval’s disappearance:
In the early hours of Dec. 12, Sandoval arrived home and found that her home had been burglarized. Among the missing items were a jewelry box containing about $500 in gold jewelry, and car keys.
Three days later, the keys were likely used to steal her car.
The following day, Bratton and Detective Dale Eubanks happened to see a car matching the description, checked the license plate and soon learned that the car and plate didn’t match. An 18-year-old Lodi man was arrested, and a second suspect, a 21-year-old field worker, was arrested a day later.
On Jan. 27, Sandoval returned home and began to turn the door knob when someone on the inside turned it for her.
A man “pushed Sandoval out of the way as he ran past her and into the alley behind her apartment complex,” according to Officer Brian Scott’s report. The suspect left behind a blue mountain bicycle.
Once again, a jewelry box and keys were stolen.
The following day, Sandoval’s other car was stolen.
California Highway Patrol officers soon located the car on Curry Road and arrested a 23-year-old man whom Sandoval recognized from a Lodi bar and restaurant.
On Feb. 1, Sandoval went to smoke a cigarette on the patio when she noticed damage to the door. Nothing was missing.
A month later, Julio Lemos, a man who had been staying on Sandoval’s couch, called police to report another burglary. Two men had started to crawl in a bedroom window when Lemos heard them, got a stick and opened the bedroom door, according to Officer Dennis Lewis’ report. The suspects fled.
One day later, on March 5, Sandoval’s Mazda was one of three vehicles in the area with punctured tires, likely from an ice pick.
Under Sandoval’s windshield wiper, though, a note “identified Sandoval and (made) threats toward her,” according to now-Sgt. Dale Miller’s report.
A few weeks later, Sandoval did not return home after a Saturday night out, and Lemos called police.
Her immigration card and wallet were left behind at home, since she only took a “night purse” to go dancing, Alvarado said.
Sandoval’s make-up was also left there, which doesn’t seem right to Alvarado.
“She would change her clothes two or three times a day, and she always had to have her make-up on,” she said.
Sandoval was last seen at Las Lulas bar in Thornton, a beige and mint green building.
Old West saloon-style doors swing open to a room with a checkerboard floor, a jukebox, two pool tables and a row of chrome-legged stools lining a counter. Ornate wrought-iron bars cover two front windows.
She left, drunk, in the early morning hours of March 27, and was last seen driving her gold Mazda toward Walnut Grove, according to police.
Nobody knows where she went next.
“From what I heard, she was pretty drunk when she came out of that bar,” Alvarado said. “I think she got turned around.”
Bratton hasn’t gotten any substantial tips, though he’s heard plenty of wild rumors, such as the story Cervantes told about a body in the river.
He’s talked to San Joaquin County Sheriff’s detectives, who drove levee roads to look for signs of Sandoval’s car.
More than once, Bratton has sent a missing person flier nationwide. He’s been in contact with all local hospitals — and morgues. If Sandoval’s car is stopped, police will be alerted.
Still, after five weeks, Bratton’s gotten no break.
Even Sandoval’s family members are hard to track down. As time goes by, he worries that she’ll just become another missing person lost in the system.
Anyone with information on Sandoval is asked to call the Lodi Police Department at (209) 333-6727. Anonymous callers, which may be eligible for a cash reward, may contact Lodi-Area Crime Stoppers at (209) 333-6771.