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Girl’s death has enraged, mystified, captivated public in Puerto Rico

July 1, 1997

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) _ When a 7-year-old girl disappeared at a beach, frantic relatives searched the waves and Puerto Ricans mourned what they thought was a drowning.

A day later, her body was found in the basement of an abandoned building near the beach. Police said Liliana Barbara Cepeda Casado had been sexually molested, beaten and murdered.

Public outrage and threats of vigilantism violence followed _ until police announced that the girl had in fact died accidentally.

Now, Puerto Ricans captivated by the death of Barbarita, as her family called her, aren’t sure what to think. The police superintendent says he may have misspoken in calling the death an accident _ but he won’t explain.

Authorities are sorting out conflicting statements by the girl’s 11-year-old brother, and a children’s advocate from the San Juan District Attorney’s office is heading the investigation _ which is required by local law when a juvenile is suspected of a crime.

Nobody, however, has said the boy is a suspect.

After Barbarita disappeared June 8 from Escambron beach in San Juan, her brother said he had seen a man call her by name. The next day, her body was discovered in a nearby abandoned swimming complex.

Police initially said she had severe upper body injuries, and that, although her body was found fully clothed, a preliminary examination suggested she had been sexually assaulted.

One prison-based outlaw group threatened to track down and execute the killer. When police brought a man in for questioning, an angry mob pounded on the van and threatened to kill him.

Authorities announced they wanted to question a homeless man who frequented the area _ then had to plead with the public not to exact revenge against the homeless.

Two weeks after the girl disappeared, Police Superintendent Pedro Toledo called a press conference and announced that Barbarita had died accidentally. Toledo said her brother admitted that the two had been playing near the old buildings and that the girl had fallen to her death into the basement.

``For fear of being punished, he invented the story that she was kidnapped,″ Toledo said of the boy. ``Everything suggests that it was an accident.″

And what about the evidence of sexual abuse?

Toledo, backed by a special team of local police and FBI officers investigating the case, said that evidence had been ``preliminary.″

The San Juan Star newspaper reported Friday that the investigation was focusing on the brother. The boy, according to the newspaper, has told investigators that his sister was lured away by a stranger, that she fell to her death, and a third version of the events that authorities would not discuss.

Toledo admitted in a Friday press conference that his earlier statements about an accidental death could have been misleading.

``At that time, I understood that we had to put a stop to the hysteria,″ Toledo said, citing the threats of vigilante justice.

He succeeded, and confusion filled the void.

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