A toddler found dead inside a duffel bag carried by a Southern California couple trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border into Tijuana was drowned, a San Diego Deputy District Attorney said Friday.
Deputy DA Kurt Mechals said the girl, who was approximately two years old, died from a "residential-type drowning." An autopsy determined the tot also showed signs of malnutrition, dehydration and trauma, Mechals said.
The prosecutor said the investigation is ongoing and he could not release any further details on the toddler's death. He said investigators have theories on the motive but that information is not being released at this time.
On Friday, the couple accused in this case — Johnny Lewis Hartley, 39, and Mercy Maria Becerra, 43, both of Whittier, California — were arraigned side-by-side in a downtown San Diego courtroom.
Each defendant faces one count of first-degree murder in the death of the little girl, as outlined in this complaint filed in court Friday.
If convicted, Mechals said they each face 25 years to life in prison.
Standing next to one another with their heads hung low, both Hartley and Becerra pleaded not guilty. A public defender was appointed for both suspects. A judge set bail at $2 million for each of the suspects.
Mechals said the drowning of the tot happened in Whittier.
Investigators are still trying to determine the relationship of the suspects to the victim, Mechals said. Hartley and Becerra are not the child's parents, but the parents also live in Whittier and know the suspects.
The San Diego Police Department said Hartley and Becerra were arrested at the pedestrian border crossing at the San Ysidro port of entry Tuesday around 12 p.m. after they attempted to cross into Mexico.
SDPD Lt. Ray Valentin said the duo was stopped by Mexican authorities and sent to a secondary inspection point.
Hartley was carrying a duffel bag. When officials scanned his bag in an X-ray machine, they discovered the body of the little girl inside the bag, police said.
At that point, Valentin said Becerra tried to run away from authorities, but was quickly apprehended and taken into custody. Hartley was also arrested. They were deported back to the U.S. side of the border and turned over to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The SDPD’s Homicide Unit arrived at the port of entry and took custody of Hartley and Becerra, booking them into jail in San Diego on suspicion of child cruelty and first-degree murder.
After interviewing the suspects, Valentin said SDPD Homicide Unit detectives determined that whatever happened to the little girl occurred in Whittier, which is about 127 miles north of Tijuana.
SDPD detectives are working closely with detectives of the Whittier Police Department on the case.
Mechals said there is still much work to be done. At the suspects' arraignment on Friday, the prosecutor said details were still being developed, including whether the toddler's death was premeditated.
"There are a lot of moving parts," Mechals said of the case.
On Thursday, Valentin told NBC 7 it appears someone drove Hartley and Becerra to San Diego, possibly dropping them off at the pedestrian border crossing. He also said there was no missing person report filed on the toddler out of Whittier.
At this point, Mechals said there are no indications of additional arrests in this case. The name of the toddler has not yet been released. For now, court documents refer to the child as "Jane Doe."
According to the complaint against the suspects, Hartley has a prior conviction on his record from June 23, 2010, out of Orange, California.
An Instragram account for Becerra confirmed by NBC 4 Los Angeles earlier this week said the suspect is a mother of nine. The social media account has since been deleted.
The investigation is ongoing. Anyone with information can call the SDPD Homicide Unit at (619) 531-2293 or Crime Stoppers at (888) 580-8477.
Hartley and Becerra are due back in court on Aug. 18 for a status conference. Their preliminary hearing is set to begin Aug. 25.