A distraught mother pleaded Tuesday for the safe return of her son and daughter as authorities intensified the search for two children and their father, missing since a deadly shooting earlier this week.
Three-year-old Jennifer and 18-month-old Bryan Cervantes were last seen at their home near Queen Creek on Sunday night, in the care of their grandparents. When police responded to the house later that evening for two 911 hangups, the grandparents and an uncle were found dead. There was no sign of the children.
The children’s father — Rodrigo Cervantes Zavala, 34, of Phoenix — is being sought for questioning.
"Please, please return my children. Don’t destroy their lives," Oneida "Isabel" Acosta said while surrounded by grieving relatives. "I always taught them you were a good man, so I don’t understand why you’re doing this to us."
Acosta’s parents, Saul Lopez-Acosta, 63, and Trinidad Castro Acosta, 51; and brother Jesus Manuel-Acosta, 17, were killed.
An Amber Alert was issued for the children hours after their disappearance, but there have been few clues.
"(Cervantes) is an investigative lead, and we want to talk to him to see what happens," Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio said. "But we have nothing concrete."
A search warrant was served on Cervantes’ home in Phoenix late Monday but no evidence was found and it appeared he had moved out earlier, a sheriff ’s office spokesman said. Neighbors said they last saw him Saturday evening.
Cervantes is described as a 5-foot-3, 170-pound Hispanic man with graying black hair.
Authorities also sought a 1993 Buick Regal, with an Arizona license plate of 709SDW.
Jennifer is 3-foot-4 with black hair. She was last seen wearing a pink T-shirt with the initial B on it and flowered jeans.
Bryan has black hair and is 24 inches to 30 inches tall. He was wearing an orange T-shirt and blue shorts, both decorated with matching airplanes.
Cervantes has a violent past, twice convicted for misdemeanor assault and once for felony burglary. After he separated with Acosta eight months ago, she said she felt threatened enough to request a restraining order.
They last saw each other on Saturday, she said. Cervantes came to the home to again ask to see his children. Again she denied the request.
Cervantes sometimes made threats to take the children to Mexico, members of the Acosta family said. The sheriff’s office said investigators alerted U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which controls the ports of entry on the Mexico border, and the Border Patrol.
There is a dispute over when authorities on the border actually were notified that Cervantes and the children might be coming. The sheriff’s office insists they informed border officials before the Amber Alert was issued at 3:19 a.m. Monday.
Yet Roger Maier, spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, and Border Patrol supervisor Gustavos Soto both said their agencies didn’t learn of the Amber Alert until about 4:30 a.m.
Maier did say Arizona Department of Public Safety authorities scanned surveillance video taken at the Nogales border crossing from 2 to 6 a.m. the morning after the children’s disappearance, but that inquiry proved inconclusive.
Arpaio later said he wasn’t "100 percent" certain Cervantes actually did head to Mexico.
"We’re trying to cover all the gaps, all the bases," said deputy Doug Matteson. " He could still be in the Valley. We are not sure where to concentrate most of our search. We don’t have any solid leads as of now. We are following up leads, but no solid leads."
Matteson could not confirm late Tuesday whether Mexican authorities were officially contacted to assist with the search.
"We will possibly be contacting authorities, just in case he is across the border, but they are probably already aware of it. I’m pretty sure we are working at getting that information to them," Matteson said.
U.S. Consul Cynthia Sharpe in Sonora, Mexico, was following the case closely after she heard about it on the news, and she said the same probably goes for other authorities in Mexico.
"For people who spend any time in this border region, the news in Tucson and Phoenix is widely watched, and that includes by even those of very modest means who may never go there," Sharpe said. "There is a lot of attention to U.S. issues and always a special interest if it is a Mexican tie."
A phone call to Sonora, Mexico’s, statewide emergency dispatch center Tuesday indicated that dispatchers were not notified of the Amber Alert.
Meanwhile, immigration officials refused to return numerous calls seeking comment why Cervantes — who confessed to being an illegal immigrant — was still in America despite three convictions.
On Tuesday morning, it was quiet in the neighborhood where the crimes took place. A small flag on the home’s address sign fluttered in the wind, and a sign from a local church beside some pink flowers sat at the doorstep.
At a news conference held later in the day, Acosta choked back tears and her voice trembled at times when speaking of Cervantes. As she talked of her children and what she would do if she saw them, she smiled.
"I would take my daughter to Target and buy her a Hello Kitty backpack. But Bryan doesn’t know much, so I’d give him lots of hugs and kisses."
Nearly 30 relatives, some crying, surrounded Acosta as she spoke. More family is coming from Mexico, said Acosta’s brother-in-law, Gabriel Castro.
An episode of "America’s Most Wanted" television program was filmed in a field near the family’s home.
Deputies occasionally drive by the Queen Creek relative’s house where Acosta is currently staying, Matteson said.
"He could continue to do damage," Castro said.