Whittier Pair Allegedly Tried to Smuggle Drowned Toddler Across the Border

The pedestrian border crossing into Mexico at San Ysidro
The pedestrian border crossing into Mexico at San Ysidro

Two Whittier suspects pleaded not guilty Friday to allegations they murdered a 2-year-old girl, whose body was discovered in a duffle bag that one of the defendants was carrying into Mexico from San Diego, authorities said.

Thirty-nine-year-old Johnny Lewis Hartley and 43-year-old Mercy Mary Becerra face 25 years to life behind bars if they're convicted, a spokeswoman for the San Diego District Attorney's Office said.

A criminal complaint alleges the child, who has not been identified, was killed on Tuesday or Wednesday. The document also says Hartley has a prior conviction for being a felon in possession of a firearm. That case originated in the city of Orange.

Deputy district attorney Kurt Mechals told reporters outside a San Diego courtroom yesterday that the toddler was the victim of a "residential-type drowning," with malnutrition and dehydration contributing to her death.

The homicide might have taken place in Whittier, and police in the Eastside city have joined the San Diego Police Department's investigation into the homicide, authorities said.

Mechals said prosecutors believe Hartley and Becerra know the child's parents. Any possible motive still appears to be a mystery.

On Wednesday, San Diego police announced the pair had been turned over to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials by Mexican authorities after a secondary inspection and X-ray of a duffle bag Hartley was carrying allegedly revealed the body's presence.

When the pair were stopped by Mexican customs agents as they entered that country, Becerra allegedly fled but was apprehended nearby, cops said. The case was taken over by San Diego murder investigators.

"Homicide detectives interviewed and processed the male and female, who were subsequently booked into jail on one count of murder," the San Diego Police Department said in a statement. "It has been determined that this incident may have occurred in Whittier, California...."

The body was turned over to coroner's investigators.

The DA's spokeswoman said each defendant was being held in lieu of $2 million bail.

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