MISSING YOUNGSTERS

Reconstructing the dark hours before Bretón children’s disappearance

Police trace father’s steps, but still don’t know what happened at estate

José Bretón during his return to his parents’ La Quemadillas property.
José Bretón during his return to his parents’ La Quemadillas property.JULIÁN ROJAS

The police have analyzed every move made by José Bretón, the father of José, two years old, and Ruth, six, who went missing almost a year ago in Córdoba. His comings and goings between October 7 and 8, 2011 have been picked apart by the police’s Specialized and Violent Crimes Unit (UDEV). But there is still one dark period of time that holds the key to a tragic story that took an unexpected turn when two independent reports confirmed that bones and teeth found among bonfire ashes inside the family estate of Las Quemadillas belonged to two small children, and not to animals as police had initially said. This dark period begins at 1.48pm and ends at 6.30pm on October 8, when Bretón was alone with his children. The following is a reconstruction of those hours.

October 8. At nine in the morning, Bretón takes his children to his sister Catalina’s house to play with their cousins. He gets a hold of the keys to his sister’s car, a Kia Picanto, and drives to Las Quemadillas. Bretón returns to Catalina’s house at 11.30am. He has tried to reach his wife on the phone repeatedly, to no avail. He stays at his sister’s house, taking care of all the kids while Catalina and her husband go shopping.

1.31pm. The couple takes an hour and a half to get back. Bretón gets upset and throws a fit. Seeing his reaction, his brother-in-law offers to drive him to the grandparents’ house.

1.48pm. José Bretón closes the gray metal fence at the entrance of the six-hectare estate that his parents own in Las Quemadillas. Several security cameras capture the moment. According to experts who saw the footage, he is accompanied by his children. He phones his estranged wife, Ruth Ortiz, one more time. Ruth does not pick up.

Between 3pm and 5pm. A resident in the area, according to the police reports, says that during this time he noticed “a powerful smell of smoke, not the normal smell when you burn brushwood, or a barbecue smell, but more like someone was burning garbage.” The origin of that bonfire is the Bretón property.

5pm. The plume of smoke coming out of Las Quemadillas gets so dense that it alerts the firefighting services. A watchtower has caught sight of it.

5.30pm. The metal gate opens again. Bretón, who has kept his smartphone turned off this entire time, emerges with two trash bags that he throws out in two separate containers. He never tells the police what was inside. Later he drives off. The seatbelts in the back show that the children are not sitting there. The bonfire is still burning. A neighbor later tells investigators that he noticed an unfamiliar smell, which he thought might be burning rubber or plastic, but in any case different from the smell of burnt wood.

6.30pm. From the other edge of town in Córdoba, Bretón turns on his iPhone. He warns his family that he has lost his children at Cruz Conde park. He calls the police, who send a patrol car, but there is no trace of the missing children. The officers are surprised at Bretón’s calm attitude. From the first moment, they suspect the children never made it to the park.

October 8, at night. Bretón tells his interrogators that he spent several hours at Las Quemadillas with his children. When they go there, the live coals in the bonfire draw the police’s attention. They wonder why Bretón had not told them about this. Very near there are two empty boxes of tranquillizers. The fire and the pills make the police fear the worst. They inspect a wrought-iron table found very near the fire. Investigators now suspect it could have been used to make an oven.

The bones found among the ashes suggest a tragic conclusion to the case. But Bretón does not cave in. He claims he burned some of his wife’s belongings — clothes and class notes from her school days. The police are surprised to find four large boxes filled with class notes and women’s clothes still there. What were the children doing while he burned the things? “They slept for hours.” What about the pills? Bretón is vague on that point.

The initial police analysis of the bones in the fire throws investigators off Bretón’s scent by asserting that they belong to animals, not humans. Eleven months later, two independent anthropologists have determined in separate reports that the bones are indeed human, and belong to children whose ages coincide with those of Ruth and José.

The investigation proceeds, and everything takes the police back to Las Quemadillas, where new inspections are carried out involving georadar, heat cameras and archeological digs. Holes are made in the house, in the walls, in the floors and the ceilings. Nothing. Now, the confirmation that the bones are human makes everything simpler again.

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