020 - The Abduction & Murder of Isabel Celis
Isabel Mercedes Celis was born on August 27th, 2005 in Tuscon, Arizona. Her father, Sergio, is an oral surgery assistant at a dental office. Her mother, Becky, is a nurse at Tuscon Medical Center. Isabel was a precocious young girl who enjoyed school, little league baseball where she played on the Little Diamondbacks team, and spending many evenings gardening with her mother. Isabel was doted on by her parents, as well as her two older brothers. Being the baby of the family, her brother’s felt it was their job to look after her and in the aftermath of her disappearance they would take it extremely hard, blaming themselves for not being there for her. Of Isabel, her maternal grandfather, would say “She was just so friendly and already had a sense of humor. She was just a lovely, lovely young lady.”
In April of 2012, Isabel was six years old and was a first grader at the Academy of Tucson and was living with her family in an Adobe style home near Broadway Boulevard and Craycroft Road, the same home they live in to this day. Isabel had long brown hair, hazel eyes and a beautiful smile which everyone commented on when they met her.
Friday, April 20th, 2012, began as any other day for the Celis family. There was the usual hustle and bustle of getting ready for school and work. Isabel’s brothers were excited for their little league game later that evening. The game took place at Freedom Little League Field and Isabel attended, watching her brothers play. Several witnesses at the game observed Isabel in attendance, playing near the dugout while her brother’s played their game. The game ran late, ending at approximately 10pm at which point Isabel, her two brothers and her father headed home. I haven’t found confirmation that Becky was present at the game, though I do know she was home with the family later that evening.
According to the official timeline, at approximately 11pm, Isabel was preparing for bed. Becky, her mother, braids Isabel’s hair into little ponytails for her before tucking her into bed. Though Isabel has her own bedroom, she typically sleeps with her two brothers in their room. For reasons unknown, on this night, she is sleeping by herself in her own room. Becky headed to bed shortly after while Sergio drifted off to sleep on the couch, watching a baseball game he had previously recorded. Sometime around 5am, Sergio wakes up. He reports that he didn’t hear anything at the time and slowly made his way into the master bedroom, going back to sleep beside Becky. There appears to be a great deal of speculation about Sergio’s movements that night, with many believing that the timeline is off and that Sergio heard something which caused him to wake up. Whether or not that is the case remains unknown.
Sometime around 6:30am the Celis’ neighbor, Alicia Stardevant, says she was awakened by a commotion. According to Stardevant, her dogs began barking and she could hear voices. There is a wall which separates Isabel’s bedroom window from the Stardevant residence and she claims the voices sounded as though they were on her side of the wall, not the Celis’ side. Stardevant would say “My dogs were going crazy, their dog were going nuts and I remember briefly waking up and hearing male voices outside my bedroom window. But it was light outside. I didn’t really think anything of it. Then I went back to sleep.” Stardevant would also say that the voices were not quiet or whispering. She reported that she didn’t hear any sounds that would suggest a struggle.
Later that morning, sometime around 7am, Becky Celis leaves the home for her morning shift at Tucson Medical Center. Reports vary, with some suggesting that Becky left her home as early as 6:30am and as late at 7:30. According to Becky, she didn’t notice anything odd about the home, nor did she hear anything going on. Becky did not check on Isabel that morning before she left for work, which she tells a 911 operator later before breaking down. In a later 911 call, Becky will state that she “didn’t hear anything at all.” Around an hour later, at approximately 8am, Sergio enters Isabel’s bedroom to wake her up. Isabel had a little league game that morning, but upon entering her room Sergio discovers that she is missing. According to him, he and his sons quickly search through the home and call out Isabel’s name but cannot locate her. Sergio Jr., 14 at the time of his sister’s disappearance, enters her bedroom and notices that her window is open and the screen is missing. Sergio would later state “Sergio Jr came running in and said Dad, her screens laying on the back, her windows busted out. Kind of, you know, freaking out at this point. And I called Becky at work. “
Sergio rushes to the bedroom and when he looks out the window he sees the screen laying on the ground below. Fourteen minutes later, Sergio places what can only be described as one of the strangest 911 calls I’ve heard. This call will later become the target of much speculation and suspicion. I will now play the 911 call in its entirety.
[Insert 911 Audio]
Did the call sound odd to you at all? Now, it should be noted that everyone deals with moments of stress and panic in different ways, but for me, it sounds as though Sergio is exceedingly calm and cool. This doesn’t sound to me like a man who is very worried about his daughter’s safety and whereabouts. Perhaps this is how Sergio reacts to scar situations, it’s hard to know, and a lot of people have read things into the tone and pattern of his voice. I can only speculate as to his behavior, but I do agree that it just doesn’t sound right and when I listen to it I get a sick feeling in my stomach. The strangest part is when Sergio talks about calling his wife, Becky, and telling her to “get her butt home” and then he laughs.
Suffice it to say, many people have looked towards this call as an indicator that something was off about Isabel’s disappearance, with much of them believing that Sergio knew more about his daughter’s vanishing than he was telling. One key component of the 911 call which many found suspicious, outside of Sergio’s demeanor, was that he initially states that his daughter had been abducted. Many have pointed out that he doesn’t say she is missing, he specifies abducted. There are arguments on both sides of the aisle on this, with defenders and detractors arguing their points. However, this would not be the only 911 call placed by the family that morning.
A neighbor called 911 on behalf of Sergio Jr., Isabel’s fourteen year old brother. In the call, the neighbor states that he is calling for Sergio Jr who has told him that his sister is missing and that they are looking for her. On the call, Sergio Jr sounds shaken and scared, he is clearly upset and states that “Someone broke in and grabbed her.” The operator tells him that they have already received a call in relation to this case. Halfway through the call, the phone gets handed to Becky who sounds panicked and desperate, she speaks rapidly and begins describing Isabel to the operator. I will play this 911 call in its entirety.
[Insert 911 audio]
The difference between this call and the initial call from Sergio is drastic. While Sergio remained calm, both Becky and Sergio Jr are upset and impatient. They want the police there as quickly as possible and they are obviously greatly upset and concerned about Isabel’s location and safety. Becky loses her composure completely when she acknowledges to the operator that she didn’t check on Isabel that morning before she left for work. The call ends when officers arrive.
Officers immediately began a door to door search of the neighborhood and were later joined by several FBI agents. In released reports from the Tucson Police Department, there is a lengthy list of all neighbors that were spoken too, although almost every single neighbor reported that they didn’t see or hear anything in relation to Isabel. One witness reported a white vehicle driving by several times the night before, and another expressed concern over an incident from a week prior in which an unknown Hispanic male approached her and put his arm around her. Neither of these tips seems to have pointed to or indicated anything to do with Isabel.
The police set up a command post and locked down the neighborhood, blocking off streets in a several block radius around the home. People were only allowed to enter or exit after being checked out by officers. After their initial round of interviews were conducted, they widened the net of their canvassing and went to several nearby apartment complexes, going door to door there, but nothing significant was gleaned from these interviews. Several officers were sent to the Los Reales Landfill at which point the secured the premises. One particular section of the landfill was sectioned off and guarded by police, though further searching of this area produced nothing in relation to Isabel. It should be noted, one report does state that they found a pair of children’s shoes, children’s light blue shorts and a female hair though these are never listed as being connected to Isabel.
One officer was sent to Freedom Little League field, the site where Isabel’s game was to be held that morning, on the off chance that she may have gone there or that someone there could have seen something. A theory began to develop at this point that someone may have seen Isabel at her brother’s game the previous night, followed the family home and waited to kidnap Isabel. In following up on this, the officer began running the license plates of all the cars in the parking lot of the field. According to his check, one of the cars belongs to someone who lives in the neighborhood so he chooses to wait and speak to the individual. When he does meet this individual, it is a male holding a flashlight who informs the officer that he heard about Isabel’s disappearance and took it upon himself to search through same drainage pipes and similar places in the area. He reports finding nothing.
Police investigated the Celis’ residence, taking photographs and testing for bodily fluids in multiple rooms. Footprints were photographed in the dirt behind the home, as well as footprints which were found on top of an electrical box in an alleyway behind the home. The reports also listed that there was something written inside of Isabel’s closet, though it’s specifics aren’t listed, this was also photographed. Several items were taken into evidence which appeared to have blood stains on them. as well as their vehicles listed as a Blue Toyota Carolla, Maroon Lexus and Red Honda Acura.
According to Police reports, there were two items in the Acura which had dark red or brown stains on them. One of the items was listed as a green vinyl shower curtain. A forensics team began processing several locations with luminol including but not limited to the interior of the vehicles, the concrete floor to the read of the lexus, a vacuum cleaner accessory set as well as a pillow, a black gaming chair and a twin bed and area surrounding it. There appeared to be a luminol reaction on the footboard of the twin bed. There also was a reaction in one of the vehicles. The report states “I observed and marked a luminol reaction on the drivers seat of the Toyota Corolla.” Police later stated that the found “suspicious circumstances around a possible entry point.” Sometime after this, blood samples were taken from Becky and Sergio. Becky requested that investigators consider the possibililty that an abductor may be attempting to sneak Isabel across the Mexican border. US Marshals contacted Mexican police, requesting that they check hotels, bus terminals and businesses in the Mexican border state of Senora.
Investigators were also sent to the location of Sergio’s job to search the dumpsters and surrounding areas for anything suspicious. Later, on May 2nd, a subpoena was issued to Sergio’s employer gathering records of his 401k and profit sharing plan. In addition to this, police requested information on whether or not Sergio had experience with an access to anesthesia or drugs. This would seem to indicate that police considered the possibility that Isabel had been drugged sometime before her disappearance, though the report states that Sergio did not work with anesthetics nor have access to them.
K-9 units were brought in to assist with the search. The units began by exposing the dogs to the gathered family members in order to exclude them from the search itself and allow the dogs to focus only on Isabel’s scent. According to the reports, family members present at the time were: Sergio and Becky, their two sons, a well as Luis & Lizette Rodriguez and Justin Mastromarino, the latter of which has been referred to as both a cousin and uncle, and whose name will appear again later. At some point during the search, one of the K-9’s hit on a neighbors home. The police entered the home and asked for permission to search, which they were granted. Despite a thorough investigation of the home and yard, there was nothing found to indicate a connection to Isabel. Interestingly, there has been some debate about whether or not cadaver dogs were present that day. There were reports that the FBI did in fact have a cadaver dog there, although some contradict this statement. In addition to this, there has been a report that a K9 unit got a hit inside of the Celis home, which wouldn’t be something to report in general since you would expect the home to have plenty of indicators of Isabel’s presence inside. However, if the hit was made by a cadaver dog, that completely changes the shape of the case. It has never been confirmed whether or not the hit was made by a cadaver dog, and police would only say it was something that required further investigation.
During the initial investigation, police located several businesses with surveillance cameras pointing in the direction of the Celis residence. According to all reports, the cameras pickup on activity at the home the morning Isabel disappeared and show Sergio and his sons searching the area. The cameras also show Becky racing home that morning and joining her family. According to the official timeline, at 1:24am a large van passed by. At 2:36, a private security vehicle stopped and turned its lights on. A male was seen walking across a parking lot located near the home at 3:32am. The family is scene at approximately 8:45am, though the cameras show no signs of Isabel during the night of her disappearance.
There was also a group of five to six people captured on video that night. They were leaving a club near the Celis home. The three men and two women were caught on tape just a block away from the home at approximately 1:30am working in the same direction as the home. One of the men came forward to police to account for anything that may have been seen or heard that night, though it appears not much came from his conversation with investigators.
Within the first twenty four hours of the investigation, Police speak to hundreds of residences in the area and receive several tips, some from locals and others from alleged psychics. One psychic places a phone call in which he states that Isabel had been taken by two men, one in his late teens to early twenties, the other being older, and that she was being held in a U-shaped building. Another psychic says that Isabel was taken by an older man with white hair. A little girl in the area also told police that she had a dream that Isabel was taken by a man with a skin condition and that she was brought to a white mountain. One local reported a bizarre story about a girl he had broken up with two years earlier and that during this breakup he mentioned knowing someone in the Celis family and he believed that she may have been involved in the abduction. Yet another man reported seeing a young girl fitting Isabel’s description running northbound on Columbus and that there was an older white or Hispanic male walking north on Columbus who had white hair. The witness said it struck him as odd that a little girl would be out so late, so he turned his vehicle around and attempted to locate her on another pass but was unable to. He also said that he did not call 911 to report his sighting.
On April 23rd, two days after Isabel was reported missing, an officers filed a report in which he stated that he was approached by a man on E broadway, at Bruegger’s Bagels. According to the report, the man was named Mark and he stated “he coaches baseball with the little girl’s father and that he knows him well. Mark went on to say that something didn’t seem right about what was going on and alluded that he believed the father was involved in some way.” The report goes on to say that Mark was interested in speaking to a Detective about the case. On this same day, the Celis family issued a statement in which they plead for the safe return of Isabel. They offer to pay ransom and to do whatever is necessary to get their daughter back. In their statement, they said “Just please, please, to the person or persons who have Isabel, tell us what you want, we will do anything for her. We’re looking for you, Isa. We love Isabel and will never give up finding her.”
Justin Matromarino, described as Isabel’s adult cousin, and often referred to as her uncle. He is actually Becky Celis’ cousin. He speaks to the media as well. Mastromarino stated “Isabel’s parents are very upset right now, mother is beside herself. We’re just trying to let police do their thing and get as much information as possible. You don’t think anything like that would actually really happen to you. And all of a sudden, you wake up one morning and you’re in that scenario. Everything goes through your mind, you’re angry, you’re upset, you’re frustrated, you’re confused.” Mastromarino becomes a subject of a great deal of speculation concerned his actions following Isabel’s disappearance. Initially, he makes statements to the media, but within two weeks, Mastromarino ships his vehicle and moves out of the state, refusing to answer questions to reporters or police. According to a private investigator later hired by the family, Jerry Snyder the were interested in him earlier on. Snyder would say “We looked at one of the relatives of the family, and his friend that basically didn’t have six hours that they could explain as to where the were the day she went missing.”
Reportedly, Mastromarino even stopped communicating with the Celis family themselves which is what initially activated their suspicion of him. Snyder would state “this same individual shipped his car off to another state, then he hired one of the best lawyers in Tucson, a criminal lawyer, and you know, Bingo, another red flag.” When asked about Mastromarino cutting off communication, Sergio said the only answer they got from him was “You can talk to my lawyer.” Sergio continued “Who the hell does that that knows Isabel and is not willing to come forth and say something if you know something?” It should be noted that Mastromarino had previously lived in the Celis home and still possessed a key to the residence.
Sebastian Hartsfield had reportedly spent the night of Isabel’s disappearance hanging out with Mastromarino. According to him, they didn’t want to discuss their whereabouts with police that night because “It was April 20th, 420, it’s national weed smoking day, so of course we drank and smoked weed.” He would go on to say that they partied pretty hard that night, eventually ending up back at Mastromarino’s apartment at approximately 2am and that they woke around 8am. When asked about Mastromarino leaving town, Sebastian said “I mean I would be tired of people looking at me and accusing me of this. If I had the money to take off with all the people, FBI agents, private whatever, I would have left. I don’t see anything wrong with him leaving. Unfortunately, I can’t leave.” When asked if he thought Mastromarino may have been involved, Sebastian said “No, I definitely want to say deep down inside that I know Justin, and I can say no.” When asked about the private investigators claims regarding Mastromarino, Detective Greg Wright of the Tucson Police stated “They don’t have all of the information that we have, so they can come to their own conclusions. But, no, I don’t share their conclusions.”
On April 25th, four days after Isabel’s disappearance, Police Chief Roberto Villasenor held a press conference. When asked about their search efforts states “Obviously I’m disappointed that we haven’t found her at this point, but it doesn’t mean we’re giving up hope.” Initially, there were two hundred officers involved in the foot search though that number was reduced to 150 within the first few days. When asked about Becky and Sergio, Vallasenor responded “They’re being very cooperative, obviously there are times of emotional distress for them.” FBI behavioral analysts were called into examine the home for clues which may have been missed by forensics investigators. The Celis family had been asked to leave their home just two days earlier so that the FBI could more extensively search throughout it. When asked if any members of the family were considered suspects, Vallasenor replied “We are not ruling out essentially anyone as suspects.” He would go on to explain that there were 12 to 15 detectives “assigned to follow external viewpoints on this investigation, the possibility of a stranger abduction or something like that and then we have probably four detectives or so that are following the possibility of inside the family involvement.”
Vallasenor goes on to include that there were fifteen registered sex offenders located in the neighborhood or within close proximinity the neighborhood. He explains that all of them had been interviewed and had fully cooperated with the investigation and that, at that time, they had been ruled out as possibilities. Several days later, search and rescue teams conducted several underwater searches in local lakes and ponds using sonar and underwater cameras. Their efforts provide no signs of Isabel.
The Celis family feels that the police are overly focused on them, and specifically Sergio, as a suspect, despite the fact that he is never named as an official suspect. In a later statement, Sergio said “It feels like the investigation has never gone any further than right here. That’s what is so frustrating.” Becky would state “From the beginning the police said everybody’s a person of interest. We are ok going through the ringer and having everything part of our lives investigated. And by all means, go right ahead.” Later in May, Child Protective Services was called in. According to news reports, CPS had been called into the home the year prior, for what reason is unknown. When CPS arrives in May of 2012, they manage to arrange for Sergio to voluntarily remove himself from the family home and to stay away from his sons. The reasoning behind this is also unknown though several newspapers reported that Detectives contacted CPS with concerns about the safety of Sergio’s sons. In response, Tucson police would only say that CPS “instituted certain measures to ensure the continued welfare of the Celis Children.” Becky and Sergio voluntarly separated during this time in order to comply with CPS, though Becky would state “My husband’s a great father. He’s a great husband, a great father to the boys and Isabel. At the end of the day when Isabel comes home, everybody’s questions will be anwered.” There are also stories circulating that the reason for the separation had something to do with the families dogs and that they were considered vicious. Of course this raises the question as to why Sergio would choose to move out with the dogs rather than to stay with his family.
Throughout the next few months and years, police canvas the neighborhood multiple times. They come back to refresh the investigation, though their inquiries continue to produce no leads or credible information. Police ultimately declared the case an abduction, rather than a missing person or disappearance. Interestingly, when asked, police choose not to clarify whether or not they believe it to be a stranger abduction or an abduction perpetrated by someone known to the family. A reward was offered for information leading to Isabel’s return totaling $60,500. During the course of the investigation, police received over 2,200 tips which they say they thoroughly investigated. Tucson Police Lieutenant Matt Ronstadt, the head of family and sex crimes, said “People that have been brought forward to us as potential suspects have been looked at and if there was information that would allow us to establish probable cause that somebody committed a crime we would have charged them.” Later, adding “I want to stress how important it is that people continue to contact us about this case. That is going to be the key to bringing it to a conclusion. Somebody, somewhere knows something.” On May 25th, 2012, Police publicly acknowledged that blood stains were found on Isabel’s bedroom floor.
For the next five years, the disappearance of Isabel Celis would become a case that was as baffling as it is heart wrenching. Despite multiple attempts to recanvass the area, to examine evidence over again and to make pleas to the public, no new leads were developed, no new evidence came to the surface. No suspect was ever officially listed. The National Center for Missing and Exploited children released an age progressed photo of Isabel in hopes of helping locate her. Unfortunately, Isabel’s disappearance would end with a grim discovery, and the investigation into Isabel’s murder would truly kick in.
On March 31st, 2017, Tucson Police held a press conference led by Chief Chris Magnus. Magnus announced that they had recovered human remains in rural Pima County six to eight weeks earlier and that an independent lab verified through DNA testing that they were in fact the remains of Isabel Celis. Here is a piece of audio from that press conference:
Magnus stated that the investigation was ongoing but wouldn’t confirm whether or not there were new suspects. He also said that investigators had been working the case since the day she vanished and that they were led to her remains through the course of that investigation. Magnus also said that the discovery of her remains was not due to happenstance, but did not name anyone who may have led officers to the site. When asked how long Isabel had been deceased, Magnus was unable to provide an answer. In conclusion, Magnus stated “We see this as absolutely a tragedy. We were all hoping to find her alive. This is not an ending we would have hoped for, but this is not the end of the case.”
In response to this announcement, the Celis family released a statement reading “We want to thank the community for the support they have to continued to show Isa over the years and for refusing to give up hope. Now is our time to mourn. We ask for privacy during this time so that we can do that.”
More than 450 people gathered to mourn the loss of Isabel Celis at her funeral. Family and friends wore purple, pink flowers lined the aisles of St. Augustine’s Catherdral in Tucson. Becky Celis spoke, thanking attendees and asking them to “remember my baby girl happy and playing. Not the way she was taken, but the good memories.” The service was conducted in both English and Spanish and was overseen by Father Miguel Mariano. The Mass concluded with a violin solo of “When You Wish Upon a Star.” As attendees exited they were given pink and purple balloons which they released.
In the seven months since the announcement, no new information has come to light. We don’t know at this time where investigators are going, or what information they may be in possession of. What does seem likely is that someone told police where they could find the body of Isabel Celis. Whether that was based on first hand knowledge, rumor or statements made by a potential suspect, we simply don’t know at this time. There are several theories revolving around the abduction and murder of Isabel Celis.
The first theory is that Isabel was abducted by a stranger. Many people point to the previous night’s baseball game and the theory that Isabel may have been followed home by someone who intended to abduct her. They also acknowledge the proximity of fifteen known sex offenders in the neighborhood and despite acknowledgements from police that they were cleared, still believe they may have played a role.
There is another angle to the idea of abduction by a stranger which exists inside a bubble of speculation. According to this particular theory, Sergio is alleged to have been in debt to some drug dealers and Isabel was taken either with plans of ransoming her, or to send a message to Sergio about what would happen if he didn’t pay. Some speculate that the abductor planned to murder Isabel, while others believe her death may have occurred accidentally.
The third theory is that someone who knew Isabel, possibly even a family member, was involved in her abduction and murder. The first name on the list is Justin Mastromarino, Isabel’s much older cousin. Theorists point to the fact that Mastromarino left town so quickly following the disappearance and hired a lawyer and refused to answer questions just two weeks after the investigation had kicked into high gear. Speculation suggests that Mastromarino abducted Isabel for one of several reasons: either he owed money and planned to ransom her, was angry at the family and wanted to strike back at them or was part of a group of individuals involved in the abduction which may or may not have included Isabel’s father, Sergio. Some have even gone so far as to say that Mastromarino and Sergio may have planned to work a ransom scheme together.
One theory, though considered a lesser possibility, alleges that one of Isabel’s brothers may have been involved in her death and that Sergio played a role in covering it up to protect his son. Though details are scarce, many believe that there may have been an argument or struggle during which Isabel was badly injured or possibly even killed and out of desperation and fear, Sergio plotted to call in a false abduction story after his wife left that morning in hopes of protecting his son and shifting suspicion off of him.
In terms of a family abduction, Sergio has, for many, always been the prime suspect. His demeanor and conduct during the 911 call almost immediately threw him into doubt and suspicion. In addition to this, conditions at the house and discussed by police suggested that something happened inside the home that night. Many people have always pointed out that Sergio claimed to have fallen asleep on the couch, which was positioned just outside of Isabel’s bedroom, something he would later say he did not do very often. If indeed an abductor came into the home who wasn’t known to the family, many believe it’s unlikely one of their three dogs wouldn’t have barked and disturbed at least Sergio. Investigators seemed to focus on Sergio early on, and for many, that is reason enough to consider him a possibility.
There is also speculation that Sergio may have been connected to drug dealers in some way. There are two branches to this: on suggesting that Sergio owed money to a drug dealer and Isabel was taken in response. The other alleges that Sergio was involved in the abduction of his daughter in order to somehow gain money through ransom to pay off the drug dealers he is alleged to have owed money. This theory speculates that during the course of the abduction, Isabel was injured and ultimately died as a result of these injuries. Some even allege that Sergio’s family may have had some knowledge of what had happened, either by being involved themselves or from overhearing something in the home that night.
The abduction and death of Isabel Celis is a remarkably sad story. There are so many questions swirling around the case, and answers are in short supply. In the immediate aftermath of the disappearance, investigators dedicated a large amount of manhours to the case, canvassed the area, tracked down over 2,200 tips and spoke to numerous possible suspects and witnesses. Despite several years of investigation, little information came out and police lacked the evidence to attach anyone to the title of suspect. Five years later, just seven months ago, investigators broke the devastating news that they had recovered the remains of six year old Isabel Celis. Details were scarce surrounding what led them to this discovery, how long Isabel had been deceased and whether or not they had new information on possible suspects.
The details of what took place between the hours of 11pm and 8:30am from April 20th through April 21st remain a mystery. Tucson police seem to be in possession of information that they cannot release as it could negatively impact their investigation. What exactly they are waiting on we can’t be sure, but it’s likely investigators want to have enough evidence and information to secure an arrest and support a conviction. We can only hope that as time moves forward, we will learn more and someone will be brought in to pay for this terrible murder of an innocent young girl. No matter what happens, it can’t bring back Isabel and her life was taken needlessly. The death of a child is something no parent should have to experience, and yet the Celis family has lived with the possibility for years, and the certainty for months. Pending a release of information from the Tucson Police, an arrest or something yet unforeseen, the abduction and murder of Isabel Celis remains unsolved.
[Thoughts & Theories]
Isabel Celis’ case is one of those stories that it’s hard to get through without feeling overwhelmed. The abduction and death of a child is incredibly difficult to accept, and we have certain emotional proclivities which make us exceedingly unaccepting of horrible acts being committed against innocent children. Isabel Celis was a sweet, kind and caring six year old girl who spent her last moments having her mother braid her hair for her baseball game the next morning. She would never make it to that game and somewhere between the time she was put to bed and 8am the next morning, someone would come into her bedroom and take her away, either by physically abducting her or by conducting an act which resulted in her death leading to a plot to cover it up.
Covering crimes involving children is a hard thing to do. I don’t know what it is, but it’s sickening to have to dig into police files and read the details of what may or may not have happened to a six year old. In this case, the files are extensive, though heavily redacted. Publicly, the Tucson Police have released over 500 pages of internal reports starting from the first day of the investigation. They thoroughly detail witness interviews, tips called in and reported in person, forensic examinations of the home, interviews with Isabel’s parents and other activities surrounding the case such as blocking off the neighborhood, guarding the home and searching through drainage tunnels and local parks. There were news reports, blog postings and a few podcasts tackled this incredibly difficult and complicated case. And yet for years, it lingered as a case of abduction.
Everything changed just seven months ago when the Tucson Police held a press conference and acknowledged that they had recovered the remains of Isabel Celis. Questions linger about the circumstances under which she was found, though Chief Magnus made it clear that the discovery wasn’t due to luck or come as a result of a random discovery. Though he wasn’t able to share much information, he did express that something or someone led them there. He was unable to answer most questions, not wanting to compromise the investigation. One of the primary questions he was asked was how long Isabel had been deceased. Magnus said he didn’t know, but that answer can change the entire scope of this case. If Isabel was murdered within hours or days of her disappearance, the original investigation remains exceedingly important in regard to possible suspects. If she lived beyond that time, if years passed, then we have to wonder where she was and for how long was she kept, and where was she kept.
Before getting into the theories, I wanted to address what many people consider to be one of the most suspicious aspects of the case: Sergio Celis’ 911 call on the morning of April 21st, 2012. Many people have considered this call to be a good indicator that Sergio was either involved in Isabel’s disappearance, or that he knew more than he was saying. His demeanor is calm, his words are slow and measured. For many, this doesn’t seem like the behavior you’d expect from a father whose six year old child has gone missing during the night. Even I have to admit that when he laughs during the call I find it extremely unnerving and I can’ help but wonder what is going on inside his head at the time. I’m not a parent, so there may be aspects of this I can’t grasp, but for every parent I’ve played the call for, they all acknowledged that he seems too calm and doesn’t react the way they would.
The problem is: it’s subjective. Who can adequately express the way a parent should react in this kind of a situation? Yes, we know what we expect, but often times we don’t know how we will react to something until it happens. Trained police officers can freeze at the moment of truth, soldiers can run straight into gunfire without thinking twice about it, a near car accident can cause you to laugh or cry. It’s impossible to gauge someone’s emotional response to an unforeseen event of such tragic proportions. I fully admit that I find the 911 call to be off, that it doesn’t seem right to me, but I can’t work with emotional responses to things. I have to deal with facts, I have to deal with evidence and I have to try and look at things from the point of view of someone who is only going to go with what they can prove. The police have never come out and said anything about this call, they’ve never addressed Sergio’s words or demeanor, they’ve never hinted that they found it to be strange. Though I admit, on a personal level, this call just screams to me that something is wrong, I cannot indict a man based on it without corroboration and at this time, I just don’t have that. It’s up to you what you believe about this call.
In a case this complicated you’d expect there to be more theories than there are. Ultimately, most people narrow it down to a few possibilities and even investigators have said this was never a case of Isabel running away. From their earliest classification, they called this a case of abduction. So the question becomes: who abducted Isabel Celis and for what reason? The first theory is that Isabel was abducted by someone unknown to the family, what would commonly be called a stranger abduction.
The stranger abduction theory comes out of early thoughts on the case. The night prior to her disappearance, Isabel had attended her brothers’ little league game. It has been theorized that someone at this game saw Isabel, possibly for the first time, or perhaps they had seen her before, and for whatever reason, the decision was made that night to abduct her. Following the thread of this theory, it would go on that this abductor staked out her families vehicle in the parking lot, and followed them home when they left. Now, I’ve often wondered if that had to be the case. Abducting a child from her bedroom isn’t exactly something you can just do off the cuff, and I’d have to believe there would be more planning involved. To me, if a stranger was involved, I’d think that this person watched the home at least once, tried to get a sense of how things worked, what times people went to bed and, specifically, which window belonged to Isabel.
A motive is difficult to determine here. Could be dealing with someone who simply wanted to abduct a little girl, or someone who was disturbed and felt like he was doing something that he needed to do. It didn’t even necessarily have to be a single person, and could have been a small group. Of course, the more people involved, the more I’d expect someone to get arrested at some point in time and open his or her mouth about this. As far as we know, that has never happened. So, this person or persons would have determined which bedroom was Isabel’s. At this point, he would have to climb a wall which surrounded the house and gain access to her window. Isabel’s window faced a back alley, so this may have provided someone with cover by which to ascend the wall. Police also found footprints on a power box in the alleyway possibly suggesting that the abductor used this as a way to boost himself. We know that the screen to her window was seen laying in the backyard. I don’t know what kind of screen they had, but if they were the spring loaded ones, they’re very easy to pop out.
At this point, its simply entering the home through the window and making his way out with Isabel. This is one of the places I have a problem with the theory. To go to an extreme and assume this guy had a ladder with him, it isn’t easy to maneuver down a ladder when you’re carrying a six year old in your arms. Especially if she is awake and possibly struggling, although we have no indication that this was the case. A lot of children sleep like logs and I have more than once seen parents carry their sleeping children around, to put them to bed, without the child waking. This would have had to have been the case for Isabel since we know there were dogs both in the home and in the yard, dogs that may have been vicious and led to Child Protective Services intervening several months earlier. Had these dogs heard any sounds of a struggle, I have to believe they’d have been barking and likely awoken someone in the home.
This is not an easy snatch and grab job. This isn’t something you could just pull off in and instant and if this was a case of a stranger abduction then I think we are dealing with someone who either planned it out well or who had done something like this before. According to police reports, there was something written inside Isabel’s closet. Some have theorized this was a ransom note, others believe it was written by the abductor as to why this was done, but in all honesty we just don’t know at this point in time and though the writing is in the reports, the words are not and police have never confirmed nor denied what was found. As far as we are aware, there was never contact from the abductor to the family. Some people believe this began as a kidnapping with a plan for ransom, but when the case grew so large, the abductor may have gotten frightened and decided to cut and run, and likely murdered Isabel rather quickly. That is speculative, but something which has to be considered.
So who are the possibilities here? Well, there’s three. The first is that the abductor was completely unknown to the family and that this was a random incident. The second is that one of the nearby sex offenders may have been involved and the third is that the abduction was related to drug dealers that Sergio is alleged to have known and possibly owed money to. The police thoroughly investigated the sex offenders and, in terms of public statements, have stated that they do not believe any of the fifteen they spoke to who lived locally were involved. The police have never commented on Sergio being connected to any drug dealers, and it seems unlikely that if the drug dealers wanted money back that they would have targeted a six year old girl and never attempted to ransom her. Of course, many dealers, especially those with cartel connections, don’t screw around and are known to commit murder without concern for age or innocence. As for it being a total stranger, it’s possible but it’s hard to know where to go with that. Of the stranger abduction theories, it’s hard to choose one which is more likely than the other, but at the end of the day, for me, I don’t think this was a case of abduction by a stranger. I think there are too many details of the case which suggest that whoever was involved in this at a minimum had familiarity with Isabel and or her family and at a maximum, may have been a member of her family.
So that leads us into the possibility that Isabel was abducted by a family member or someone she knew. The first name that comes up on this list is Justin Mastromarino, Isabel’s older cousin. There are several key factors which many believe could link him to this crime. First and foremost, Mastromarino possessed a key to the home. This would make it fairly easy for him to gain entry without being noticed. We know that, in a police report, they said that there were suspicious circumstances around the entry point. We don’t know with certainty that they are discussing the front door as they could just as easily be discussing Isabel’s window, but I do believe if Mastromarino had a key, there likely wouldn’t have been any circumstances around the entry point. Mastromarino had lived in the home for a year previously, which means that he would have known the family’s routine and been familiar with the layout of the house, enough to know how to get to Isabel’s bedroom. What boggles my mind is that, if Sergio were in fact sleeping on a couch just outside of Isabel’s room, it’s hard to imagine someone could simply walk through without disturbing him. Then again, some people are deep sleepers.
Mastromarino likely had a repore with Isabel which would have stopped her from screaming or crying out when he grabbed her. He may have been able to convince her that he was taking her somewhere fun or utilized some other method of manipulation. If in fact the window was used as an entry or exit point, which I am not completely convinced of, he would have been able to exit the home with Isabel without drawing anyone’s attention afterward since he would not need to go back through the house. Mastromarino didn’t do himself any favors after the abduction since his behavior only became more and more suspicious. He paid to have his jeep sent down to Florida and he picked up and left, after hiring a lawyer and refusing to make statements to the police and cutting off all contact with the family he had previously lived with.
Motive is hard to get at here. We don’t know a great deal about Mastromarino, but we do know his friend, with whom he is alleged to have spent that night, stated that they were smoking weed and partying in celebration of 420. Is it so far fetched to imagine that Mastromarino may have been involved in other drugs and that he could possibly have been the one who was in debt to a dealer and needed a way to make some fast cash? I certainly think that’s an angle that needs to be looked into with a more discerning eye. We know that the Celis’ next door neighbor reported hearing male voices around 6am, which would certainly suggest more than one person was involved in this. Mastromarino was alleged to have been with his friend that night, so it isn’t crazy to believe that friend could have been with him. In some ways, this case reminds me of the Lindburgh kidnapping and if you’ve studied that case you know that one theory is that the reason the child was never returned was because he was dropped and died during the abduction. Is it possible that smething similar happened to Isabel? Perhaps.
We do know that forensic investigators found blood in her bedroom. This could indicate that whoever abducted her may have injured her in the commission of that crime. Then again, we have never had it confirmed whether that blood belonged to Isabel or someone else. Mastromarino has done a pretty good job of putting himself under suspicion, as you would have to imagine that if you thought you were a suspect in a case like this, where your six year old cousin was abducted, you’d want to do anything you could to clear yourself of suspicion and help the police get back on course so they could solve it and find your cousin. He doesn’t do that, he runs and refuses to talk. To me, Mastromarino is certainly someone who has to be considered a suspect. We don’t know if Police ever considered him to be one, but we do know that several private investigators did and police were fairly clear when they said they did not draw the same conclusions as those private investigators. The Tucson police obviously know more than they are saying, but even with their statement, I can’t help but feel Mastromarino knows something about what happened that night, and about Isabel’s abduction and murder. It should also be noted that the family, specifically Sergio, has been very outspoken about Mastromarino’s conduct around this case and in many interviews has suggested that he believed a family member was involved, often alluding to Mastromarino.
The next theory isn’t a theory of abduction, it’s a theory of murder and or a tragic accident which resulted in Isabel’s death and spawned a coverup by the family, namely Sergio. I haven’t seen this theory is as many places as the others, and when I first heard it I sort of dismissed it as a possibility until I got into though 500+ pages of police reports. The theory suggests that one of Isabel’s brothers may have been involved in an incident with her from which she died. It could have been as innocent as children playing and things went too far, or it could have been malicious and acted out by a boy who didn’t know how much stronger he was than a six year old girl. Children are fragile, and it doesn’t take a great deal to cause permanent or fatal harm and a child doesn’t possess the restraint to know better sometimes.
There are six packets of police reports which were released by the Tucson police department. Each of these packets carries close to 100 pages of information, much of it heavily redacted. I will post the link to these documents for those of you who wish to read them. In the first packet, on page 62 or 98, there is a report filed by officer Rizzi dated as April 26th, 2012 at 3:32pm, this is five day after Isabel was reported missing. On this report, officer Rizzi is conducting an interview with Isabel’s mother, Becky.
In this report, officer Rizzi wrote “I asked her where she thought her daughter might be. She did not know. She told me that one of her sons has [redacted.] I asked if he were capable of harming [redacted] and she said he was not. I am not certain if she was referring to Sergio or [redacted.] “
Obviously, because of the redactions, it’s somewhat difficult to figure out what is being said here. The way it is worded, that one of her sons has [redacted] that makes me believe we may be talking about a specific item which could be dangerous, or perhaps a mental illness which may have a connection to violence. That is purely speculation on my part, but it would fit in with the theory that one of Isabel’s brothers may have done something to her. Blood was found in Isabel’s bedroom, as well as possible blood being discovered in one of the cars. Is it entirely impossible to imagine that, had one of the children accidentally harmed Isabel her father may have tried to cover it up? The loss of one child is impossible to fathom, but to be faced with a situation where one child could be dead and another being charged with murder or manslaughter may have sent Sergio into a place where he felt he had to do what he could to protect his son. It’s somewhat reminiscent of theories in the Jon Benet Ramsay case, which many have used to draw parallels to Isabel’s case.
The main problem with this theory is that there is really no evidence to support it. It isn’t hard to tie together a couple of pieces of circumstantial evidence and concoct a great conspiracy around it, but in terms of black and white, we are severely lacking. I consider this theory to be thin, but I also have to consider it a theory that needs to be investigated further. Whether or not police ever considered this possibility is unknown, but I’d have to imagine they’d have looked into it. As a sidebar, is it also possible that Justin Matromarino could have been called to assist in this cover up and that is why he chose to flee? Maybe, but that wouldn’t explain the family, mainly Sergio, suggesting that he could have been involved in the crime.
The final theory, and the one which the majority of theorists consider most likely is that Sergio Celis was involved in the disappearance and death of his own daughter. As I have previously discussed, his 911 call audio is one of the first things which got people looking in his direction. Apparently, Police were also suspicious of Sergio since one of their first acts was to send officers to his place of business to search the dumpsters and surrounding area for any possible evidence. A subpoena issued later seized personal records of Sergio’s from his employer and they specifically asked if he ever used or had access to anesthetics which led many to believe that Police were building a theory that Sergio may have drugged Isabel. Whether he drugged her with the intent of removing her from the home or had some other malicious intent is all speculative. Frankly, the entire theory that he used any kind of drug on her is sheer speculation, but one which police considered.
Sergio was allegedly asleep on the couch just outside of Isabel’s room that night. Becky and the boys were in their bedrooms. This left him the opportunity to enter her room without anyone else noticing. To say that the opportunity was there is an understatement, but this theory comes up short in the motive department. Some have suggested that Sergio may have been in debt to a drug dealer and either manufactured Isabel’s disappearance to use it for ransom later on, or that he may have actually sold his daughter in exchange to repay that debt. The latter of these theories seems to fall short since we know Isabel was found deceased years later and if someone were to take a little girl in exchange for a drug debt, I’d have to imagine they would have some plan for her outside of just murdering her. Of course, that’s not a world I live in and it’s full of dangerous people, so anything is possible.
There is also the possibility that Sergio may have accidentally killed his daughter. Perhaps he struck her, or became angry and lashed out at her, and she was fatally injured as a result. As previously stated, blood was found in her bedroom as well as in one of the vehicles. It’s not outside of the realm of possibility to assume that Sergio could have done something to Isabel and, while the others were sleeping, left the home and disposed of her body. Or, perhaps called someone else, maybe even Mastromarino to assist him in this matter. This brings me to Isabel’s window screen. I have, since very early on in my study of this case, felt that it was entirely possible that someone inside the home simply opened her bedroom window and pushed the screen out to manufacture a theory. One thing which makes me suspicious of it is the way that Sergio discusses it on the 911 call. He claims that he and his sons have searched all over for Isabel. While they are searching the home, Sergio is searching the garage and one of his sons comes to him and tells him that Isabel’s window is wide open and the screen is laying in the back yard. Now, if Sergio was the one who went to wake Isabel that morning, how did he not see this? It almost feels, to me, like he is trying to distance himself from the crime scene and thinks it sounds more convincing if he isn’t the one who made the discovery. Purely conjecture and speculation on my part, but I’ve always been uneasy about that.
The media and the police came down pretty hard on Sergio. He was considered a suspect by many almost from the get go, though he was never officially called a suspect by investigators. We know that child protective services got involved after Isabel’s disappearance, and that Sergio voluntarily removed himself from the home. What exactly this was about, we can’t know for certain, but it’s very strange to me. Over the years, Sergio’s behavior has been analyzed over and over, his speech patterns in the 911 call, his body language on television interviews. This led to frustration with the police, with the family feeling like they focused on him too much, but honestly, considering the circumstances of Isabel’s disappearance, how can you blame them? I don’t know what happened here, and I don’t know if Sergio plays a role in it, but I find it extremely hard to believe that he is saying everything he knows. I personally think that someday, when this case is solved, and yes I do believe it will be solved, the theory that Sergio was involved in some way, shape or form is likely to be given some supporting evidence. At this particular juncture, I do believe that whatever happened to Isabel was perpetrated by someone she knew, likely a family member, and to me the two biggest possibilities are Justin Mastromarino and Sergio Celis.
The abduction and murder of Isabel Celis is a gut wrenching story. The idea that a six year old girl cannot be safe, even in her own bed, is terrifying and heartbreaking. I honestly do not like covering cases that involve children, but I feel an obligation to do so. They cannot speak for themselves, and regardless of how difficult it is to hear, they deserve for their stories to be told. I honestly believe this case will be solved, and I think that Tucson Police have evidence in their possession that can bring it all together. What they are waiting for, I’m not sure, maybe they want to be really certain they are going to get a conviction, maybe there are a few doubts lingering. After the discovery of Isabel’s remains, I had hoped we would hear more but things have been pretty silent since that day. We can only hope that when the truth is revealed, justice will be served and that Isabel’s name is never forgotten. Until then, the abduction and murder of Isabel Celis remains a horrifying tale of abduction and murder for which we do not yet possess the answers.