After 6-year-old Isabel Celis disappeared April 21, the Tucson, Ariz., police department enlisted the help of the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service, and Mexican authorities. Police said they pulled over commuters in the area, canvassed the vicinity, and searched homes in the family’s neighborhood, as well as nearby landfills and drainage ditches. They also interviewed more than 500 sex offenders in the area.
But after three weeks of searching for the missing girl, police haven’t named a suspect or sought the public’s help in finding one, and that is the most telling thing about the Celis case, said Steven Pitt, a forensic psychiatrist whom police called on during the JonBenet Ramsey homicide investigation.
“What is conspicuously absent is the police not talking about the usual things police talk about: suspicious persons or suspicious vehicles,” said Pitt, who is based in Scottsdale, Ariz. “Normally in cases like this police are trying to get information to the media and the community. We haven’t heard any of that.”
According to police, Isabel Celis was reported missing at about 8 a.m. April 21, shortly after her mother, Rebecca Celis, left for work as a nurse at a nearby hospital. Her father, Sergio Celis, told police he went to wake up the child but she was not in her bedroom; a window was open and its screen was on the ground outside. While Celis searched the property, his son called 911 to report his sister missing. A frantic call from Rebecca Celis soon followed.
Now child welfare officials have banned Sergio Celis, 41, from having any contact with his other two children, boys ages 10 and 14. Tucson Police Department detectives contacted Child Protective Services, they said, after they developed “new information” about the welfare of the older Celis children.
Police declined to disclose any specifics.
At a May 14 press conference, Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villaseñor said Celis agreed to voluntarily leave the home he shared with his 35-year-old wife, Rebecca, and their children. Villaseñor did not offer details on what led police to call Child Protective Services, but he emphasized that it was common practice for the agency to be involved in any investigation into missing children.
Villaseñor said the change in custody says nothing about whether Celis might be a suspect.
“This does not mean we have settled on a path in this investigation,” the chief said.
Still, police have not ruled Isabel’s parents out as suspects or eliminated the possibility that investigators will find Isabel and bring her home safely. Police said they are looking at many scenarios, including the possibility that a stranger or a relative abducted her.
Stranger abductions are not common, though they do occur. Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her Utah home when she was 11, and Polly Klaas disappeared in 1993 from a slumber party; both were taken by people they did not know.
“It is stunningly rare for a child to be abducted from their home,” Pitt said. “It is the exception, not the rule.”
Villaseñor said the police department’s relationship with the Celis family is “somewhat more strained now” because family members remain under investigation.
“We are doing more interviews and are asking more pointed questions,” he added.
Over the last 24 days, police have received more than 1,000 tips and estimate they have spent at least $1 million looking for the girl. Isabel’s parents have made several public pleas for the safe return of their daughter and released home movies of Isabel. In one of the videos, she is seen dancing around and singing to ABBA’s “Dancing Queen.” The family also held a fundraiser at the Catalina United Methodist Church in Tucson, where Rebecca read a prayer for Isabel, and Sergio, an opera singer, performed “Ave Maria.”
“Every day makes us a little more worried,” Villaseñor said, “but I’m not going to give up hope.”
Last week, Isabel’s parents agreed to an interview with Arizona television reporters, who asked if they had any family ties to Mexico or feared possible threats from Mexico. Sergio responded: “No one that would be a threat.”
The couple did not respond to a phone message left by The Daily Beast.
Police recently administered polygraph tests to Rebecca and Sergio Celis, but Rebecca told local media the couple is not allowed to discuss the findings.
“If you are the parents,” Pitt said, “I would want that out there if I had passed the polygraph.”