“I’m sorry I had to do it like this.”
That was the message that greeted Nick Husted when he returned to his San Jose, California, home on May 24 and noticed that his partner, Samantha Moreno Rodriguez, and 7-year-old son, Liam, were gone, along with all of their belongings.
“I’m going to try to get a house for Liam and I,” the message from Rodriguez continued. They could, she said, talk about the situation at some point in the future.
The message was cryptic and upsetting, but not alarming. There was nothing in it to foreshadow the terrible event that would take place a week later—when Rodriguez allegedly killed Liam and dumped his body in a forest.
The discovery of his remains would set off a frantic effort to identify him and ultimately lead investigators to Denver, where the FBI on Tuesday morning arrested Rodriguez at a hotel where she was holed up with an unidentified man.
“While the outcome is heartbreaking, there is a sense of closure that Liam Husted will not longer be referred to as a John Doe,” FBI Supervisory Special Agent Jeremy Schwartz said at a news conference.
Police, who are still searching for a motive, said there was no sign that Liam, who reportedly had special needs, was abused in the past, and no indication that his mother’s abrupt departure would put him in harm’s way.
After Nick Husted came home to the empty house on May 24, he wasn’t sure what to do. So he waited. And as the days ticked by, Rodriguez was on the move—traveling down the Pacific Coast Highway, to Laguna Beach, to Victorville, and then ultimately to Nevada.
She was seen at a hotel in the Vegas area on May 27; police know Liam was alive at that time. The next day, however, his body was found on a trailhead in Mountain Spring, where they believe he was killed. (Authorities have not yet released a cause of death.)
At the time, Las Vegas police had no idea who he was and created a series of sketches that were released to the public in hopes that someone would recognize the boy who came to be known as Little Zion.
On June 1, Nick Husted contacted San Jose police; he didn’t want to get Rodriguez in trouble, but he wanted to document the parental abduction. Police listened to the messages Rodriguez had left and agreed there was nothing “suspicious,” as Lt. Ray Spencer of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department would later put it.
By now, the story of Little Zion and the sketches released by police were making their way onto newscasts around the country. On June 4, a friend of Rodriguez who knew she was missing saw the sketch and noticed it looked like Liam.
She called San Jose police, who reached out to Spencer. Las Vegas detectives rushed to California and collected some of Liam’s belongings, including his pillow, then brought it back to the crime lab in Nevada.
On Monday came the news that DNA had matched the pillow to the boy in the forest. Little Zion had a name: Liam Husted. And police had a new challenge—finding Rodriguez.
She had previously been spotted in Colorado Springs, so they knew where to start. Investigators did not reveal how they tracked her to the Denver hotel, but they did say the man she was with is not believed to have any involvement in Liam’s death.
“We don’t know why she was in Denver,” Spencer said, adding that Vegas detectives had been dispatched to Colorado to question her and bring her back to Nevada, if she does not fight extradition.
Nick Husted’s father, Chris, told the Denver Post that “something went horribly wrong with Sam, and Liam is unfortunately taken away.”
He said that Liam had attended a school for autistic children and had a home aide to help with behavioral issues who had moved away right before the pandemic.
“As Liam got older it was strainful for them but they managed. There was no sign of abuse at all,” the grandfather told the Post. “Liam was an innocent child, dependent for their care and good intentions, like all people with special needs.”
Spencer said the investigation had taken a toll on his team. “It’s emotionally draining working a case like this,” he told reporters.
Some of the stress came from the realization of how many other children like Little Zion could be out there as he fielded tips from people who thought they recognized the sketch.
“I am inundated with reports of missing children from across the United States,” he said.