Family Mourns Boy Found Dead in Car
A mix-up over who was caring for the Pasadena toddler ends in tragedy when he succumbs to apparent heat exposure in family's locked sedan.

By Veronica Torrejón, Times Staff Writer

Who is watching Justin?

That's what family members of Justin Renteria asked each other frantically Thursday evening after the 2 1/2 -year-old Pasadena child went missing.

Surely he was at the beach with his doting uncle, his mother and grandmother thought. No, the uncle said when his sister got through to his cellphone.

Less than an hour after the call, his mother, Alma Ruiz, 24, found Justin unconscious, clutching an orange, in the back seat of her father's locked Honda Accord. The toddler died of apparent heat exposure after crawling into the car and locking himself in, police and family members said.

"Everyone just supposed wrong, and the tragedy happened," said the toddler's uncle, Omar Ruiz.

If autopsy results confirm it, Justin would be the first reported case of a child to die from hyperthermia in a vehicle in California this year, according to 4 R Kids Sake, a nonprofit group in Corona that tracks such incidents. Twenty-one such cases involving children have been reported in the United States this year, group co-founder Tammy Russell said.

Although the temperature in Pasadena reached only 87 degrees Thursday, the inside of a car can be up to 40 degrees hotter, Russell said. July and August are statistically the worst months for heat-related fatalities.

The last time anyone saw Justin was shortly before 5 p.m. Carla Lopez, 20, who lives in a nearby apartment, had given Justin and another child an orange to split. The apartment playground was unusually empty of children, Lopez recalled.

Justin had been digging a hole and trying to share his orange with Lopez's 8-month-old baby when he suddenly got up and left. Lopez said she assumed the boy's mother had called him home. Ruiz typically watched from the window of the apartment as he played, Lopez said.

The call to the uncle came about 6 p.m. The child's mother called 911 about 6:41. Within minutes, Pasadena police had arrived and the mother had found the boy, authorities said.

Detective Sgt. Steve Kress said no one knows how Justin got into the car or how long he was there. Police continued to investigate Friday but believed the death was an accident.

"We have no indications of foul play," Kress said.

When the toddler was discovered, all four doors were locked. A neighbor at first tried to break the windows, then the boy's grandfather came and opened the door, Kress said. Police and paramedics tried to revive the toddler, then took him to Huntington Memorial Hospital, where he was later pronounced dead, Kress said.

Russell said she has seen many cases where small children got into unlocked cars and became trapped. The group recommends that parents always lock car doors. If a child is missing, Russell said, check pools first and then look in all cars in the neighborhood.

Omar Ruiz said he knew something terrible had happened the minute his sister called to say Justin was missing.

"You know when you get that feeling in your gut?" Ruiz said, fighting back tears. "I knew my baby was already gone."

Family, friends and neighbors took turns Friday visiting the memorial just outside the apartment where Justin lived with his mother, uncle and grandparents. Freshly cut roses, a teddy bear and a porcelain angel sat on a plastic crate. Candles and a rosary had been placed on a small coffee table.

"This beautiful baby is now part of the universe," read a sign propped by the memorial. "He has transformed into a brilliant star…. Go with God in hand."

Family members carefully raked leaves, and Omar Ruiz meticulously arranged half a dozen votive candles.

"My little baby is gone, my baby is gone," Omar Ruiz repeated over and over while sobbing and clutching a picture of the boy.

"He was just a little spark of life. You could be depressed and just look at him and he would make your day."

The family was worried that they might not have enough money to pay for the funeral, Ruiz said.

Justin had been talking and repeating new words and phrases in the days before his death, grandmother Maria Delfina Ruiz and Omar Ruiz said.

Justin was precocious, and he would sit with his uncle, whom he called "Dad," and watch the History Channel, Ruiz recalled.

"He was a spontaneous, beautiful child; you could tell in his eyes he was somebody special," Ruiz said.

"This was 100% an accident," he added. "There is no one to blame."

Ruiz said he was comforted knowing that his nephew was in heaven "looking down on us."

Carla Lopez said her baby woke up suddenly Thursday night and started giggling.

"You know how they say babies can see angels?" she said.