PATTERSON, Calif. — Authorities here suspended their search in a canal for a car believed to have been used in the abduction of a 4-year-old boy after four days of searching turned up only stolen cars unrelated to the kidnapping.
Authorities said they might resume searching the canal in 48 hours if Juliani Cardenas and his suspected abductor, Jose Esteban Rodriguez, still haven't been located. A statewide Amber Alert remained in effect as of Saturday night.
Stanislaus County sheriff's officials say Rodriguez, former boyfriend of Juliani's mother, pulled the boy from his grandmother's arms Tuesday afternoon and drove away with him in a silver 2003 Toyota Corolla.
A witness told authorities he spotted a similar car driving into the Delta-Mendota Canal a few miles away from the home where Juliani was abducted about 45 minutes earlier.
Saturday morning, authorities pulled a fifth stolen vehicle out of the canal. Divers found a Nissan pickup about two miles south of the canal's water siphon, where authorities have focused their search.
The complex system of pipes that siphons water under a creek and back into the canal was thoroughly searched with sonar Saturday. Although considered a likely spot for a large item to be trapped, the siphoning system doesn't contain any vehicles or other items of interest, sheriff's officials concluded.
Officials indicated they will continue to use the sonar equipment and are likely to concentrate their efforts south of the area searched Saturday.
Juliani's mother, Tabitha Cardenas, said Saturday afternoon that she's not surprised they didn't find the Corolla in the canal.
"I don't think he's far, because he couldn't travel far without any money," Cardenas said. "I know they're not going to find (the car in the canal)."
For the past four days, authorities have searched a two-mile stretch of the canal without success.
The Merced County sheriff's dive team joined the search Friday, using its sonar equipment to search the canal's murky, fast-moving water. The canal operators also helped, stopping the water flow every four hours or so to give deputies a window in which to check the siphon system.
"This has been an exhaustive search," said Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson.
Investigators will continue to follow up on credible tips, Christianson said, as sheriff's officials continue to canvass neighborhoods.
"We're hoping we get that one phone call that takes us in a different direction," Christianson said.
Christianson said Saturday that the witness, a farmworker, saw a man and a boy in a silver car going into the canal about 5 p.m. Tuesday; that remains the strongest lead for investigators.
Other reported sightings have turned out to be unfounded, the sheriff said. "All evidence leads us here."
Authorities determined that tire marks that led to the canal did not match the wheels on a silver Lexus pulled from the water Thursday.
Investigators can't say for sure whether the tire tracks came from a Corolla, because Rodriguez had replaced the factory tires with oversized wheels, and one of them was a spare tire.
The sheriff said he remains optimistic, and not finding the car in the canal leaves hope the boy will be found and returned safely.
However, "we're not any closer to doing that than we were a few days ago," Christianson said.
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