On the morning of Saturday, April 21, 2012, Rebecca “Becky” Celis, left her Tucson, Arizona home for an early morning nursing shift at around 7:00 AM. The house was quiet, as her husband, two sons, and six-year-old daughter, Isabel, were not yet awake. Becky headed off to work without noticing anything strange or out of the ordinary.
Around 8:00 AM that morning, Isabel’s father, Sergio Celis, discovered that little Isabel was not in her bed.
As Isabel’s young brothers and father searched the immediate surroundings for her, it became apparent that she was not in the house. Upon a closer inspection of her open bedroom window, they realized that “the screen had been removed and the blinds were shoved aside.” Within fifteen minutes, Sergio called 911 and calmly reported that Isabel had been “abducted” from their home.
“I thought we were going to be late to Isabel’s game and [was] rushing to her room and [did] not [see] her there.” –Sergio Celis
On the night of Isabel’s disappearance, almost ten hours of motion-activated surveillance footage was taken by a commercial business from across the street. Angled towards the Celis residence, the footage shows “foot traffic everywhere and strange happenings all night,” but no “sign of Isabel” or “anybody outside her bedroom window.”
After several extensive searches and an in-depth police investigation, Isabel Celis is still missing after almost five years. According to news reports, authorities followed “more [than] 2,300 leads and spent about $1 million on the investigation.”
Police disclosed that “apparent blood [had been found] on the floor” in Isabel’s bedroom. Detectives also confiscated a “shower curtain” with a dark brown stain from a vehicle on the Celis property. However, after testing of the apparent blood was conducted, authorities redacted the results from their reports.
After intense public criticism of Sergio’s relaxed 911 call, and while facing many accusations regarding “sexual abuse allegations, Sergio’s alleged drug debts, and/or cartel retaliation,” Sergio and Becky Celis have struggled to keep the focus on the search for their daughter.
Sergio and Becky hired their own private investigator, Jerry Snyder, a former “federal agent for 25 years with the Drug Enforcement Administration” who has also worked as “an investigator with the National Centers for Missing and Exploited Children.”
“When I went into her room, the first thing I heard is, ‘It’s not my dad.‘”
Sergio and Becky are convinced that the investigative focus should be placed on “an extended family member who abruptly left Tucson days after Isa’s disappearance in 2012.” This individual also had keys to their home during the time that Isabel vanished. However, like the police investigation, the family’s investigation has not yielded any concrete findings either.
Was Isabel abducted from her window in the night? Was she taken while her unknowing family members slept in the next room? Does Isabel’s father’s bizarrely calm demeanor on the 911 call indicate that he may be culpable? Or, did authorities fixate on her parents and develop tunnel vision early on in the investigation?
How can a child vanish entirely with little to no evidence left behind? And, most importantly, where is Isabel Celis?
Friday, April 20, 2012
Earlier that evening: Isabel and her parents attend a little league baseball game at Freedom Little League Field. She was last observed in public “watching her brother’s baseball game as she played near the dugout.”
According to news reports, Isabel and her family are at the “little league game until 10:00 PM.”
Around 11:00 PM: Isabel is tucked into bed for the night by her parents. She sleeps in her own bedroom that night, though she reportedly “usually sleeps with her two brothers.” Isabel’s mom, Becky, braided Isabel’s hair in “little ponytails” before they went to sleep.
Isabel’s dad, Sergio, falls asleep on the couch watching a ball game.
Saturday, April 21, 2012
Alicia also hears multiple male voices that “were not whispering.” She insists that the voices “sounded like they were coming from her side of the (outside) wall, not the Celis home.” Alicia later asserted that she “didn’t hear a struggle. There was no fighting… [Isabel] was taken by someone she knew.”
Noticing that the sun is up, Alicia sleepily assumes that she’s hearing random neighborhood sounds and goes back to sleep.
Later, when asked by a 911 operator, Becky asserts that she “didn’t hear anything at all” and does not mention the dogs barking in subsequent interviews.
8:00 AM: Isabel’s father, Sergio, goes to wake Isabel up and discovers that she is missing.
In the call, Sergio immediately mentions that he “[believes Isabel] was abducted” to which the operator replies “Why do you think she was abducted?” Sergio then replies, “I have no idea.” Though this initial exchange seems suspect, Sergio does explain that they’ve searched “everywhere in the house” and have already found the window screen “laying in the backyard.”
Monday, April 23, 2012
Police search the Celis residence with two FBI dogs- a cadaver dog and a search and rescue dog. They do not release details or specifically confirm any findings, but claim that they “may have found evidence that [requires] a follow-up.”
Becky’s adult cousin, Justin Mastromarino, tells media:
“[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 info as possible. …
You don’t think anything like that would actually really happen to you. And all of 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.”
Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Police call in FBI Behavioral Analysts to “to examine the house for less tangible clues.” They also mention having every intention of “refreshing” their warrant to conduct a third physical search of the Celis residence.
Police also search a truck “belonging to one of Isabel’s uncles.”
Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Sergio and Becky make public pleas in Spanish and English for the safe return of their daughter.
Police say “there are 15 registered sex offenders in the neighborhood,” and that they have interviewed all of them. Authorities also state that Isabel’s family “has cooperated fully with police during the investigation.”
Police begin searching “washes and drainage areas.”
Thursday, April 26, 2012
Sergio Celis attends city court for eight dog-related citations, including “two counts of Dog Running At Large, three counts of No Current License, and three counts of No Current Vaccination.”
A rescue team searches “nearby lakes and ponds with boats equipped with sonar and an underwater camera.”
Friday, May 11, 2012
Sergio Celis moves out of the family residence.
According to reports, “child welfare authorities stepped in.. and [they all] reached an agreement that Sergio Celis wouldn’t have contact with his 10- and 14-year-old sons.”
However, CPS and authorities never publicly confirm or clarify the nature of this strange situation. Becky publicly insists:
“My husband’s a great father. He’s a great husband, a great father to the boys and to Isabel. At the end of the day when Isabel comes home, everybody’s questions will be answered.”
Monday, May 14, 2012
Police release the recording of Sergio Celis’s 911 call which garners immense criticism from the public.
Tuesday, May 15, 2012
According to reports, for the first since Isabel Celis disappeared, authorities refer to her as “abducted, rather than characterizing the case as a ‘suspicious disappearance/possible abduction.'”
Monday, May 21, 2012
Police announce that they will be canvassing the neighborhood again.
At this point, according to later-released police reports, authorities have “checked vacant buildings and homes, schools, desert areas, parks, tunnels under roads, lakes, an old drive-in theater and retention basins” as well as “backyard pools and, in one case, an underground bomb shelter.”
They also announce that they will be re-interviewing “Level 2 and Level 3 sex offenders who have a proclivity to crimes against children” in the area.
A Family Under Fire
And, the casualness of the call certainly is jarring.
Though many critics quickly cited familial involvement, it is important to note that there are also recordings of Isabel’s mom, Becky, and Isabel’s 14-year-old brother speaking to emergency personnel. These calls seem genuinely fearful and heartbroken. Neighbors remember Isabel’s two young brothers canvassing the area in tears while searching for Isabel that morning.
The 911 call may be important in assessing the overall situation. However, it is crucial to recognize that an individual’s reaction to tragedy, even if inherently suspicious, is potentially meaningless. For example, Lindy Chamberlain was convicted of the murder of her nine-week-old daughter and imprisoned for three years due in large part to her “outwardly calm demeanour.” [Her notoriety in America, however, is most readily associated with the comedic quotation, “Maybe the dingo ate your baby!” popularized by a Seinfeld episode.]
In addition, it is unknown how Sergio Celis normally reacts to tragedy or shock, or if he has any personality disorders that may impact his social affect. Perhaps, he called 911 before fully comprehending the gravity of the situation, and before becoming absolutely convinced that Isabel wouldn’t show up somewhere random. Though he was worried, Sergio may have, at this point, fully expected Isabel’s disappearance to be resolved quickly, as a child’s prank or some other kind of misunderstanding.
In addition to Sergio’s bizarre 911 call, many critics point to his voluntary separation from the family on May 11th (only 19 days after Isabel’s disappearance). The prior involvement of Child Protection Services with the family in December 2011 is concerning.
But, without clarification from CPS or authorities, it is extremely difficult to speculate as to the motivations and reasoning behind Sergio’s separation from the family.
Some reports have stated that police described the agreement reached with Sergio as important “to give some space and distance away from the two older children.”
By August of 2013, the Celis family had mentioned to media that they harbored suspicions relating to a family member that “refused to talk to the family’s private investigator.” Their private investigator later stated that they had two suspects: one suspect that “retained an attorney immediately,” and one suspect that “moved out of Tucson almost immediately.”
By the four year anniversary of Isabel’s disappearance in 2016, one of those suspects had been revealed to be Becky’s cousin, Justin Mastromarino. He had been described as a spokesperson for the family and gave public statements in the initial days of searching. Previously, Justin had lived with the Celis family for over a year, and still lived close-by at the time of her abduction.
According to the Celis family’s investigator, Justin shipped his Jeep to his mother’s house in Florida only days after Isabel went missing. He also “disappeared from the Tucson area” and stopped speaking with the Celis family “within two weeks.” Justin also allegedly had a key to the Celis residence.
However, Justin’s friend provided him with an alibi, asserting that, since it was the night of 4/20, they “drank and smoked weed, did all the fun stuff.” Authorities have never declared Justin a suspect, and one detective even commented:
“We’ve spoken to several of the P.I.s that were hired by the family, and unfortunately for them, they don’t have all the information that we have, so they can come to their own conclusions. But no, I don’t share their conclusions.”
Police also reportedly “conceded that their relationship with the family is somewhat more strained because the family members have not been ruled out as suspects.” However, they insisted that the voluntary decision for Sergio to leave the home on May 11, 2012 “should not be taken to mean he is a suspect in the case.”
Though the authorities have expended extensive resources in the search for Isabel Celis, they have not released any theories or insight regarding her fate. It can be reasonably deduced from the change in their investigative approach and language, that the immediate Celis family (and the idea of abduction) was considered highly suspicious during the initial stages of the police investigation (at the least).
Last April, upon the four year anniversary of Isabel’s abduction, Sergio confirmed that he still feels as though he is a prime suspect, and mentioned that a widened perspective on the disappearance may be integral to solving the mystery. In reference to being considered a suspect, Sergio asserted the following:
“It’s always going to be that way, and that’s fine.
But we also need to move on, and it’s a big world out there.”
Though authorities have made an exhaustive effort, they have released no real details or leads. In 2012, Tucson Police Sergeant, Maria Hawke, told media that “the case has been classified as an abduction, but police aren’t distinguishing whether it is a stranger abduction or someone known to the family.”
The male voices that the next door neighbor heard that morning may be the only real, publicized evidence in direct relation to the disappearance being an abduction. According to later released documents, police did photograph a “footprint on an electrical meter outside the five-foot wall surrounding the family’s home.” Though technically possible, the abduction theory fosters further questions:
- Since Isabel usually slept in the room with her brothers, and her window is only one of many on the house, who else (other than her immediate family) had access to these time-specific and spatial details?
- As the men allegedly spoke at a normal volume, and were not whispering, were the individuals/happenings known to the Celis family (or at least, certain member/s of the family)?
- Does the neighbor not hearing Isabel, or any indication of a struggle, really indicate that Isabel knew her abductor?
- Why would a random abductor choose a house with dogs (inside the house, outside the house, and just over the fence at the neighbor’s house)? Also, later released documents detail Sergio telling investigators that “[the dogs] did not bark during the night and that they are the type of dogs that would bark at strangers.”
- How did Becky not hear the dogs when the neighbor was awoken by barking dogs and male voices? Had Becky left for work already?
- How would an abductor have known how to efficiently avoid the surveillance cameras located on the business across the street?
- Also, some news reports have referenced security footage (from the night of Isabel’s disappearance) as showing no one near Isabel’s bedroom window “even though it’s from a distance.” How can this be reconciled with the neighbor’s account of hearing men talking at the window that morning?
Little Girl Lost
At the time of her disappearance, Isabel Celis was a six-year-old first grader at the Academy of Tucson and had light brown hair, hazel eyes, and pierced ears. She was wearing a blue tank top and navy blue basketball shorts, and had her hair in braids.
“She’s fun, she loves to bat, she loves to play with her friends.”
In 2015, an age progressed photo of Isabel was released, illustrating some possible physical changes considering the span of time between her disappearance and present day. Taking into account the potential for substantial growth between ages 6 and 10, Isabel may look considerably different now. Becky Celis found the progression a bit drastic and has commented the following to media:
“I assume she isn’t going to change as much. It seems like too much change. But they are the experts. It has her eyes. It has her chin. The image can only be positive because it will get people talking about her.”
Isabel would be 11 years old now. An official website and two Facebook pages are actively maintained in hopes of finding her. There is also, currently, a $60,500 reward being offered for information on her disappearance.
If you know anything about the disappearance of Isabel Celis, or have information you believe may be pertinent to the investigation, please contact 88-CRIME at 520-882-7463 or www.88crime.org. Tips can also be texted to 274637 with the words “Tip 259” in the message body.
MARCH 31, 2017 UPDATE:
After almost five years without any concrete breaks in the case, authorities held a press conference today and announced that they had found and tested remains which were confirmed to be that of little Isabel Celis.
According to news reports, the remains were found in Pima County, Arizona, but police did not detail the exact location of the findings.
Tucson Chief of Police Chris Magnus mentioned that investigators located Isabel’s remains “not [by] happenstance,” but did not elaborate on what (or who) led them to the discovery. Magnus continued by saying:
“We see this as absolutely a tragedy. We were all hoping to find her alive.”
The Celis family has released the following statement:
“We want to thank the community for the support they have continued to show for Isa over the years and for refusing to give up hope. Now is our time to mourn. We ask for our privacy during this time so that we can do that.”
True Noir’s thoughts are with precious Isabel and her family. The investigation into Isabel Celis’s mysterious death is still on-going.
If you have any information regarding what happened to Isabel Celis or know of any details that may be pertinent to this case, please contact the Tucson Police Department or call 88-CRIME at 520-882-7463 or www.88crime.org.