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Police search California canal for boy swiped from grandmother's arms

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Canal drained in search for missing boy
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: A large object thought to be a car is found late Friday in a canal, a sheriff says
  • NEW: Divers will work through the night to determine if Juliani Cardenas, 4, is inside
  • NEW: The boy's mother says she's still hopeful, pleads with his alleged abductor
  • Three cars have already been pulled from the canal, after a witness saw one drive in

(CNN) -- Authorities snared yet another large object in a California canal Friday night that they feared contained a 4-year-old boy and the man who allegedly snatched him from his grandmother's arms.

Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson told HLN's Jean Casarez that he believes the object found in the 17-foot-deep Delta-Mendota Canal is a car. Divers will examine it firsthand into the night, to determine if it is the same silver car a witness claimed he saw being driven into the water with a young boy trapped inside.

"We simply don't want to quit," Christianson said of the late-night operation. "We want to bring (Juliani Cardenas) home safely, but we have to absolutely clear this canal and make sure there's nothing here."

Jose Esteban Rodriguez snatched the boy from his grandmother's arms Tuesday afternoon in the northern California town of Patterson, police said.

A day later, a witness -- described by Christianson as a farm worker "very familiar with that area" in his 50s -- saw a vehicle that looked like Rodriguez's 2003 silver Toyota Corolla being plunging into the canal with a man and youngster inside.

"We're certain that we're going to find a car," Christianson said. "All the other tips and leads have been unfounded, (and) all of the evidence leads us here. The tips and leads aren't leading us in any other direction."

The boy's mother, Tabitha Cardenas, said Friday that she still believed that Rodriguez -- whom she broke up with about five months ago, and who is the father of her unborn child -- wouldn't purposefully drive her son into the water and that both were still alive.

"My hopes are high that they're not going to find Jose's car in the canal," she told HLN's Jean Casarez.

With night descended over the area, dive teams will work "by feel" to find out more about the object and proceed with a "drag operation" to pull it to shore, the sheriff said.

"The water is very cold, very fast, so this operation has to be done with extreme caution," said Christianson. "(The divers) will connect a line to the car, and then a tow truck will wrench the car out of the water."

If it is a car, it would be the third discovered by Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department deputies -- working in conjunction with a dive team from nearby Merced County -- since they began searching the canal this week.

Earlier in the day, they pulled out another vehicle that they determined to be a Ford Mustang. The find on Friday night was about a mile away, in a different part of the canal.

Christianson said there's been "no electronic signature of any kind" from Rodriguez since the boy's abduction, meaning no evidence of cell phone, credit card or debit card use.

The sheriff also told reporters that, despite getting "hundreds" of tips, "there are no other credible leads that are taking us in a different direction."

Tabitha Cardenas said Friday that Rodriguez either wanted to have her son for himself or wanted "revenge" against her, for their break-up. She said that she ended their relationship because he was physically abusive to her, but said that she never thought he'd harm Juliani.

"He (Rodriguez) wanted to be with my son," Tabitha Cardenas told reporters. "He wanted to be with my son so bad that he took it to the extreme."

In an emotional press conference Thursday, the boy's mother said she believes Rodriguez is troubled -- claiming he told her that he sometimes "hears voices" and that he had been abusive when they were dating -- but she did not think he would drown her son or consciously put him in danger. Rodriguez is not the boy's biological father.

"He's scared, Jose's scared -- I know he is," said Cardenas. "He probably doesn't know what to do."

The suspect had come to Cardenas' house early Tuesday morning, according to the boy's mother, leaving after she told him to leave because Juliani was asleep and had a cold. The boy's school later called Tabitha Cardenas after Rodriguez had gone there asking to spend time with the boy.

In the late afternoon, Cardenas got a call from her frantic mother, who claimed that the Rodriguez had again come by and, despite her struggle, had taken the boy from the grandmother's arms. Cardenas said that her mother told her that the suspect then flashed an obscene gesture, laughed and got into his Toyota, which he had left running.

The boy, Juliani, was 3 feet, 6 inches tall, weighs 40 pounds and has brown eyes and black hair, according to the Amber Alert. He was wearing dark pants and a light blue shirt at the time of his abduction.

Rodriguez, 27, is described in the same alert as being a Hispanic male, about 180 pounds and 5 feet, 9 inches tall.

Earlier Friday, Christianson admitted that the fact new leads have slowed to a trickle and probes into existing ones have largely fallen flat are starting to take their toll.

"This is getting frustrating," he said. "It's like riding a roller coaster: You think you're going to be able to bring closure to the case, then suddenly ... once again, we've recovered probably another stolen vehicle."

Still, a hopeful Tabitha Cardenas pleaded late Friday for Rodriguez to take care of her son and give him the chance to get home.

"Jose, you're all out of money, c'mon," she said. "You need to take Juliani to a hospital, leave him at a gas station, I don't care where you leave him. Leave him somewhere ... and just take off."

"I don't care where (Rodriguez) goes, I just want my son back."

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