BY STEVE E. SWENSON
Relatives of slain 3-year-old Serenity Julia Gandara went to her funeral Friday, even though they had been pretty much shut out of the last year of her life.
That didn't stop them from remembering the happy, smiling little girl they hadn't seen in person since spring 2009. They were relegated to phone inquiries, which as one grandmother reported, always ended with "the kids are fine" -- even as late as the day before she was found dead.
The girl's mother, Yesenia Garcia, 22, said she used to see her daughter twice a week when she was in the care of Child Protective Services, but after her brother, Alberto Garcia and his wife, Carla, took the child into their home, Carla stopped the visits.
Serenity and her brother were removed by CPS from Yesenia Garcia's care because of her past reported drug problems. It is unknown why the children were put in Alberto and Carla's home, although it is the general policy of CPS to put children with relatives.
Police are looking for 26-year-old Alberto and Carla Garcia, who are believed to have fled to Mexico with their natural children -- a 9-year-old son born to Carla in a previous marriage and a boy and girl, ages 4 and 5, born in the couple's relationship.
Police say the Garcias left sometime early on July 18 and Mrs. Garcia called one of her sisters to check on their southwest Bakersfield home. That's where at about 9 a.m. police found Serenity and her 4-year-old brother, Isaiah, who was in the home alone with his deceased sister.
A murder and child endangerment warrant has been obtained for the couple.
That was the backdrop to a graveside service for Serenity at Greenlawn Memorial Park, where about 90 people listened as Pastor Edward Rodriguez of Yes To The King Church said, "The Lord has her in a better place. She is in the arms of Jesus."
Rodriguez, whose wife Marylou is related to Serenity's family, said he understands the family's grief because his son, 34-year-old Gilbert Olmos, was gunned down Dec. 20 as he walked out of a church near East California Avenue and Beverly Drive.
But, the pastor said, "God didn't send me to share tragedies. God sent me to share his promises."
He said, "Serenity means peace. Her peace has been left with us that we may obtain peace."
As a symbol of that, Serenity's parents -- Yesenia and 22-year-old Pedro Gandara -- each released a white dove as other family members let pink and white balloons rise into the air.
Two grandmothers -- Renee Maese and Maria Garcia -- recalled how Serenity got the nickname "Piggy."
"She had a little turned up nose," Garcia said.
"We'd ask her to make a piggy face and she would smile and lift her nose up," Maese said.
But those face-to-face memories were months ago. Maria Garcia said she always asked about Isaiah and Serenity, and her son told her over the phone July 17 they were fine.
Yesenia, who recalled what an "active little girl" her child was, said Carla didn't allow visits from relatives. Yesenia said her brother, Alberto, didn't object to her visiting, but he would stand by what Carla wanted.
Yesenia said this whole tragedy has been hard on her. When she first heard about her daughter's death, "I felt a lot of things, mad, sad, angry all at once. I didn't really want to believe. Who would ever think that would happen to somebody? It's still shocking to me. I really don't know what happened."
She said she loves her brother but right now she doesn't know what to think "until he tells me the truth."