Griselda Aranzacu was puzzled when she noticed her slender neighbor developing a bulging tummy that would repeatedly appear and vanish.
She suspected Nancy Ortiz was pregnant after a visit to her house last summer, but did not want to pry.
"Later I did ask myself where her baby was," Aranzacu said.
Sheriff's deputies said Tuesday they believe Ortiz had three babies, the same children whose abandonment and origins captivated this small farming community about 60 miles (100 kilometers) southeast of Fresno.
The last abandoned child - a newborn girl - died in the bed of a pickup truck in December, and police believe the 22-year-old Ortiz left the baby there. The baby's two older siblings survived their abandonment.
Ortiz was being held without bail in a Tulare County jail on suspicion of homicide, child endangerment and abandonment, said Lt. Keith Douglass of the Tulare County Sheriff's Department.
For some residents of Orosi, the news of Ortiz's arrest brought a sense of relief, ending a heartbreaking mystery that gripped the town for months.
"It's sad that it took three babies before the officers found her," restaurant owner Martha Muniz said. "If they would have found this young lady after the first time, they could have given her help."
Ortiz's family declined to comment when reached at home, where the yard was littered with children's tricycles and overturned plastic chairs. She did not appear to have hired an attorney Tuesday.
The first newborn was discovered Feb. 10, 2005, a barely breathing boy swaddled in a blanket on a bench a block from Ortiz's home, the umbilical cord still hanging from his tiny body. On Jan. 8, 2006, a resident discovered a full-term baby girl inside a pickup truck two blocks away, clothed in an undershirt and pants. Those babies became wards of the state.
Then a neighbor in Ortiz's subdivision found the baby girl, enveloped in a sweat shirt and deserted in the back of a truck on Dec. 3. A coroner determined she was alive for less than a day and had died of exposure to the cold.
After exhausting all leads in the case of the third baby, officials organized a Catholic baptism and funeral Mass in March for the baby, whom they named Angelita DeOrosi, or Orosi's little angel.
DNA testing had eliminated all women they had questioned as the babies' mother but established that all three infants were almost certainly born to the same woman.
Then last week, two anonymous tips led authorities to Ortiz. After getting reports that her 3-year-old daughter was wandering naked and alone on the street, a detective brought Ortiz in for questioning and determined that she was a suspect in the homicide.
Genetic tests have since confirmed that Ortiz was Angelita's mother, and officials said there was an "extremely high probability" that she also gave birth to the other deserted newborns.
"This child was the most helpless. She didn't make any decision to put herself in peril," Douglass said. "This case definitely wouldn't have been resolved without people working with us."
Investigators would not speculate on the reasons for the abandonment, and they wouldn't say whether there were additional suspects.
Ortiz's toddler and another 4-year-old child have been placed in protective custody.
California and 46 other states allow parents to legally abandon a child at a hospital or other designated safe zones within 72 hours of birth, no questions asked.
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