Healdsburg father suspected of drowning 4-year-old daughter in church

A 42-year-old man was jailed on suspicion of murder Monday after police say he intentionally drowned his 4-year-old daughter in a baptismal pool at a Healdsburg church.|

A Healdsburg father suspected of drowning his 4-year-old daughter in the baptismal pool of a downtown church was arrested hours after he carried her unresponsive body to the nearby police department, police officials said Monday.

Gerardo Mendoza Ordaz, 42, stood naked in the back parking lot of the police station Sunday night and cried out - calling for “help” and “police” - as he held his daughter, who was clothed, shoeless and soaking wet, said police officials.

Another child, a 9-year-old son who wore shorts but no shirt, was with his father and sister, police said.

The girl was rushed to a hospital, but she did not survive. The boy did not appear to be injured, according to police.

Investigators suspect Ordaz brought his children into the unlocked sanctuary of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church at East and Matheson streets. How long they were there wasn’t clear, but at 8:30 p.m. they were outside the nearby Center Street police station seeking help.

The church was routinely left unlocked for the public on Sundays into the night and police believe the family were the only ones inside, Healdsburg Police Chief Kevin Burke said.

With his son as the only witness, Ordaz submerged his daughter in the 1- to 2-feet-deep baptismal pool in the sanctuary, estimated to be about 8 feet wide and 10 feet long, said Lt. Matt Jenkins, who was overseeing the investigation.

“We do believe she was drowned intentionally,” Burke said at a news conference Monday afternoon.

Ordaz gave officers a detailed statement during a lengthy interview conducted in Spanish, Burke said. The chief declined to comment on the man’s statement or answer questions regarding a motive for the suspected slaying. But he said the information, along with evidence found, was enough to arrest Ordaz on suspicion of murder. The man was booked Monday morning into the Sonoma County Jail without bail.

An autopsy on the little girl was held late Monday morning but results weren’t available late Monday afternoon. Her name hadn’t been released as of Monday evening.

Ordaz and his wife had four children, including the girl and her 9-year-old brother, and the family lives just outside city limits, Burke said.

Officers spoke with child protective services officials about the case and the remaining three children were deemed to be safe with their mother and were left in her care, Burke said.

Classes at St. John’s church school and preschool, adjacent to the sanctuary, resumed Monday but 9 a.m. Mass was canceled. The front of the large church all day was cordoned off with yellow police tape, preserving any evidence inside for a Sheriff’s Office forensics team to go through the sanctuary.

A knock on the office door of Rev. Sean Rodgers Monday morning went unanswered. All questions were being referred to the Santa Rosa diocese, according to a parishioner leaving the office Monday afternoon.

“It’s very shocking - it’s hard to believe,” said the parishioner, who only gave his first name, John.

The Diocese of Santa Rosa released a statement Monday afternoon attributed to Rogers, pastor of the Healdsburg church.

“Sunday night there was tragedy in the church; a little girl lost her life. When police finish the investigation we will know more. In the meantime, please pray for the family, and the parish community,” the statement read.

Healdsburg resident Katie McDowell said she drove by St. John’s church Monday after seeing an online news report about the death. McDowell, who works as a caregiver for young children and who attended school and church at St. John’s, said the child’s death at the church was deeply upsetting.

“I’m so sad,” she said. “It’s Healdsburg. Such a small town. Scary things can happen.”

Homicide in Healdsburg is fairly rare. The last one was Dec. 14, 2008 - involving a fatal stabbing of a Healdsburg man and the arrest and eventual conviction of his girlfriend.

On Sunday night, when the man arrived at the police station’s back door yelling for help, the first to come outside was Sgt. Scott Eland, who found a shirtless boy and a naked man holding a wet, unconscious girl.

The scene was difficult for first responders who immediately tried to resuscitate the little girl. She was taken by ambulance to Healdsburg District Hospital where attempts to revive her lasted about 90 minutes, Burke said.

Officers, firefighters and paramedics who responded to the call will be able to attend a debriefing to discuss and process the troubling incident, the chief said.

The death initially was investigated as a possible homicide. That resulted in officers being held on duty overnight, some called in early and others responding on their days off, stretching thin the small department’s staffing. By morning, the case had been labeled a homicide.

“It’s a very complicated investigation. We’ve had staffing up all night,” said Burke. “It’s a very challenging and tragic case.”

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707-521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com and Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5212 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com.

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