Aug. 23, 2004. 06:54 AMBOB MITCHELL
|Cecilia Zhang's skeletal remains were found ikn a wooded area near the Credit River in Mississauga in April.|
It was the sound of coyotes "yapping" that initially caught his attention.
Twenty-four hours later, Peel police confirmed that the remains discovered in a dry river bed among the trees near the Credit River on March 27 were those of Cecilia Zhang. The 9-year-old Toronto girl had been missing since being abducted from her home last Oct. 20.
Yesterday, the man who found Cecilia's remains spoke to the Star on the condition of anonymity and returned to the scene, climbing through the thick brush that now blankets the area for the first time since finding the remains of the Grade 4 student.
He was burning branches in his backyard that Saturday afternoon in early spring when he suddenly heard the coyotes.
"They were yapping or barking. ... It sounded like a bunch of young pups and I guess my curiosity got the better of me," he said, speaking yesterday about that haunting day for the first time in an exclusive interview. "I followed the sound. I was walking slowly as I listened to their yapping because I didn't want to scare them."
At that time of year, the heavy brush that now makes the area almost impossible to reach was missing and the snow that covered the ravine throughout the winter had melted, allowing the man to easily walk toward the sound of the animals.
About 200 metres on, something caught his eye, but it wasn't the coyotes, who had moved on. "I saw a skeleton, this white skeleton," he said. "I couldn't believe it was a body at first."
Within seconds, the man turned, rushed back to his home and phoned 911 from his garage.
"I didn't want to hang around," he said. "Literally, within seconds, I left. I didn't go near the body.
"I went into the garage and called 911 because I didn't want to panic my wife."
But a Peel police officer phoned his home within minutes and spoke with his wife, who hadn't been feeling too well and was lying down.
"I came outside to find my husband to tell him that the Peel police needed to speak with him," she said. "I didn't know what was happening."
It was now about 2 p.m., and police had begun to use yellow tape to mark off an area in a ravine behind the Church of the Croatian Martyrs on Mississauga Rd., just south of Eglinton Ave.
The man said it never occurred to him that the remains belonged to Cecilia, although his wife said that possibility immediately crossed her mind and it affected her deeply.
"I'm not a very strong person. ... I'm usually a basket of emotions," she said.
"Even though the thought that it might be Cecilia went through my mind, I kept thinking, why here in Mississauga?" she said. "She lives way on the other side of the city. It just didn't fit."
Her husband said he didn't immediately think of the missing girl when he found the remains because he hadn't been following the case too closely.
"I knew it was a small person," he said. "That's what I told the 911 operator. So many things go through your head. I was kind of numb. I didn't really know what to make of it. I don't remember seeing any clothes. Just the skeleton. But I knew it was a small person, maybe a small man.
"I just wondered who it could be and how long it had been there. But Cecilia's name didn't pop into my mind."
The following day, when they watched the news on television, the couple learned that the remains were those of Cecilia. By then, the area was crawling with reporters, who watched from a distance as police scoured the ravine in and around where a tent had been erected to preserve the remains and any other evidence.
Dental records were used to positively identify the skeletal remains as those of Cecilia, a police source has told the Star.
Police sources say they haven't determined how Cecilia died or when she was killed, although a source has said investigators believe her body was dumped in the ravine sometime before the first snowfall in the middle of December.
Min Chen, a 21-year-old Chinese visa student who police say was known to Cecilia and her family, is accused of abducting the young girl from her home and then killing her. He remains in a Milton jail after being charged with first-degree murder on July 22.
Although the discovery of Cecilia's remains upset the couple, looking back, they're glad that they were discovered.
"I think for her parents, thank God that my husband was curious that day," said the man's wife. "Her body was in such an out-of-the-way area. Whoever did this had to have known the area because you don't just stumble upon this area.
"Had my husband not found her, who knows, maybe police would still be looking for her and her parents would still not know what happened to her."
Chen is scheduled to return to a Brampton court on Sept. 1.
The 6-foot, 150-pound man was living in a Scarborough apartment when arrested July 21. He entered Canada from Shanghai on Jan. 1, 2001.
The only child of Wenyong Hu, 48, a civilian clerk who works for the Shanghai police, and Haijia Chen, 49, an executive for China Eastern Airlines, Chen studied at Seneca College and then briefly attended McDonald International Academy in Toronto before leaving last August.