NEW YORK (AP) – A Queens man was charged Saturday with choking his live-in girlfriend to death in their apartment, the latest twist in a weeklong mystery that began when the slain woman’s 4-year-old daughter was found wandering barefoot and alone in the middle of the night, authorities said.

Cesar Ascarrunz, 32, was arrested on murder charges two days after he was picked up by investigators, police said. The defendant allegedly confessed to the crime, and acknowledged putting his girlfriend’s body into a trash bag and dumping it on a corner in Queens.

Police were still searching Saturday for the remains of Monica Lozada-Rivaineira, 26, who was last seen alive on Sept. 24.

Investigators were led to Ascarrunz by a dozen tips that came in from the public after 4-year-old Valery Lozada appeared on television Thursday, describing her mother as looking “like a princess.” The little girl remained in a foster home Saturday.

“This child has captured the hearts of all New Yorkers,” said Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown. “I hope she can grow up to lead a normal life.”

Valery was asking to see her mother, but authorities were waiting to break the tragic news to the child, said John Mattingly, commissioner of the city Administration for Children’s Services. Dozens of New Yorkers have already volunteered to adopt the girl, he said.

Ascarrunz, who lived with the mother and daughter in an apartment in the Rego Park section of Queens, abandoned the girl in the middle of the night after the slaying, Brown said.

In addition to the murder charge, Ascarrunz was charged with reckless endangerment, endangering the welfare of a child, and child abandonment, Brown said. He was additionally accused of evidence tampering for dumping the body.

Ascarrunz faces 25 years to life on the murder count. Brown planned to ask for no bail when the defendant was arraigned in Queens Criminal Court.

According to a criminal complaint, on Sept. 24 Ascarrunz choked Lozada-Riviandeira to death in their apartment, put her body in a plastic bag and left it in the living room for two days.

On Sept. 26, he took her body from the apartment and dumped it in a pile of trash on a Queens street corner, the criminal complaint said.

The case began one week ago, when Valery was found barefoot and shivering on the streets of Queens. She told local residents that her father had dropped her off and driven away.

But it wasn’t until Friday, after six days of digging and about 100 phone calls from the public, that police finally identified the girl’s mother.

The dry facts of the mom’s appearance were beamed citywide: 5-foot-6, 105 pounds, thin build. A scar on her left knee and a bluebird tattooed on her stomach. Her face, left slightly swollen by recent oral surgery. She is believed to be from Bolivia.

Monica Lozada-Rivaindeira was last seen at her Queens apartment on Sept. 24, just a short time before her daughter was found walking along 76th Street in the Middle Village section of Queens.

“She was scared, she was crying,” said Kevin Flood, 34, a city firefighter who gave Valery a drink and a fruit snack that night. “She said her daddy had left her on the corner.”

Flood, who has a three-month-old son, said he walked around the corner of his block in the quiet neighborhood, thinking he would find the girl’s dad. Instead, the street was empty.

“I thought maybe he would have a heart,” Flood said.

According to the Flood, the girl’s hair was tousled as if she’d just been awakened. Her cries from the street awakened several neighbors, who provided the girl with a blanket and summoned police. The girl showed no signs of abuse or neglect.

Valery, a precocious child who speaks both English and Spanish, couldn’t remember her last name, said Petrovic’s wife, Maya. She was turned over to the Administration for Children’s Services for care as police tried to unravel the mystery of the little girl lost.

The case finally turned when ACS officials took the extraordinary step of putting the girl on television in hopes it would produce new information. It did, as authorities received phone calls that helped identify the mother and led them to question the boyfriend.


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