FOR IRIANA, AT 17

iriana_girl_400
Iriana DeJesus, as she was near the time of her death. She would have turned 17 yesterday.

YESTERDAY was Iriana DeJesus' 17th birthday, and her mother couldn't help but wonder:

Would her youngest child have been thin or chubby? Would she have had long hair or short? Would she have been a girly-girl or more of a tomboy?

"I try not to cry. I try to be strong," said Lizasuain "Mota" DeJesus, "but it's her birthday and I wish, I really wish, I could see her again."

Iriana was 5 years old in July 2000, when she was abducted from her Hunting Park neighborhood. Her body was found five days later in an apartment building a block from her home. The little girl had been strangled and sexually assaulted, her body wrapped in a trash bag and hidden under a pile of wallpaper.

Every year since, on the days of Iriana's birth and abduction, her mother has gathered neighbors, friends and family to remember the girl they called "Nena."

"I don't want anybody to forget," DeJesus said."She's always going to be in my heart."

 

Not far from DeJesus' mind is Iriana's alleged killer: Alexis Flores, now 29 and believed to be in Honduras. He is on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list with a $100,000 reward on his head.

Iriana was last seen walking hand-in-hand with a man believed to be Flores a few blocks from her home. Neighbors knew him only as "Carlos." Philadelphia police soon issued an arrest warrant for "Carlos Doe," but he had seemingly disappeared.

Then, in late 2004, Flores was arrested on felony charges in Arizona. A forced DNA sample tied him to Iriana's murder.

DeJesus, who practically spits Flores' name when she says it, has been waiting for justice since.

"When will I get that phone call that they caught my killer?" DeJesus said. "I guess when God says it's going to be that time, it'll be that time. I just hope I'm still living."

 

C.J. Waddy was one of Iriana's teachers at East Frankford Day Care. He never forgot her.

"I love all my kids, but she'll probably be the one that shines the brightest," Waddy said yesterday at Iriana's birthday party

In Iriana's honor, Waddy wrote a book about the dangers of children talking with strangers. It was illustrated by his preteen son, Chafik, and published this year.

Now Waddy and DeJesus are joining forces, planning to visit local schools with their message. They're having their first book- signing at the Frankford branch of the Free Library on Feb. 15.

"It's not to let all of this happen in vain," Waddy said.

He's been joining the family for these remembrances for a few years. This year, he brought 50 white balloons to be released into the sky, to Iriana, after the celebration was done.

On Iriana's 11th birthday, Waddy said, it was raining, and the balloons floundered in the air. He had no worries about this year.

"These are going to go straight up to her," he said.

As children crowded around the birthday cake at the family home yesterday, DeJesus said she took strength from these youths, most of whom were not even born when Iriana died. They sang "Happy Birthday," DeJesus singing the loudest of all, ending her song by pointing at Iriana's photo and saying, "Happy birthday, Mami. I love you."

The group then moved outside, where they sang again before releasing the balloons into the sky.

"Watch your children," DeJesus said. "Protect them. Love them. Hug them."