A Camden woman was buried alive after being kidnapped by her landscaper and another man, prosecutors said Thursday, as authorities defended the police response to her disappearance.
The body of Fatima Perez, 41, was found in a shallow grave around 11 a.m. Wednesday in Monroe Township. She was reported missing Monday afternoon by her family.
Perez's landscaper, Carlos Alicea-Antonetti, 36, and Ramon Ortiz, 57, have been charged with her slaying. They were arraigned Thursday afternoon in Superior Court in Camden, where Perez's family wept as Assistant Prosecutor Christine Shah described how the men allegedly covered the bound Perez with lime and dirt in the makeshift grave. Authorities said she was asphyxiated.
Shah called the crime "particularly heinous and depraved."
Alicea-Antonetti and Ortiz were each held on $5 million cash bail, which Judge Edward McBride Jr. said "very much exceeds the standard" but was warranted.
Alicea-Antonetti told police he picked up Perez on Monday morning to take her to another town so she could buy a car. Perez, her family said, had $8,000 in cash for the purchase and was planning to go to Delanco.
An argument ensued after Perez entered the van, causing her to fall out, according to court documents. It was not clear whether the vehicle was moving at the time. She was injured but got back inside, the documents said.
At 10:07 a.m., Alicea-Antonetti used Perez's cellphone to order a pastrami sandwich and boneless chicken with fried bananas platter - which Perez usually ordered - from the Hot Spot in Camden. Around 10:20 a.m., Alicea-Antonetti walked into the restaurant alone. At one point, he stepped to the edge of the counter to check his order.
"He was in a hurry," said William Cartagena, 35, who owns the restaurant with his wife. He said both Perez and Alicea-Antonetti, separately, were regular customers.
At some point in the day, according to court documents, Alicea-Antonetti picked up Ortiz, who was cutting grass in the 1100 block of North 23d Street.
Ortiz, who has a lengthy list of drug convictions dating back to the '90s, worked for Alicea-Antonetti's landscaping company, Villa Coamo Landscaping and General Maintenance. Alicea-Antonetti pleaded guilty to aggravated assault in 2006 for choking his wife.
In their brief court appearance Thursday, both sought public defenders.
Ortiz told police that Perez was lying in the back of the van when he entered, but that he didn't notice her until she made a noise and pleaded for help.
According to court documents, Alicea-Antonetti told police that he and Ortiz tied up Perez in the van and put duct-tape on her mouth and eyes. Alicea-Antonetti then drove to a wooded area in Monroe, where Ortiz dug a grave.
He and Alicea-Antonetti then buried Perez alive, police said the two suspects told them. Later, they allegedly covered the spot with branches and debris.
Police said they confiscated more than $7,000 from Alicea-Antonetti and Ortiz, who allegedly hid at a motel along Route 38 in Cherry Hill. Police found Ortiz in a room there with a disabled cellphone Wednesday morning. Alicea-Antonetti was found walking near Route 38.
Ortiz, after being questioned, led police to Perez's body.
From the start, Perez's family members said they feared she had been kidnapped by Alicea-Antonetti, who had done landscaping at her home in the 400 block of North 41st Street for about two years.
One of Perez's family members called 911 at 4:26 p.m. Monday, telling a dispatcher that Perez's cellphone had been shut off, she hadn't shown up for work, and that Perez was a mother of three who "would never, ever, ever do this."
In an interview as they frantically searched for her, family members had said Perez typically called them to ensure her 7-year-old son was picked up from school.
Eight minutes after the call was placed, three officers showed up at Perez's home, according to police records.
Perez was buried alive "some time after dark Monday night," according to a spokesman for the Camden County Prosecutor's Office. Prosecutor Warren Faulk, in an interview after the arraignment Thursday, said the crime "could not have been prevented at the time police were notified" Monday afternoon.
Officers, Perez's family said Wednesday, initially suggested she had an unnoticed drug addiction or had willingly left town with Alicea-Antonetti. Alex Dickerson, 31, of Camden, who is engaged to one of Perez's sisters, said the family was "frustrated with the police at first."
When asked on Tuesday whether there was anything suspicious about Perez's disappearance, Camden County Police Sgt. Julio Rios said there was not. The family, by that point, had told police that they feared Perez had been kidnapped.
Frank Falco of the Prosecutor's Office's homicide unit said on Thursday he could not speak about what police had said. But he defended the investigation, which involved detectives from the prosecutor's office after the Camden County Police Department launched an investigation.
"They used all kinds of manpower, all kinds of overtime, people working 24/7," he said of the county police. "They did all that was humanly possible within the law to find that woman."
Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson did not return a call Thursday, but said the day before that the department had investigated her disappearance as "aggressively as possible."
Inquirer staff writer Barbara Boyer contributed to this article.