A day after police identified Vanessa Argueta, 19, and her 2-year-old son, Diego Torres, as the two bodies found in a wooded area in Central Islip, family and friends gathered at her Hempstead home to remember an outgoing mother and a playful young boy.
"She'll be in my heart for a long time," said Argueta's father, Jose Argueta Lazo, 43, as he stood shaking in the family's kitchen yesterday. He and other family members said they last saw Argueta and Diego on Thursday afternoon when she left with her son to visit a friend.
Argueta's brother, Oscar Argueta, 25, said she was last seen alive at that friend's house in Hempstead. The friend told the family Argueta and Diego left around 5 p.m. in a car. Vanessa told her friend her father was picking her up but the friend didn't see her get into the car because she'd asked the friend to stay inside as she left.
Lazo said yesterday he didn't pick up his daughter. What happened next remains a mystery as police continue their investigation. Suffolk police would not comment yesterday on whether they were questioning anyone in connection with the killings.
Oscar Argueta said he learned of his sister's death at about 8 p.m. Friday when police officers came to the family's home with a photo of his deceased sister's body.
"I'm hoping for justice," he said, tears welling in his eyes. "It's not fair that they did that to a little baby."
Family members said Vanessa, the second oldest of four, was a down-to-earth, outgoing girl who spent most of her time with her son. She was to turn 20 this Thursday.
Family and friends had been planning a house party to celebrate her birthday, Oscar said. Now, he and others plan to gather at the family home to remember her and Diego while listening to "Pepe," a popular reggaeton song the pair enjoyed.
In a hallway of the family home yesterday, William Manzanarez, 19, stood in a tearful embrace with Oscar. Manzanarez, of Hempstead, grew up with Vanessa and considered her his sister, he said. "She was loving and sympathetic," he said. "She would help out whenever you needed her."
Argueta, who dropped out of Hempstead High School two years ago, last worked at Forever 21 at the Roosevelt Field mall, her family said. Store manager Elia Palacios said Argueta had worked there for about a month but was terminated Feb. 1 after failing to show up for two consecutive days without calling.
Manzanarez said Argueta was worried about money in her last days and told him she wanted another job to better support her son. He said she had just applied for a job at a Target in Hicksville. "She worked hard trying to keep her son as well maintained as she could," he said.
Just inside the Argueta home, a pair of Diego's small, white Nike sneakers and dozens of photos of the mother and son lined a small table as a makeshift memorial.
"She was always talking about her baby," Oscar Argueta said. In one of her last Internet postings, he said, his sister wrote she was "loving my little prince."
With Keith Herbert