Wednesday, Jan. 8, starts out as just another work day for Alex Martin, John McGaffin and Preston McCord.
The three — two men and a woman — work for the Los Cerritos Wetlands Stewards. The weather is partly sunny and around 50 degrees when the three start cleaning up the bluff at Ocean Boulevard and Orizaba Avenue.
McCord, the newest team member, is going to rappel down the bluff for the first time to pick up items that get thrown over the railing.
“We start at 7 a.m.,” says Martin, a diver who owns Shellback Aquatic Maintenance in Long Beach. “She was going to be picking up the trash that people leave. We usually find needles, meth pipes, even the tops to trash cans.”
Around 90 minutes later, McCord, who is a biologist with degrees from UC Santa Cruz and Scripps Oceanology, gets her chance to rappel the bluff. Right away, she alerts Martin and McGaffin to something she finds.
“It was the first piece of litter I picked up,” she says. “It had a strange shape. It was weathered like it had been there a few weeks or months. You see some strange things on the bluff, but this is, hands-down, the most unusual.”
Martin tells McCord to put the little white box into a bag they use to collect litter. But she tells Martin that the box is heavy; she’s about 5-8 feet from the top of the bluff. McGaffin, a retired paramedic with the Glendale Fire Department, helps her up to the top.
McGaffin is curious and wants to know what’s in the box.
“I flipped the lid and … there is another black box and it’s plastic,” Martin says. “It’s just a square box, and as I pick it up, there is a label; it has the name of a mortuary and crematory in Houston, Texas, and has the name Anthony Sanchez.
“Oh sh#t, John, what am I supposed to do?” Martin asks.
McGaffin tells Martin he can call the L.A. County coroner but that would cause an investigation to be opened, or he can call the mortuary in Houston and try to find out who the box belongs to.
Martin calls the number on the box in the hopes of getting a family contact. The mortuary answers and Martin tells them what they came across. The mortuary takes the information and says they will call Martin back.
“The mortuary called back in 20 minutes and says they have located the family member, and that they live in Palm Springs,” Martin said. “The name that was on the box was the name of a child but that there should be another box with the contents of the mother.”
Martin rappels a little farther down the bluff than where McCord went and finds the other white box. He opens it and see the name Damadis Sanchez.
Martin finds out from the mortuary that Sanchez, 34, and her son Anthony, 8, were killed in an auto accident when their car slammed into a tree in mid-March 2019. They died on impact. The mortuary informs Martin that they will contact the next of kin so they can make arrangements to pick up the two boxes.
The Family Tragedy
“On March 27, I got a phone call from the Harris County Sheriff’s Department that my sister had this problem, a car accident, and that she isn’t going to survive,” says Gerson Lopes, Damadis Sanchez’s brother, from Palm Springs. “My mom and I flew out there the next day to identify the bodies.
"When we got to the sheriff’s department, we had to go to the forensics office and when we got there they told us we had to identify the bodies but we may not want to look at them because they were really messed up. If we had a photo of them, we could do the identification that way. I didn’t want to see my sister — we communicated a lot and we were really close. But I did see my nephew. It was surreal.”
Lopes says he visited the site of the crash. There were no skid marks and he says toxicology reports shows no alcohol or drugs in his sister’s body. The sheriff’s department concludes that speed is the main factor.
The remains are sent to Sanchez’s mother in Monterey Park in mid-April. The family is preparing to do a service in Palm Springs. They take some musical instruments, Sanchez’s personal effects and the two boxes of cremated remains and place them in Lopes’s mother’s white van.
“The next morning when we go outside, the van is gone,” Lopes says. "We didn’t care about the musical instruments. What was bothersome was the remains were in there.”
Almost nine months later, on Jan. 8, Lopes gets a call from the mortuary asking if he tried to get rid of the remains.
“I said, ‘Did you find my sister?’ and they said her remains were found in some litter in Long Beach,” Lopes says. “I explained the story to the mortuary person. It was so random. I’m guessing these guys (who stole the van) got really scared and threw it over the cliff.”
Martin, McGaffin and McCord go to lunch after the phone call to the mortuary. When they get back to work on the bluffs, Martin gets a phone call. It’s Lopes asking where they can meet.
“He showed up after 1:30 and told us the story, about how he had the ashes in the van, getting to say goodbye,” Martin says. “He was so appreciative. A weight was taken off his chest. We returned the remains and bid our farewell.”
“I didn’t want to get my hopes up,” Lopes says. “Like I actually went to the store and bought gloves because I assumed it was floating in the ocean. I brought cardboard from my trunk. I thought I had to pick up a box lingering in the ocean. It’s been almost nine months.
"The craziest part is I opened the box. Everything was intact, in otherwise perfect condition. No BS.”
Lopes says his family has been praying that this day might actually happen.
“Lo and behold,” Lopes says. “First surprise of the year. I did a little service.
“We brought her back home.”
Lenny Arkinstall is the founder and executive director of Los Cerritos Wetlands Stewards, Inc. He works with the city to maintain multiple areas around Alamitos Bay and Long Beach and said he could not be prouder of his crew.
“I praise my guys for going the extra mile,” he says. “I’m so proud of my workers.”
Gerson Lopes goes a step further: “Just tell them honestly, God bless them. I thank them so much. It brought closure for us. We put the ashes in the ocean already. We had a moment. They were the catalyst for this. These guys are freakin’ heroes in my book.”