LATHROP (CBS13) – A Lathrop man who fled the country after the death of his girlfriend’s baby more than four years ago was captured by U.S. marshals and returned to the United States to serve his sentence.

On Feb. 4, 2008, Mario Pena, then 22, said he was giving 11-month-old Jacob Leon a bath and left the baby unattended to answer the phone when he heard a noise in the bathroom and found Jacob lying on his back in the bathtub.

A neighbor who didn’t want to give his name said Thursday he believes Pena’s claim that it was an accident.

“I honestly believe he gots it wrong because I know for a fact that was an accident,” the man said. “I have four kids myself and I would trust Mario with them. I was within 15 feet of the whole situation.”

mario pena Convicted Baby Killer Found In Mexico, Returned To San Joaquin County

Mario Pena (source: San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office)

Pena reportedly put a diaper on the baby, dressed him and left to pick up his girlfriend, leaving Jacob with Pena’s parents. He said when he returned, an ambulance was at the house taking Jacob to the hospital.

Jacob died at Oakland Children’s Hospital Feb. 9, less than a week shy of turning 1, from a traumatic brain injury. Doctors determined he died from injuries consistent with a violent physical assault.

Pena was arrested but allowed out on bail. His girlfriend reported on Oct. 27, 2009, that Pena had disappeared and left a suicide note behind. The said that his body would never be found and the sheriff’s office should not look for him.

His jury trial started the day he disappeared.

“And he got falsey accused,” the neighbor said. “No one wanted to defend him so he ran.”

He was found guilty in Jacob’s death and sentenced 25 years to life.

A relative who didn’t want to give his name also said Pena is innocent.

“Alls I got to say is he’s innocent,” he said. “Whatever happened in court he got did dirty. He’s gotta appeal it.”

U.S. marshals found Pena living with family members in Mexico in April and he was transported to San Francisco International on Friday, where San Joaquin County sheriff’s detectives were waiting for him.

Pena reportedly tipped off law enforcement to his whereabouts by posting on his MySpace account and bragging that he’d avoided capture.

He was booked into the San Joaquin County Jail without bail pending his sentencing to a state prison.


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