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Dorothy de Souza Guedes/CLINTON BUREAU/March 27, 2001

MORRISON, Illinois — Catalina Mendoza apologized Monday during her sentencing for "not having the strength" to save the infant daughter she had named Natalie.

To everyone else, the infant was known as Baby April Whiteside since being found dead on April 10, 1999, along the banks of the Hennepin Feeder Canal in rural Rock Falls.

But Natalie was the name Mendoza chose after reading newspaper accounts that the infant she gave birth to along the side of a road, then abandoned, was a girl.

She called her daughter by name during the day-long hearing that resulted in a 17-year prison sentence for second-degree murder.

Whiteside County District Judge Dan Dunagan sentenced Mendoza to the maximum recommended by the state.

Mendoza had pleaded for probation to allow her to care for her sons, ages 5 and three months, saying her absence would create a hardship. But the judge said such leniency would deprecate the seriousness of the offense.

"Luckily, there are other family members who can help fill the gap," Dunagan said.

Throughout the case, Mendoza's mother, aunts and other family and friends have attended every hearing; many were in the packed courtroom for the sentencing. Mendoza has been living Tampico with an aunt since Dunagan released her on a recognizance bond after her Jan. 8 guilty plea to second-degree murder.

"I wish I would have asked you for help before it was too late," an emotional Mendoza said to her family while reading a prepared statement Monday.

To Natalie, her daughter, she said, "I did not have the strength to protect you, and I am so sorry."

She can't explain why she allowed her daughter to die.

"I don't really understand it myself," Mendoza said.

Since her arrest in May on charges of first-degree murder, Mendoza has not denied that she is the infant's mother or that she allowed the baby to die. She implicated ex-boyfriend Nicholas Olalde, saying he was unhappy that Mendoza was pregnant with another man's child, and he forced her to have the baby along the roadside, then throw it out of the car on a cold and rainy April evening two years ago.

Whiteside County State's Attorney Gary Spencer said that although it is a tragedy when anyone is in an abusive relationship, there was evidence that Mendoza was out of her relationship with Olalde at the time of the infant's birth and death, and that she could have sought help from her close-knit family.

Although Mendoza, her aunt and a psychologist testified about the abuse she suffered for years at the hand of Olalde, there was nothing that indicated she was so battered that she could be coerced to take a life, Dunagan said.

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"Her life was never threatened. She was never seriously injured," Dunagan said.

He also questioned the infant's date of birth because Mendoza first told police the baby had been born April 6 or April 7, 1999, then later changed the date to April 9, possibly after seeing Olalde's work schedule and noting that he had taken a vacation day on April 9.

The infant's exact time and cause of death were not determined in the autopsy. The forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy said it was more likely the infant had been dead for two days or more, much longer than the 12 to 15 hours between the time Mendoza said she gave birth and the Saturday morning when the body was found.

After the sentencing, Mendoza's attorney, James Mertes of Rock Falls, said he needs to take time and analyze the judge's ruling before determining whether to appeal. An appeal must be filed within 30 days of the sentence.

"This is a tragic case all the way around," Mertes said.

With day-for-day "good time" allowed in the sentencing, Mendoza could be out of prison in about seven years. The sentence includes two years of parole after her prison time, court costs and more than $6,327.45 restitution to Whiteside County for the cost of her medical care while she was incarcerated.

The baby she gave birth to while being held in jail, now three months old, is being cared for by Mendoza's mother. A custody hearing is scheduled in May to determine his future care.

No more charges

Whiteside County State's Attorney Gary Spencer said unless new evidence comes to his attention, Nicholas Olalde of Sterling, Ill., will not be charged in the case of Baby April Whiteside, even though Catalina Mendoza implicated him in the death.

Spencer said Olalde already has passed two lie detector tests. There is no evidence that Olalde was with Mendoza the night her baby daughter was born and left to die along the banks of the Hennepin Feeder Canal in rural Rock Falls.

The only evidence against him is Mendoza's fourth or fifth version of what happened that night, Spencer said, adding that he didn't find her to be believable. Mendoza said Olalde was with her the night of April 9, 1999. They met in secret and he took her to dinner in Dixon, Ill., then drove her to a remote location and initiated sex. They stopped at Mendoza's request.

On that, Mendoza and Olalde agree. However, Olalde said he did not know Mendoza was in labor, did not drive her to a remote area of Riverdale Road and encourage her to have the baby there and throw it on the banks of the canal. He wasn't even sure which day of that week he was with her.

At her sentencing hearing Monday, Mendoza, her aunt and her psychologist characterized her on-again, off-again five-year relationship with Olalde as a cycle of abuse.

Olalde admitted on the witness stand that he had slapped Mendoza one time and had pleaded guilty to one count of domestic assault.

"Is that a pattern? I don't know," Spencer said after Mendoza was sentenced.

Paternity testing ruled Olalde out as the infant's father, and the baby's father has not been determined.

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