Maj. Todd Morris treated the case like all the others he's investigated during his 28 years with the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office, pursuing every possible lead and sticking to his personal belief that "you make your own breaks."
And he refused to stop following up — even after seven years had passed since Sylviane Finck Lozada disappeared under suspicious circumstances and international politics had brought the investigation almost to a standstill. That perseverance helped achieve a remarkable outcome as Oscar Lozada was arrested this month and accused of killing his wife in 2011 following years of documented domestic abuse, then fleeing from Baton Rouge to Venezuela with their young daughter.
More than seven years after a Brusly High School teacher disappeared, her husband has been arrested in her death and her daughter, now 12 year…
Morris doesn't want too much credit for his contributions. But his investment in the case was clear when he paused during a recent news conference, overcome with emotion while sharing the news that Lozada's daughter was found safe and returned to Baton Rouge.
While unable to divulge certain details of the investigation, Morris can provide some added insight into the search, which spanned the globe and tested the limits of international police work.
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Morris spent the past several years tracking Lozada, often through phone conversations with the suspect discussing his missing wife. Authorities were unable to arrest Lozada while he remained in Venezuela — a country that doesn't cooperate with U.S. law enforcement investigations. But Morris recently learned the man had moved to Mexico, where authorities would assist in his arrest.
It's not clear why Lozada left Venezuela, but experts pointed to a humanitarian crisis plaguing the country as residents find themselves lacking food and medical care amid rising crime rates and political unrest.
Lozada was booked into jail in Texas after his arrest Sept. 13 because that was the U.S. point of entry closest to where he was living. The extradition process is underway, and East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III said he plans to bring the case before a grand jury sometime in coming months. He said the case could move faster than usual because it's already been seven years in the making.
After investigators had gathered significant evidence from the home Lozada shared with his wife, Morris reached out via email to the man he suspected was responsible for her death. To Morris' surprise, Lozada responded.
The two developed a tenuous correspondence, each hoping the other wouldn't see past their façade.
Morris said sometimes Lozada would call him asking if investigators had any new information on his wife's disappearance.
Sylviane Lozada was reported missing in July 2011 and Oscar Lozada left the country with Angelina not long after his wife was last seen. Only days before boarding a plane, Oscar Lozada had purchased buckets and concrete mix, according to his arrest warrant. Authorities never found those materials nor his wife's body despite extensive search efforts. But they did discover her blood inside the couple's garage.
Sylviane Lozada was a French and Spanish teacher at Brusly High School for more than a decade, in the United States on a work visa from her home country of Belgium. She moved to Baton Rouge to earn her doctorate at LSU before becoming a teacher.
Morris said deputies discovered early in their investigation that Oscar Lozada had told conflicting stories to people around him as he attempted to explain his sudden trip to Venezuela and his wife's disappearance. Among the stories: that Sylviane left him for an old lover, that he booked a spontaneous vacation and that he needed extensive medical treatment.
In the months and years after Oscar Lozada's move to Venezuela, Morris would call him and initiate "generic conversations" to track his whereabouts and glean whatever information he could about his daughter Angelina. The goal was "to keep the dialogue going" as long as possible.
Morris said his interactions with Lozada were no different than his experiences building trust with other people suspected of heinous crimes — just part of his job as a detective. But the stakes were especially high in this case, because going after Lozada could have meant putting Angelina's safety at risk.
On two separate occasions — the first in 2012, the year after he left for Venezuela — Lozada agreed to come back to East Baton Rouge with his daughter and answer questions from authorities. Both times, Morris had plane tickets purchased for them, but Lozada and Angelina never boarded the flights.
Their communications ended when Lozada stopped responding in 2016. But Morris was somehow able to continue monitoring the man's location and found out when he moved from Venezuela to Mexico.
First Lozada went to Mexico alone, leaving his daughter in Venezuela. Authorities didn't start planning to arrest Lozada until Angelina later joined him in Mexico because that would allow them to take custody of her following his arrest. She is now with a foster family in Baton Rouge and has been reunited with some of her mother's relatives from Belgium.
Morris said telling Sylviane's family that Lozada had been arrested after years of waiting — and extensive coordination efforts among authorities in Baton Rouge, Belgium and Mexico — brought him "a lot of joy to be able to answer their questions and see the smiles on their faces now that there's some sense of closure."
Sylviane's sister and brother flew to Baton Rouge from Belgium not long after Lozada's arrest to spend time with Angelina and to meet with authorities including Morris.
"I would like to thank Todd because he works a lot, very hard, and we have the good emotions today because he did a good job," Sylviane's sister Ghislaine Finck said in an interview with The Advocate earlier this month. She spoke in English though her first language is French. "During seven years, they worked all the time. He continued to contact me and he asked me to have patience. My family and I thank him very much."
For seven years, Ghislaine Finck waited in Belgium with no word about what happened to her older sister. During that time, Finck did, however,…
Little has been revealed about Lozada's life with Angelina in Venezuela. But officials have said it appears Lozada was living close to other relatives there before he moved to Mexico in search of work.
Morris said Lozada was a maintenance worker at a plant in the Baton Rouge area, and the couple owned their home off Bluebonnet Boulevard, according to online property records. But Lozada returned to Venezuela with Angelina at a time when political turmoil and depressed economic conditions were steadily coming to define everyday life for the country's citizens.
Relations between the United States and Venezuela plunged in 2002 when President Hugo Chavez accused American leaders of backing a failed coup attempt against him. That set the stage for escalating tensions during the early 2000s that remain strong today, according to Tim Gill, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington whose research has focused on Venezuelan politics and U.S. relations.
The next watershed moment for the two countries came when Venezuela kicked out the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 2005, followed by U.S. ambassadors several years later, Gill said. The Venezuelan regime continued embracing more socialist policies and began strengthening relations with countries that historically have not aligned themselves with U.S. interests.
Miguel Tinker Salas, a Venezuelan historian and professor at Pomona College in California, said Venezuela is not the only country that doesn't have an extradition treaty with the United States. Others include China, Russia and some countries in the Middle East. He said Venezuela has extradited drug traffickers in the past, but that hasn't happened in several years.
Gill also said considering the Lozada case in light of Venezuelan politics and economic conditions could provide some insight into how the investigation unfolded.
He said Lozada moved to Venezuela at a time when tensions with the United States made Venezuela "an easy place to hide out" and avoid U.S. authorities. But as the country's economic status plummeted in subsequent years — primarily due to falling oil prices — living conditions became almost unbearable for some residents facing severe food shortages, lack of medical care and soaring crime rates.
Gill said it's very possible that Lozada was one of many who have fled Venezuela in recent years to escape what experts have described as a humanitarian crisis.
"Life is very bleak there right now, and Venezuelans are pretty much going wherever they can," he said. "It's becoming a serious issue for other countries in the region that can't really absorb all these refugees."
Morris said that once he discovered both Lozada and Angelina had relocated to Mexico, he contacted DEA agents there to collaborate and come up with a plan. But it was Mexican immigration authorities who ultimately carried out the arrest, suggesting that Lozada's immigration status had come into question.
Lozada had a history of violence against his wife. On three different incidents in the years before her disappearance, deputies were called to the hospital or to the couple's house for domestic abuse complaints.
Morris said Lozada was never arrested in any of those instances because Sylviane said she didn't want to press charges, indicating to deputies that "would only make matters worse for her."
That decision not to pursue an arrest without the cooperation of the victim is something that local authorities now often avoid because new research has emphasized the importance of protecting victims of domestic abuse. Law enforcement officials have shifted toward using other evidence or finding other possible charges to prosecute abusers even if their victims choose not to cooperate.
District Attorney Moore said there's a reason authorities have changed their approach, and that's to avoid cases like this in which domestic violence goes unchecked until it reaches a tragic outcome.
"What happens if you honor the victim's request and then she's abused again or killed? Have you done your job or not?" Moore said. "We try to respect the wishes of victims, but more times than not now we err on the side of filing charges. … Either way, these are very difficult cases."