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Mystery surrounds death of cook found in Petaluma recycling bin

Luis Gomez-Diaz with his nephew, Cesar Gomez.

Family photo courtesy of Priscilla Ponce
Published: Tuesday, January 15, 2013 at 7:56 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 16, 2013 at 7:10 a.m.

A police officer may have been the last person to see a Sonoma County cook alive before his crushed body was found at a Petaluma waste disposal center.

Luis Gomez-Diaz, 30, was walking along railroad tracks in east Petaluma at about 10:45 p.m. Thursday when he spoke with an officer and said he was homeless but needed no help, Petaluma police officials said.

About 15 hours later, employees at Novato Disposal on Petaluma Boulevard South found Gomez-Diaz's body as they sifted through a pile of refuse in a recycling bay, sheriff's officials said.

Investigators suspect Gomez-Diaz had climbed into a recycling bin to escape the cold and either succumbed to the elements or was trapped when a truck picked up the load.

Accounts of his last moments devastated Gomez-Diaz's family, who said he was not homeless and had been living with them in Santa Rosa, said his sister-in-law Priscilla Ponce, 23. Ponce said she didn't know why he left home Thursday.

"What happened? Did he have a problem?" Ponce said. "If he felt sad, he wouldn't tell us, he wouldn't want us to worry about him."

But Ponce said she had an inkling that he was troubled by losing his job about a month ago. He last worked at at Fireside Grill in Healdsburg, but only for a month, according to Ponce.

Ponce and her husband had tried to reassure him that he could count on his family. Gomez-Diaz had recently moved back to Sonoma County from Eureka, where he and his mother, Eustolia Diaz, lived and worked for about a year.

Gomez-Diaz was from Oaxaca, Mexico, and had lived in Sonoma County for about 15 years, Ponce said. He worked in restaurants in Novato, Petaluma and Santa Rosa.

When his mother decided to move back to Oaxaca, Gomez-Diaz moved in with his siblings in Santa Rosa. He was last seen by family at about 5 p.m. Thursday at his sister's home, Ponce said.

"He walked in the house, put on his shoes and walked out," Ponce said. "He didn't say anything. He just walked out and never came back."

Sheriff's officials said Gomez-Diaz knew people in Petaluma, and his family said he had friends throughout the county.

"He had a lot of friends from the restaurants, from work," Ponce said. "Everybody that knows him is wondering what's going on. How did he end up like that?"

Gomez-Diaz was alone Thursday night when the police officer saw him walking along the tracks at North McDowell Boulevard south of Corona Avenue. He told the officer he had not been drinking or used any drugs, Petaluma police Lt. Tim Lyons said.

"He was cooperative and didn't appear to be in distress," Lyons said. "He said he recently stayed with a sister in Santa Rosa and recently came to Petaluma."

The officer left, convinced that Gomez-Diaz was not experiencing trouble or causing any, Lyons said.

An autopsy was conducted Monday but investigators are waiting for results of toxicology tests to determine a cause of death, Sonoma County sheriff's Lt. Dennis O'Leary said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220, julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @jjpressdem.

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