Cervantes family, investigators search for answers in school fire death

(WISH Photo, file)
(WISH Photo, file)

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WLFI) – Emmanuel “Manny” Cervantes, 35, of West Lafayette, has been identified as the victim of a fire that burned an Illinois school building almost a month ago. His body was discovered two weeks later. It was only officially identified Tuesday.

“He always he had a passion for bike,” said his sister Cynthia Vinasco.

It was a passion of Manny Cervantes that began as a child, rediscovered as an adult. For two years he had been working on a documentary of cycling communities in various cities around the country, for a movie called “Bikelantis.”

“He gave up a 9-to-5 job to pursue this passion. That was, for me, was like, ‘Wow, how can you do this?’ But that’s so admirable,” said Vinasco.

He was in Illinois to help support his passion. He left Vinasco’s home in Georgia for a job at a music festival in Chillicothe, Ill.

“I hugged him, thinking we’ll see him soon. But we didn’t see him again,” she said.

About 10 days later, the Old School Center in Farmington, Ill. caught fire in the early morning hours of May 15. Two weeks later, the owner of the building smelled a bad odor. Authorities found Manny’s body on the third floor.

Vinasco says her family wasn’t worried that they hadn’t heard from him because he had told them he expected cellular and internet service to be spotty. Plus, they were in Florida celebrating their mother’s birthday.

She said the last person she knows who talked to Manny, he had told him he had decided to quit working and go back home to make it in time for the birthday.

“Nothing of this story that we’ve been getting so far makes sense at all, especially knowing Manny. Manny was a very considerate person. He would have called us,” said Vinasco.

Preliminary autopsy results show Cervantes died of smoke inhalation. There was no evidence of gunshot or stab wounds or even any broken bones.

“Mr. Cervantes did die of smoke inhalation. He was alive at the time the fire started,” said Fulton County, Ill. Coroner Steven Hines.

Farmington is a 45-minute drive from Chillicothe and Cervantes didn’t have a car. Plus, it’s in the wrong direction from West Lafayette.

“Home is not west. It’s east,” said Vinasco.

Even before the official identification of the body, friends held a ride in memory of Manny in downtown Lafayette on June 7. They also created a website entitled Live Like Manny.

Plans are to finish “Bikelantis” to make sure his memory lives on.

“I just think that his story needs to be told,” said Vinasco.

Cervantes graduated from North Montgomery High School in 1996 where he was a running back for a pair of state championships in football. He went on to Indiana University where he graduated with a degree in Cinematography.

If you have any information about the case, please call the Fulton County Crime Stoppers at 309-547-3939 or the Illinois Fire Marshall’s Hotline at 800-252-2947.

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