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WOODLAND, Calif. — A California father has been arrested in the decades-old killings of five of his infant children — one found wrapped in a Winnie the Pooh blanket — in a case the sheriff said Monday has haunted his agency for years.

Paul Perez, 57, a convicted sex offender with a 20-year criminal history, was arrested at a state prison in Delano, days before he was expected to be released on unrelated charges. He is suspected in the deaths of the children born between 1992 and 2001.

Yolo County Sheriff Tom Lopez said the case reflects an “unspeakable evil.’’

“I cannot think of a case more disturbing than this one,’’ he said. “There can be no victim more vulnerable and innocent than an infant and unfortunately this case involves five of them.’’

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Authorities started investigating after the decomposed remains of the child recently identified as 3-month-old Nikko Lee Perez were found in 2007.

The child was wrapped in the Winnie the Pooh blanket and a layer of plastic and placed inside a metal cooler. It had been weighed down with metal objects before being submerged in an irrigation slough near Woodland, about 80 miles northeast of San Francisco.

An autopsy determined he died of blunt force trauma. He had a fractured skull and before death had sustained rib and other fractures that had started to heal by the time he was killed.

The remains were identified in October after authorities used an expanded DNA database for the first time in the case, though it had been used widely in other cases.

Perez was charged with five counts of premeditated murder with special circumstances of lying in wait, torture, and multiple victims. He also faces charges of assault on a child under 8 and criminal enhancements for his prior convictions.

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District Attorney Jeff Reisig said Perez is eligible for the death penalty but he has not yet decided whether to pursue it. Perez is scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday.

“The investigation in this case uncovered a deeply disturbing and chilling case of infanticide,’’ Reisig said. The remains of three of the children have not been found.

Perez was initially sentenced to two years in prison in 1990 for assault with intent to a commit sex offense, state corrections officials said. He also has served years in prison for vehicle theft, possessing a deadly weapon as an inmate, and fleeing while on parole.

He was charged with the murder counts last week, just days before he was due to be released Monday.

Officials declined to say whether Perez has other children or family members, or whether all the babies in the case have the same mother.

They asked for witnesses who know Perez or the children to come forward.

Nikko’s body was found on March 29, 2007, in an irrigation canal popular with anglers looking for carp or catfish. Fisherman Brian Roller told reporters at the time that he shot an arrow into the murky water and it struck a box buried under the mud. When he hauled it out of the water and opened it, he found stones and pieces of metal used to weigh it down, along with the baby’s badly decomposed body.

Authorities said a decomposed diaper was also in the box, indicating the infant, who was born in 1996, had been cared for at some point.

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Investigators treated the case as a homicide and submitted the baby’s DNA to the US Department of Justice in hopes of obtaining an identity. But it wasn’t until October that they found the match.