Since early 2010, when I arrived in Sacramento, I can count perhaps three high-profile killings that weren’t solved right away.
In November 2015, Jaulon “J.J.” Clavo, a 17-year-old Grant High football player, was shot to death just before a playoff game. It took three months for an arrest, after a gun found in a traffic stop was linked to the shooting. Teenager Keymontae Lindsey is awaiting trial for murder.
In March 2012, 13-year-old Jessica Funk-Haslam was found beaten, stabbed and asphyxiated at Rosemont Community Park. It took 17 months, but detectives matched DNA from the scene with a sample given after a domestic violence arrest. Ryan Douglas Roberts was convicted and sentenced to 26 years to life.
And in September 2010, Victor Hugo Perez Zavala, a college student just days from his 25th birthday, was shot to death right after the Second Saturday art walk in midtown. Police say there was a tussle among gang members when shots were fired into a crowd of more than 200. While the earliest of the three cases, it’s the only one that remains unsolved.
If you were in Sacramento then, you probably remember it. I did when I thought of other cold cases during all the recent publicity over the arrest of the suspected East Area Rapist, aka the Golden State Killer. I wondered what Zavala’s friends were thinking and feeling so I gave them a call. What I heard was discouraging, but all too common in California.
Manuel Favela, who went to Sacramento City College with Zavala, said he’s not optimistic his friend’s case will ever be officially closed. Carlos Molina, another friend who also worked with Zavala in the Brown Issues club, said while an arrest would bring more closure to Zavala’s family, they are in a “place of understanding” that nothing will bring him back.
Molina said about a year and a half after the killing, there was word on the street the killer had been shot and killed himself and maybe that was why there hadn’t been an arrest. Favela said he heard second-hand that the suspected shooter had died in a car crash.
A Sacramento Police Department spokesman said that investigators had no update on the case and no information on the rumors.
With so many people out and about for Second Saturday when Zavala was shot, Molina said he thought someone would have seen something and stepped forward.
Favela said he can’t help but think that if a young white man had been killed, there would have been more public outrage and more of an investigation.
“But he was a young Mexican brother,” he said. “It is what it is. When you grow up in these neighborhoods, you’re disappointed, but you’re used to it.”
An immigrant from Mexico, Zavala graduated from Luther Burbank High School. He worked for the state agency in charge of HMO consumer rights. He volunteered for Brown Issues and La Familia and talked to students about staying away from the gang life.
“It’s depressing and it’s ironic that he was killed by gang violence,” Favela said.
The friends and family of Zavala are far from alone in waiting, and waiting, for justice.
While police and prosecutors hold press conferences to celebrate big breaks in cold cases, the truth is that there are hundreds upon hundreds of homicide investigations in California that are freezing. In 2016, California recorded 1,930 homicides, down from 2,258 in 2007. There were 1,440 arrests, down from 2,017 in 2007.
While the homicide and arrest rates have tracked each other over the past decade, there is that persistent gap between killings and arrests. And these unsolved killings pile up, year after year.
Cases go unsolved when there’s little physical evidence, or there are no reliable witnesses, or none willing to talk. And as the backlog of cold cases increases, detectives have less time to focus on each one.
I’m more convinced than ever that instead of wasting millions of dollars trying to make California’s death penalty constitutional again and start executing people, that money would be much better spent to hire investigators, add lab equipment and protect witnesses.
It would also help if California finally cleared the backlog of unprocessed rape kits sitting in evidence lockers. All the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown managed to do last year is add rape kits to the long list of causes that you can check off on state income tax forms. Through April, 17,918 taxpayers had donated $260,192.
That’s great, but it’s not nearly enough.
Legislators and the governor have another chance this year. Assembly Bill 3118 would require the first statewide inventory of untested kits so we know how bad the backlog really is, while Senate Bill 1449 requires testing of all newly collected rape kits and includes $2 million. Maybe lawmakers could see their way to spend a little bit of the $8.8 billion budget surplus to start fixing this travesty.
Proposition 34, the 2012 ballot initiative to abolish California’s death penalty, included $100 million in grants to local police and district attorneys to boost homicide investigations. But voters rejected it. In 2016, they also defeated another measure to end capital punishment and instead narrowly passed Proposition 66, which is supposed to speed up executions.
If we want to deter crime, increasing the chances of getting caught would make a far bigger difference than threatening execution. And if we truly seek justice for victims, their loved ones and for society, shouldn’t we be solving more homicides rather than killing people who are already in prison?