29 years of delayed justice

Brian Erskine

Assistant Criminal ­District Attorney in Hays County

Prosecutors in Hays County tried an aggravated kidnapping case from 1986 and secured justice for two young girls (now adults) and accountability for the lifelong criminal who terrorized them.

On December 20, 1986, Reynaldo Zamora abducted two young girls, Deana and Samantha, aged 8 and 9 years old respectively.1 He enticed them into his white Corvette after claiming to be the uncle of a neighborhood child they knew and asking directions to that child’s house. The girls shared the passenger seat, Samantha nearest Zamora. They gave him directions around the neighborhood, passing by their own homes on the way. This small 10-home community in Buda adjoined the eastern access road of Interstate Highway 35 just south of Austin. The streets were unpaved and lacked signs or lights. Their homes were surrounded by flats of dirt and brush, though today it’s sprawling suburbia. (Even now, Samantha lives in this neighborhood, haunted by a past left unresolved for nearly three decades.)
    Zamora promised to drop the girls back off, but not before he could get gas, offering to buy the girls treats for their trouble. He stopped first at a nearby convenience store, but he told the girls his credit card was declined. Zamora then travelled to the nearby city of Kyle, where he stopped at a Conoco, the only other gas station nearby. Samantha recalled this location in detail, commenting that she had frequented this place because of its vicinity to her aunt’s home and the Dairy Queen.
        At the gas station, Zamora bought Deana a hamburger and a Sprite. Samantha also recalled that Zamora had purchased her a wine cooler, which she refused. Both also recalled Zamora stopping across the street for matches before lighting up a marijuana cigarette. As they all headed back down IH-35 toward home, the girls became increasingly nervous as Zamora passed their exit. Both girls asked Zamora to take them home. They begged him to exit and turn around, but he kept on going. Zamora traveled nearly five miles before eventually turning around.
    His white Corvette finally came to a stop in the girls’ neighborhood near Deana’s home. Deana got out first. Samantha edged herself toward the passenger door, but as she leaned outside, Zamora grabbed her hair, pulled her back into the car, and sped off. Deana hysterically ran to Samantha’s home to alert Samantha’s mother, Doris, of her daughter’s abduction. Doris then took Deana in her car to look for Samantha. Unable to find her daughter or the white Corvette, Doris returned home and called police. (Deana later told the jury that the way Doris was acting and driving scared her to death, though now as a mother of three, she understood Doris’ fears. Deana admitted she likely would have been even more frantic if she had been Doris.)
    Zamora drove Samantha around to the IH-35 frontage road and parked at an old rest stop with a short brick wall separating it from the roadway. A small clump of trees and brush slightly obscured Samantha’s view of her own home in the distance. She pleaded with Zamora to let her go, but he threatened to break her arm if she touched the door handle. Zamora groped at Samantha over her clothes, grabbing her breast and cupping one hand over her vagina, moving his hands back and forth. Samantha could not recall how much time passed for what otherwise felt like an eternity. Zamora then drove up the street to the intersection of the frontage road and her neighborhood’s mailboxes. He let Samantha out of his vehicle with a warning: “If you tell, I will find you and I will leave your body in a ditch with burn marks and bites, lying there naked for all your friends to see.”
    Samantha ran home and waited for her mother. Through the tears, she told her Mom and the police about the sports car, the gas station, the rest stop, and what Zamora looked like. Deana gave the police a similar version of events with the exception of the molestation. The police went to the gas stations the girls had described, but they initially came up empty-handed. It was Doris who went to the Conoco in Kyle and demanded to see the store receipts. In these receipts Doris recognized a name she knew: Rey Zamora.2 He had done septic work for her and her husband, and she also knew he drove a Corvette that matched the description her daughter had given police. Doris shared this information with Hays County Sheriff’s Deputy Paul Cossette.
    To locate Zamora, Deputy Cossette called directory assistance,3 which gave a phone number and address for “Rey Zamora.” Deputy Cossette contacted Zamora pretending he needed septic work done. Zamora answered the landline number and told Deputy Cossette he could not do the work as he was already on his way to Colorado. While Deputy Cossette was speaking to Zamora on the phone, Deputy Mike Dees was outside Zamora’s home, standing by the white Corvette parked outside. Zamora had active unrelated warrants, so deputies entered the home believing Zamora was an imminent flight risk. As Deputy Cossette arrived at the house, Zamora had still not been located inside. Eventually officers found a locked bathroom door, and inside they found Zamora hiding behind the shower curtain fully clothed. He was booked into the Hays County Jail, where he was fingerprinted and photographed.4
    While Deputy Dees was compiling a photo lineup, Deputy Cossette drove the girls around the surrounding areas to see if they could identify the perpetrator’s vehicle. At this point neither Deana nor Samantha was aware that Zamora was in custody or had been identified by Doris. The girls observed several sports cars, but as Deputy Cossette drove past Zamora’s home, both girls immediately identified the car, noting that it still had mud on it from driving in their neighborhood.
    Deputy Dees showed both girls (individually) a series of photographs, and both identified Zamora as the perpetrator. Doris and her husband both identified Zamora in the photo lineup as well. Police recorded audio statements from the girls and took hair and fingerprint samples from them, which were submitted to the DPS lab for comparison to evidence located in Zamora’s car, but there was no match. DPS retained this report and it was available at trial, but almost everything else—the hair samples, fingerprints, Corvette, photo lineup, gasoline, beer, marijuana, Sprite can, the original Conoco ticket, and Zamora’s photos and fingerprints—were lost over time.5

The defendant’s ­disappearing acts
In May 1987, while out on bond, Zamora followed his neighbor home from a local bar in Austin and waited until 5 o’clock in the morning to break into her house through a window in the kitchen. Zamora made his way into one of the adjacent bedrooms and attempted to sexually assault a young guest of the homeowner who awoke screaming for help. The homeowner called police, identified Zamora as the perpetrator, and made a report. Zamora fled and was not immediately arrested. He was indicted on August 22, 1987, for this new case and failed to appear for the case involving Samantha and Deana on August 31, 1987.
    These cases were first placed on my desk in late November 2013 after Zamora had spent the better part of 27 years on the run. I received only the contents of district clerk’s files.6 In September and November of 2014, Zamora challenged at multiple pretrial hearings the State’s ability to prosecute him. He filed a Motion for Dismissal for Lack of Speedy Trial (hereinafter referred to as MDLST7). With the length of delay triggering the Barker v. Wingo balancing test,8 we knew the burden to explain the reason for delay, the failure of Zamora to assert his rights, and the lack of prejudice would be extraordinarily high.
    Following Zamora’s criminal history through the rabbit hole of aliases, dates of birth, changes in appearance, relocating to different states, committing new crimes and systematically bonding out and failing to appear showed us that Zamora was well-practiced in eluding apprehension. Prior to 1986, Zamora had two separate convictions for rape9 and aggravated kidnapping with intent to commit sexual assault of a child.10 After failing to appear for the trial involving Samantha and Deana in 1987, he remained on the run until he was picked up in Maverick County in 1992 for transporting marijuana across the border under an assumed name and date of birth.11 Since then, he had many run-ins with law enforcement:
•    an arrest in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2000 for criminal possession of a forged instrument and theft (he bonded out and failed to appear);
•    an arrest in Austin in 2001 for masturbating in his car while parked at a playground (again, he bonded out and failed to appear);
•    a conviction for marijuana possession in May 2002 in Maverick County and a 12-year sentence in TDCJ; it looks like he was released in 2005. It’s hard to tell, but we think he was bench-warranted from TDCJ to Kentucky and back again (there are no judgments for the Kentucky offenses, so we can’t know exactly);
•    an arrest in October 2007 for evading arrest and failing to register as a sex offender, which led to another prison stint (he was paroled in 2008);
•    an arrest in Kyle in October 2013 for being drunk on the side of the interstate. It was this final arrest that landed his file on my desk and ensured that he would be held accountable for kidnapping Samantha and Deana so many years ago.
    I understand the sentiment of many regarding the State’s negligence in failing to capture Zamora for more than 27 years, including time when he was in TDCJ. Really, the hardest thing was pleading and begging all the related agencies to look for documents related to this defendant. In many instances, the documents were so old that they had either been destroyed or placed in warehouses that no one wanted to visit. In one case we asked for two months before we could convince anyone to actually go to the warehouse to look for documents. We are assuming that in many cases, the documents were so old that the agencies presumed them lost or destroyed and never even bothered to look for them, leaving us hanging in the wind. What we ultimately did piece together was Zamora’s cat-and-mouse game of committing crimes and then disappearing, presumably to pop back up somewhere under an alias until an agency was wise enough to trace him back to his other crimes. This game worked well for Zamora for over 30 years. Zamora never turned himself in to law enforcement, and he never requested a speedy trial. He just kept moving.

The MDLST hearing
Defense counsel filed the MDLST. For us, Zamora’s identity was confirmed with his 1986 fingerprint card and his 2013 re-arrest. However, for Zamora, identity was always in question. The defense’s tactic from the onset was that the perpetrator must have been Zamora’s brother Enrique Mata-Jiminez, and Zamora insisted that the 1986 fingerprints could not possibly be his as he was out of the state at the time. (Only during the trial did the defense abandon the issue of identity and instead attack witness credibility and loss of evidence.)
    For the entirety of the MDLST hearing Zamora was adamant that it was not he who was arrested in 1986; it must have been his brother using his name. He insisted that his brother owned the white Corvette and that Zamora owned 36 acres of land in Colorado, which is where he would’ve been in 1986. Zamora furthered another of his alibis to include farming in Kentucky with Colonel Sanders.12 He also brought up a 1987 car wreck that left him with partial memory loss.13 But his fingerprints were his undoing: The facsimile former Hays County Criminal District Attorney (and a longtime assistant before that) Mike Wenk sent to Maverick County in 1992 tied the elusive defendant in the 2015 courtroom to the kidnapper from 1986. DPS fingerprint expert Meghan Blackburn testified that the contributing individual to the faxed fingerprints from the December 20, 1986, Hays County arrest for aggravated kidnapping belonged to the defendant in the courtroom.14
    Zamora testified at this hearing, and I had the opportunity to cross-examine him for hours about his criminal history, convictions, aliases, photographs, fingerprints, signatures, and whereabouts. Zamora was presented with an assortment of 48 exhibits selected from thousands of pages of certified records with various aliases and dates of birth, photographs, written letters, and other documents spanning his tenure in custody in Guadalupe County, Hays County, Maverick County, Travis County, TDCJ, DPS, and Franklin County, Kentucky.
    We acknowledged to the judge that the State’s negligence in failing to bring Zamora to trial weighed heavily against us. However, Zamora never insisted on or requested a trial take place—not once. Further, he failed to substantiate prejudice, if any, that he endured as a result of this delay. In fact, what further discredited Zamora in his prejudice argument was that the evidence clearly showed Zamora was the same person arrested in 1986, even though he was insistent that we had the wrong guy and that his alibi witnesses, who would have stated Zamora was out of state at the time, were deceased.
    Judge Bruce Boyer denied Zamora’s motion in early November 2014, and the case was reset for trial in early 2015. (If the ruling had been adverse to the State, we may have appealed, so the judge set the agg kidnapping and sexual assault case separately from the MDLST hearing. Plus, the hearing went abnormally long.)

Preparing for the agg ­kidnapping trial
Knowing that the MDLST was the primary hurdle of this case, we also knew that securing documents from Zamora’s past was of utmost importance. We obtained thousands of pages of documents from the various agencies that Zamora had come into contact with in the past 40 years. Forty-eight exhibits chronicled his aliases, dates of birth, signatures, photographs, arrests, incarcerations, letters, convictions and parole documents that shed light into the elusive history of Zamora.
    In 2014, Samantha’s mother, Doris, was deposed to preserve her testimony. Having had a stroke four years prior and struggling with spinal ataxia (a genetic disorder characterized by progressive degeneration of movement and speech), Doris had an extraordinarily difficult time communicating, and we had difficulty understanding her. Still, she recalled the details of Deana telling her that Samantha had been taken. Doris also testified that she retrieved a receipt affixed with the name Ray Zamora from the Conoco station on the day of the kidnapping. She identified Zamora in the photo lineup that Deputy Dees created and further stated that she knew Zamora from business dealings with her now-deceased husband and knew that he drove a Corvette.
    Deputy Dees was also deposed to preserve his testimony because of his progressive multiple sclerosis. (Dees was confined to a wheelchair and rarely left his home.) The deputy testified that he executed the arrest warrant for Zamora, put together a photo lineup, and presented the lineup to Samantha, her parents, and Deana.
    We had tried to find Deana but were unsuccessful until a week before the trial. (For more on our attempts to track down the witnesses and victims in this case, see “They were just kids back then,” also in this issue.) It turns out that she was alive and well but had moved to Fort Worth as a child and only in recent months had returned to the Austin area. Deana, now 36 years old and mother to three children, shared her recollections of the events that were to this day still fresh in her mind.

The agg kidnapping trial
Mr. Wenk, former Hays County Criminal District Attorney, testified at trial regarding the criminal justice process from investigation to jury trial, including the steps he took to subpoena witnesses and business records and to prepare Deana and Samantha for trial. Based on his more than 30-year tenure in Hays County as both prosecutor and defense attorney, Mr. Wenk told the jury that there are some people who are able to stay on the run for a long time. He went on to explain that in a perfect world he would have prosecuted Zamora in 1987, but Zamora’s failure to appear and his continued absence made that impossible. Mr. Wenk further testified that ideally, all outstanding warrants would be honored and communication among agencies would be flawless; however, this is not always the case, especially when offenders use aliases and flee custody. Mr. Wenk identified several of the documents from 1987 in the district clerk’s file and helped the jury understand what processes were undertaken and why.
    Deputy Dees’ and Doris’ redacted video depositions were played for the jury, outlining among other things the photo lineup procedures, the Zamora investigation, and Doris’ struggle to find her daughter. Deputy Cossette also testified regarding his encounters with Deana and Samantha, the gas receipts puzzle pieces, officers finding Zamora hiding in the shower, and the girls’ identification of the white Corvette. Because of his extensive interactions with Zamora, Cossette was also able to identify him in the courtroom, noting significant aging but very distinct features.
    Now at 38 years of age, married, and a mother of one, Samantha provided the most compelling testimony. I remember meeting with her in my office in early 2014 with our Victim Assistance Coordinator, Monika Lacey. I don’t normally talk about the abuse scenario with victims during our first meeting, but without prompting, Samantha relayed to us her intense memories of the abduction and molestation. She was sitting in front of us as that same scared 9-year-old, using language and descriptors of a child that age. At the time, I didn’t even know most of the dastardly deeds Zamora had committed in his life, but I was altogether convinced of what he had done to Samantha.
    Of particular note, Samantha described how scared she was because of Zamora’s threat to hurt her family if she told anyone about the assault. It turns out that her fear was well-founded: In December 1987, just a few months after Zamora skipped town (and the trial), her family’s trailer burned down, and a sibling died in the fire. The family wholly attributes it to Zamora, who was on the run and presumably wanting to make good on his threats.
    The jury deliberated for about an hour before rendering the guilty verdict. In a brief punishment hearing, District Judge Bruce Boyer heard evidence that Zamora had been previously convicted of aggravated kidnapping to commit sexual assault of a child, rape, indecent exposure, and drug offenses. Meghan Blackburn of DPS testified that the fingerprints on each and every arrest and conviction documents previously mentioned matched the fingerprints of the defendant sitting in the very same courtroom.15
    Judge Boyer then sentenced Zamora, now presumably 60 years old, to 60 years in prison. We had asked for life.16
Conclusion
The elephant in the room remains that we brought a nearly 30-year-old case back from the dead. We attempted to exhaust every avenue imaginable and give the trial court everything we could muster for its determination at the MDLST hearing. There were many who said, “The case is too old—just let it go,” but we are glad to have seen it through to the end.
    We realize the appellate hurdle is still ahead, but knowing we did everything in our power we are now comfortable placing the onus back on Zamora to show the appellate courts why he shouldn’t be held responsible. We are thankful for the people who helped us complete this task, including TDCAA, the State Law Library, my trial partner and First Assistant Ralph Guerrero, and investigator Sergeant John Paul Garza, who convinced, without compromise, many agencies to dig into the back of the old record warehouses and brush the cobwebs off of some much-needed evidence.

Endnotes

1 Pseudonyms are used to protect the victims’ identities, and in this particular case, they memorialize Samantha Dean, deceased Kyle Police Department Crime Victim Liaison.
2 The Conoco records with a business record affidavit, along with Zamora’s credit card records matching the store receipts, were filed with the district clerk in 1987 and were the only remaining physical evidence available at trial (other than a DPS lab report).
3 Google for old people.
4 The fingerprint card shows a DOB of March 25, 1954 (3/25/54). At his MDLST hearing, Zamora denied being born on this date. He also failed to recognize the affixed signature or the alias of “Ray.”
5 The parties submitted a stipulation into evidence that a diligent search by the Hays County Sheriff’s Office resulted in the inability to locate this physical evidence.
6 The 1986 case consisted of the indictment, a court docket sheet, a cash bond, a waiver of arraignment, a continuance by the defense, a State’s subpoena list, an announcement of ready by the State, a business records affidavit (consisting of Zamora’s bank records from 1986 and a tally sheet from a Conoco gas station dated December 20–21, 1986), and a capias issued on August 31, 1987.
7 Abbreviated solely because of its ironic resemblance to “MOLEST.”
8 Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514, 530 (1972).
9 He was convicted of rape in Guadalupe County in 1972 and sentenced to five years’ probation. DPS provided 10-point prints that delineate the following identifiers: Raynaldo “Ray” Y. Zamora, DOB 3/28/54, signed Ray Y. Zamora. Zamora claimed during the MDLST hearing that he did not recognize his name and insisted, “My name is R-E-Y.” He further disavowed the signature.
10 He was convicted of the aggravated kidnapping charge in Guadalupe County in 1979, sentenced to seven years in TDCJ, and was awarded shock probation. Zamora was shown the judgment for Raymond Zamora and his TDCJ photograph, and he disavowed the name, but he admitted the photo “looks like me,” further insisting, “My name is not Raymond.” He was successfully discharged from this probation in February 1987. Guadalupe County was unaware of his newest arrest for the kidnapping and sexual assault of a child in Hays County.
11 When officers arrested Zamora, he gave the name Enrique Mata-Jiminez (his brother’s name) with a DOB of December 21, 1958. He possessed several pounds of marijuana; a Texas driver’s license with the name Reynaldo Ybarra Zamora (DOB 3/28/54) signed Ray Y. Zamora; an international driver’s license with the name Reynaldo Ibarra Zamora (DOB 3/28/54) signed Ray I. Zamora; and a United States Birth Certificate card with the name Reynaldo Ybarra Zamora (DOB 3/28/54). Additional information contained in Zamora’s TDCJ records show that he had a United States immigration detainer for illegal entry in connection with the use of his brother’s name. Zamora testified that his brother was born in Mexico to a different mother and that it was his brother, Enrique, who owned the white Corvette.
12 We did our best to locate “Colonel Sanders” by issuing a subpoena for him near any farms in Kentucky. We had our own questions for the Colonel regarding the 11 secret herbs and spices.
13 Likely the same crash that caused him to forget about his court date.
14 The original 1986 fingerprint booking prints could not be located.
15 Footnotes infra 4, 9, 10, and 11 among many others admitted but not referenced.
16 The punishment range for aggravated kidnapping is five to 99 years or life in prison.