July-August 2015

A murder case with no body

Gary Cobb

Assistant District ­Attorney in Travis County

Monica Flores

Assistant District ­Attorney in Travis County

Julie Ann Gonzalez disappeared in 2010 and was never seen again. The last person to see her alive was George DeLaCruz, her estranged husband, who was recently convicted of her murder.

George DeLaCruz and Julie Ann Gonzalez met while attending Crocket High School in South Austin. After graduation, the young couple moved into a place of their own. After about a year, they had a daughter, Layla, who was the center of Julie Ann’s attention. The young family relocated a couple of times as they struggled to make ends meet and eventually moved in with George’s mother, Victoria DeLaCruz, and his three younger sisters. After a few years of dating, George and Julie Ann got married in May 2009.
    Though they married, Julie Ann was not happy with George, and she struggled to make the relationship work. She was ambitious and hardworking and wanted financial security. She had received a scholarship to attend St. Edward’s University but dropped out after she became pregnant with Layla. Needing to financially support her family, Julie Ann began to work at a Walgreens in East Austin as a cashier. She enrolled in a pharmacy tech school, eventually earned her pharmacy tech degree, and was promoted to the Walgreens pharmacy.
    Unlike Julie Ann, George was not motivated and seemed satisfied with living at home with his mother and sisters. George did not have steady employment, working on and off as a security guard and construction worker. He spent the majority of his time playing video games on his Xbox and spending money on his gaming addiction. Julie Ann was not happy about George playing Xbox for hours on end while she worked, and she voiced her concerns to him when his gaming interfered with his responsibilities as a father. It became commonplace for Julie Ann to come home from work and find George playing on his Xbox and their infant daughter wearing dirty clothes with a soiled diaper.
    After a few months, Julie Ann realized that she had made a mistake in marrying George. She and Layla moved out of the house and into her grandfather’s place in Dripping Springs. She filed for divorce in December 2009, only seven months after they married.
    Three months later, Julie Ann disappeared and was never seen again.

Rekindling an old flame
When Julie Ann was in high school (before she met George), she worked at her grandfather’s taco stand and convenience store. She was a responsible and hardworking employee—friendly, personable, and well-liked by the customers.
    While working at her grandfather’s store, 17-year-old Julie became friends with a coworker, Aaron Breaux, who was 23. The longer they worked together, the closer they became, and a mutual love interest began to develop. Julie Ann’s mother, Sandra Soto, kept a close eye on them and noticed that her teenage daughter was getting too close with an older man. Sandra confronted Julie Ann and Aaron about the nature of their relationship and made it clear that they could not see each other romantically given the difference in their ages. When it was evident to Sandra that Julie Ann and Aaron continued to pursue a relationship, Sandra met with Aaron and fired him from her father’s store. This ended their relationship, and Julie Ann was upset and heartbroken.
    Several years later, when Julie Ann’s marriage to George had begun to deteriorate, she ran into Aaron at the grocery store. Happy to see each other, Julie Ann and Aaron embraced, chatted for some time, and exchanged contact information. Soon after, they began to email back and forth and arranged to go on a date. It was evident that their feelings for each other had resurfaced and their affection was strong despite the passage of time. Excited about their reconnection, Julie Ann and Aaron began to see each other romantically.
    Julie Ann confided in Aaron that she was not happy in her marriage and was going to file for divorce. As their love grew for each other, Julie Ann and Aaron made plans for their future: moving in together, getting married, and having children. They were likeminded: Aaron, like Julie Ann, was ambitious, hardworking, and responsible, and he had goals for his life, his own apartment, and steady employment as an electrician.
    Knowing that Julie Ann was not legally divorced and that George was not taking their breakup well, Julie Ann expended great effort to keep her relationship with Aaron a secret from her husband. She introduced Aaron to little Layla as her friend and even made it a point to not use Aaron’s name around the little girl so that Layla would not inadvertently mention him to her father. She also marked her MySpace page private so that only her “friends” could view it—once she separated from George, she deleted him as a friend. Unfortunately, she remained “friends” with George’s cousin, Ariel Jaimes, so Ariel (and eventually George too) had access to her posts. In March 2010, just days before her disappearance, Julie Ann posted a photo of her and Aaron at the Austin Zoo. After Julie Ann disappeared, a data extraction of George’s cell phone, made pursuant to a search warrant, revealed that George had stored this photo of Julie Ann and Aaron at the zoo on his cell phone.

Increasingly erratic behavior
As George realized that he was losing Julie Ann, his mental well-being deteriorated. The two did not spend the Thanksgiving holiday together in 2009, and after that, George sought Julie Ann’s attention by claiming to have amnesia from an accident at work. He acted like he did not recognize her or Layla, ignoring and keeping his distance from his daughter on one particular visit even though she was happy to see her dad and was trying to get his attention. George eventually admitted to Julie Ann that he had faked amnesia.
    Another way George sought Julie Ann’s attention was by attempting suicide. In January 2010, two months before Julie Ann disappeared, she picked up Layla from George’s house. George told her that there was a note in Layla’s diaper bag, and George asked her to read at a later time. Julie Ann left the house and stopped her car to read the note, which turned out to be a suicide letter. Concerned for his safety, Julie Ann rushed backed to George’s house; he had taken some pills, and Julie Ann called 911. Medical personnel were able to save him.
    On a number of occasions, George arrived unannounced at Walgreens, where Julie Ann worked; he’d just hang out in the lobby, making it difficult for Julie Ann to concentrate on her job. Her supervisor, Mylinda Burrow, noticed George’s stalking and constant calling and became concerned for Julie Ann’s safety. Mylinda asked George to leave the Walgreens store, and George complied. Julie Ann confided in Mylinda that she was worried  and felt that George was “up to something.” Once, Julie Ann called Mylinda when she was in her car and said that George was following her in his own car. Julie Ann said that if something ever happened to her, “it was him”—meaning George.  
    During child-exchange interactions, George gave Julie Ann a hard time and tried to keep her from leaving his house, sometimes restraining her by the arms or blocking the doorway. He went as far as jumping on Julie Ann’s car as she tried to drive away. His increasingly odd behavior forced Julie Ann to ask family members to accompany her when she was going to drop off or pick up Layla. She also asked the family law court for supervised visits for Layla, as she was concerned for her daughter’s safety. George agreed to have his child visitation schedule coincide with his mother’s work schedule so that his mother would be home whenever Layla was with him.
    Julie Ann filed for divorce in December 2009—three months before her disappearance. George repeatedly refused to sign the divorce papers and waiver of service, telling her that he did not want the divorce. Before Julie Ann was able to hire a process server to serve George with papers, she disappeared. George was the last person to see her alive on March 26, 2010. The next business day, Monday the 29th, George finally signed the divorce paperwork and filed it with the district clerk’s office at the downtown courthouse.

Letting her guard down
On Thursday, March 25, Julie Ann was supposed to pick up Layla from George’s house, but George asked if he could have one more day with his daughter. Julie Ann agreed to get Layla on Friday and seemingly let her guard down: She did not ask a family member to accompany her to get Layla that morning, and George’s mother wouldn’t be there either.
    The night before, Julie Ann spent the night with Aaron at his apartment. They had had dinner and stayed in watching movies. Early the next morning, Aaron woke up Julie Ann when he was heading off to work to tell her that he loved her. She asked him to take the day off and spend it with her since she didn’t have to work that day, but Aaron had to decline—he would not get paid if he skipped work. So he kissed Julie Ann goodbye and told her that he would see her later that evening.
    After Aaron left, Julie Ann handwrote him a long love letter where she told him how much she wished that he was still cuddling with her in bed and that she loved him very much. Julie Ann expressed how happy she was to be in a relationship with him and that he made her feel special and beautiful. She looked forward to getting married and having a son together. Julie Ann left the letter for Aaron on his bed, then she left to pick up Layla at George’s house. Aaron never heard from her again.
Gone missing
Julie Ann was very close to her family and friends. She was in frequent contact with her girlfriends, Amanda and Natasha; her new boyfriend, Aaron; her aunt Dora, and her cousins Michael and Alyssa. After she went to George’s house to get Layla, posts on her MySpace page popped up, stating, “going away hate all this BS want to run away [sic].” This was uncharacteristic for Julie Ann, so family and friends began to call her cell phone to check on her, but she would not answer or return their calls. Instead, Aaron, Michael, and Alyssa received text messages from Julie Ann’s cell phone saying that she was OK and just wanted to be left alone. Aaron was not convinced that it was Julie Ann who was sending those text messages. He challenged the person with Julie Ann’s cell phone to text Aaron his middle name. The response was, “I don’t have time to play games.”
    Throughout Aaron’s workday, he continued to call Julie Ann, but she would not answer his phone calls. Later that day, he read her MySpace posts that she was going to Colorado with a web designer named James and that she hoped James would show her a good time. This new development upset Aaron so he began frantically calling her. Finally Aaron texted Julie Ann and gave her an ultimatum: If she did not call to explain what was going on, their relationship was over. Julie Ann never responded. When Aaron got home from work that evening, he discovered the handwritten love letter. He was confused and did not know what was going on or what to believe.
    The following evening, Julie Ann’s family and Aaron gathered at Aunt Dora’s house and discussed their concerns for her whereabouts and safety. Knowing that Julie Ann was a protective and devoted mother to Layla and that she was not one to become disconnected from her family and friends, Aunt Dora called 911 to make a missing person’s report. An Austin Police Department officer arrived, and the family explained that Julie Ann’s unexpected disappearance caused them great concern. They believed that George might have hurt her: Julie Ann did not trust George with Layla and would never have left her behind with her father. Further, the family said that although Julie Ann’s MySpace posts said that she was OK and that she was going away to Colorado, the family was sure that she had not been the one to post these messages.
    The police officer documented their concerns in a report and then briefed his supervisor. Because there was no sign of imminent danger, the officer told the family that there would be no further action.

Finding Julie Ann’s car
The following morning, Aunt Dora found out her niece hadn’t shown up for work or called to say that she’d be gone. As Dora drove home to South Austin, she passed another Walgreens location and noticed that Julie Ann’s 2006 Gold Impala was parked outside. Thinking Julie Ann might be inside shopping, Dora raced into the store looking for her but found nothing. She called police to report finding the car and also called Sandra and Aaron to meet her in the parking lot.
    When a responding police officer arrived at the scene, Aaron showed him the love letter from Julie Ann and informed the officer that they had a great relationship and that the recent posts on Julie Ann’s MySpace were incongruous with the love letter. Sandra additionally informed the officer that it was uncharacteristic for Julie Ann to leave Layla alone with George, especially after his recent suicide attempt. After meeting with Aunt Dora, Sandra, and Aaron, the police officer drove to George’s house, which was a few blocks from the Walgreens where Julie Ann’s car was found.
    George told the officer that Julie Ann had gone to his house to pick up Layla on Friday morning. He said that Julie Ann was acting strangely and appeared to be “out of it,” possibly under the influence of drugs. She asked George if he could continue watching Layla for the weekend because she had some stuff to do, and George agreed. According to George, that was the last time he saw or heard from Julie Ann.
    George gave the officer permission to check his house to ensure that Julie Ann was not there. Then they made their way to the backyard, which included a playhouse and storage shed. The shed had a large square cut into the plywood floor; there was fresh sawdust around it. The officer noticed that the cut portion was loose when he stepped on it, and it almost gave way on him. When he lifted the plywood, he saw a peculiar, empty trench measuring about 5 feet long, 2 feet wide, and 1.5 feet deep. George claimed that someone had dug the hole for plumbing purposes, but his own mother, Victoria, would later testify at trial that when she asked George about the hole, he acted surprised and told her that he did not know how the hole got there.
    Though the ominous trench appeared to be out of place, police did not consider George a suspect in Julie Ann’s disappearance—“Julie Ann’s” texts to her family and friends saying that she was OK and just wanted to be left alone seemed to say that she had disappeared voluntarily. As far as police could tell, Julie Ann was alive, not in any imminent danger, and had voluntarily withdrawn from family and friends. As such, police did not open a criminal case to investigate, which was devastating to Julie Ann’s mother.

Raising awareness
Sandra and her family began efforts to bring attention to Julie Ann’s disappearance. The family made flyers with her photo and posted them throughout the city. They hired a private investigator to interview anyone who might have information as to what happened to Julie Ann. To make sure that the Austin Police Department did not forget about her, Sandra and various family members called several APD detectives over the next few months to update them on their private investigator’s findings and to ask about any information that police may have received from the public. (After a thorough investigation by both the private investigator and police detectives, the prospective leads fell flat—Julie Ann was nowhere to be found.) The family held fundraisers and vigils and invited the local media to attend. Sandra and her sister, Margarita, even appeared on the nationally televised “Dr. Phil Show” in California to raise awareness of Julie Ann’s disappearance. George, too, appeared on the show. He reiterated to Dr. Phil what he had previously told police: that when Julie Ann showed up at his house, she was acting strangely and asked him to continue watching their daughter because Julie Ann had some stuff to do. George further agreed to take a polygraph test on the show. After failing the polygraph, George became extremely emotional and continued to deny that he had any involvement in his wife’s disappearance. Concerned for his well-being, Dr. Phil offered to connect George with a mental health professional upon returning home to Austin. George accepted Dr. Phil’s offer, and immediately upon returning to Austin, he checked himself into the Austin Lakes Hospital for a mental health evaluation and remained at the hospital under observation for a few days.

Police get involved
The turning point in the investigation came after “The Dr. Phil Show” when George’s mother, Victoria, became concerned that her son may have had something to do with Julie Ann’s disappearance. While her son was at the mental health facility, Victoria learned from her daughter’s boyfriend, Javier Carrasco, that there was a trench under the storage shed in her backyard, furthering her suspicions about her son’s involvement. She then called police to examine the trench. With Victoria’s consent (the property belonged to her), the police searched the home and yard, with the exception of George’s bedroom. Days later, police secured a search warrant for the entire property, including George’s bedroom.
    Though police did not find any evidence of blood, they found various types of ammunition, latex gloves, a knife, remnants of burned clothing from a pit in the backyard, various cleaning products, digging tools near the ominous trench, and a big dirt pile behind the storage shed that was covered with a mattress and other unused household items. Inside the residence and George’s room, police collected several items that were purchased with Julie Ann’s debit card on the day she disappeared, including baby bath products and a child’s DVD movie. Police also collected various electronic devices, computers, George’s Xbox, recent Best Buy receipts, more ammunition, and a torn up photo of Julie Ann that had been taped back together.
    Police detectives analyzed Julie Ann’s bank records and discovered that the day that Julie Ann disappeared, her debit card was used to make purchases that were processed as credit, not debit, transactions. This was significant because her bank records showed that Julie Ann’s habit was to make PIN-required debit transactions with her card, not credit transactions. Detectives went to Walmart and McDonald’s, where the transactions were made, and reviewed surveillance video to see if Julie Ann had made these purchases. The video showed George pushing a grocery cart with a grocery bag and Layla inside—Julie Ann was nowhere to be seen. The video’s time-stamps were minutes apart from transactions on Julie Ann’s debit card. (By the time police had obtained the incriminating surveillance video, George was no longer cooperating with police and had retained an attorney.)
    To track the movement of Julie Ann’s cell phone, detectives enlisted the assistance of Jim Cook, a cell phone expert, to analyze Julie’s Ann cell phone records. Because George’s cell phone service was disconnected, Cook tracked only Julie Ann’s phone movement via cell site towers. He found that on March 26, the day Julie Ann disappeared, and through March 27, her phone was in the vicinity of George’s house for extended periods of time. There were over 100 texts and 20-plus data connections during this time period, which was uncharacteristic of the phone’s past activity. Usually, Julie Ann’s cell phone would depart from George’s house within a few minutes of arrival.
    Cook also found that on March 26, Julie Ann’s phone was in the vicinity of a particular Walmart and McDonald’s where her bank card was used and where George was captured on surveillance video. Later that evening, the phone was in the vicinity of a Best Buy where George was purchasing Xbox equipment using his store credit and account. All of the incoming calls for Julie Ann on the morning of March 26 were either not answered or diverted to voicemail. This was not typical of her call history before that date. There was no more cell phone activity on Julie Ann’s phone after March 27. Plus, her phone never left the Austin area and had never traveled to Colorado (as her MySpace posts claimed). In fact, Julie Ann had never placed a call to nor received a call from the state of Colorado.
    Cook also analyzed George’s Xbox records from Microsoft. George played on his Xbox daily for extended periods of time—but he did not have any gaming activity until the nighttime on March 26, which was uncharacteristic. George’s sister, Liliana DeLaCruz, and her ex-boyfriend, Javier Carrasco, testified that George would take his Xbox console and games to Javier’s North Austin apartment to play while he hung out with Javier. Police detectives analyzed the IP addresses on George’s Xbox records and compared them to the IP addresses in subpoenaed Internet account records from George’s and Javier’s neighbors. George was accessing Javier’s neighbor’s unsecured wireless Internet when playing on his Xbox. Detectives also discovered that George’s and Julie Ann’s MySpace accounts were accessed within seven minutes of each other from Javier’s neighbor’s IP address on the evening of March 27. Cook noted that Julie Ann’s cell phone had been near Javier’s apartment after her disappearance—which had never happened before. Javier further testified that Julie Ann had never been to his apartment.
    After a thorough investigation, it was evident that George was responsible for Julie Ann’s disappearance and murder and that he bought time to dispose of her body by using her cell phone and updating her MySpace page while purporting to be her. On September 13, 2013, George was charged with murder, manner and means unknown, and was arrested on the same day.
    Two months later, as George was in the Travis County Jail awaiting trial, his cellmate came forward to inform detectives that George had described what had happened between George and Julie Ann. The cellmate, whom we’ll call Justin, testified at trial that George had been venting that he and his estranged wife got into an argument because of another man in whom his wife was interested romantically. George told Justin that the argument turned physical and that his wife fell, hit her head, and was rendered unconscious.
    George minimized the physical altercation in telling his cellmate about it, but given the fact that he had dug a trench in his backyard before Julie Ann arrived to pick up Layla and that he had posed as his wife on her cell phone the day she disappeared, it was clear that there was a physical incident that took place at George’s house that day—Justin corroborated it.

Connecting the dots
Deciding to go forward with prosecuting George for the murder of Julie Ann was not an easy decision, given that the State had yet to locate any remains. It was evident, however, after months of interviewing Julie Ann’s family, friends, and coworkers that she never would have voluntarily walked away from Layla and others whom she loved. Even George’s mother and sister testified that it was not like Julie Ann to be away from Layla for an extended period of time. Knowing that George was the last person to see Julie Ann alive, that he had Julie Ann’s bank card and cell phone the day she disappeared, that he was purporting to be Julie Ann as he used her cell phone and MySpace page, and that there was no proof of life since Julie Ann’s disappearance, the State was confident that it had enough evidence to secure a conviction. The State did not have Julie Ann’s body, but delaying prosecution would delay justice.
    Prior to trial, the State offered George DeLaCruz 50 years in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in exchange for his guilty plea to murder, but he rejected the State’s offer and did not make a counteroffer. George proclaimed his innocence and through his lawyer, he stated that he did not know what happened to Julie Ann.
    Proving a murder without a body or murder weapon would be a difficult feat but certainly not an impossible one to overcome. It was critical to educate the venire that circumstantial evidence can be just as reliable as direct evidence to prove the elements of a murder charge, including the defendant’s culpable mental state. The case against George required jurors to pay particular attention to the evidence, as there were many pieces that had to be connected to ascertain the truth. To assist the jurors in connecting the evidence, our cell phone expert, Jim Cook, used maps and charts to chronologically track the movement of Julie Ann’s phone along with George’s known whereabouts. In addition, he used color-coded charts and graphs to depict Julie Ann’s phone usage and George’s Xbox gaming activity. The visual presentation of the maps, charts, and graphs were undoubtedly effective in illustrating the digital footprint that George left behind.
    To quash any doubt for jurors that Julie Ann may still be alive, the State produced evidence at trial that there was no “proof of life.” In this digital world, it is common for people to leave a trace of their movement and activity wherever they go, so to confirm that Julie Ann was dead (that is, that there was no proof of life), detectives and crime analysts performed frequent and automated searches in local, state, and national law enforcement databases, beginning a few weeks after she disappeared in March 2010 and continuing until the day of George’s murder trial in April 2015. Police confirmed that Julie Ann did not have any involvement with law enforcement since she was last seen alive in March 2010.
    In addition, an APD intelligence officer contacted the State Department and confirmed that Julie Ann did not have a visa or passport, and there were no records of her traveling outside the United States from land, air, or sea ports. The intelligence officer also requested that the 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands perform a facial recognition search based on the portrait on Julie Ann’s Texas driver’s license against other government-issued identification. The officer confirmed that there were no facial matches to Julie Ann’s Texas driver’s license picture—meaning that Julie Ann had not applied for a national or state government-issued identification in her own name or under an alias.
    We presented the case chronologically (much as we wrote this article): how George and Julie Ann met, Julie Ann running into Aaron again, George losing his mind because his wife was moving on, and Julie Ann going to pick up Layla and never being seen again. We used maps, charts, graphs, and photos to help the jurors get a visual to connect the dots. The only expert who testified was our cell phone expert, Jim Cook. The defense did not present any witnesses, facts, or experts during the guilt-innocence part of the trial.
    The jury deliberated for over six hours before finding George guilty of murder, a first-degree felony.     
    George did not have a significant criminal history, so during the punishment phase, the State called Julie Ann’s mother and aunt, Sandra and Dora, to express the void that they felt without Julie Ann in their lives and the impact that her disappearance has had on the family, including Layla.
    The defense called Victoria, George’s mother, to testify that George had never been convicted of a felony and that he was a good son and brother. She told the jury that George was raised by both parents, had never been physically or sexually abused, had graduated from high school, and that when George was employed, he contributed to the household expenses. Victoria called her son “an angel.”
    The jury deliberated for an hour before assessing a punishment of life in prison. This punishment spoke to their certainty of George’s guilt and to the value of Julie Ann’s life and her worth as a kind and loving mother, daughter, sister, and friend. This punishment also spoke to the fact that Julie Ann’s disappearance, murder, and cover-up was premediated and that George lied to the police from the onset of his involvement.
    While George’s conviction and life sentence were important to Julie Ann’s family, it cannot bring back Julie Ann. Sandra still has many unanswered questions, the most important of which is, “Where is Julie Ann?” Sandra has not been able to get any closure as she still does not know what George did with her daughter and where her remains are resting. Until Sandra brings her daughter home, she will not have the peace that she desperately desires and deserves.