RIO GRANDE CITY — Two years have passed since two school district employees were found murdered in a local home, their hands bound and a bullet in each of their heads.
There has since been little movement in the case, at least publicly, and residents are left to speculate as to who killed Oneida Balderas Garza, 44, and Lourdes Elizondo, 33, in execution-style shooting deaths during the early morning of March 23, 2016.
The two women, who were found dead in Garza’s home, worked in the business office at the Rio Grande City school district and were in the midst of conducting a financial audit at the time of their death.
The Texas Rangers, a division of the Texas Department of Public Safety, are the lead investigators in the case. Lt. Johnny Hernandez, the DPS spokesman based out of the Weslaco headquarters, said in an email that the case “is still under investigation.”
Although Tom Vinger, an Austin-based DPS spokesman, directed requests for comment to Hernandez, as did the Starr County Sheriff’s Office, Hernandez wouldn’t divulge more.
Starr County District Attorney Omar Escobar attributes the lack of information to the Rangers not wanting to compromise the investigation.
“The Rangers tend to be very careful about what’s released to the media,” Escobar said. “They’ve continued to actively work the case and they continue to keep (the district attorney’s office) updated on any progress they’ve made.”
“One thing we need to understand is that this is not the only unsolved murder case in the Valley,” Escobar added, noting that there are dozens of open homicide cases across Starr, Hidalgo and Cameron counties. “This one is a double murder and people are much more frightened about the facts of this particular case, but it’s not isolated. This is not the only unsolved murder case.”
‘Monsters among us’
For the citizens of Starr County, it can feel as though “there are monsters among us,” as one resident put it.
Since Garza and Elizondo’s death, a father and his 3-year-old son were gunned down in an unrelated November 2016 incident at an intersection in Rio Grande City. While a suspect has since been arrested and indicted on two counts of capital murder, more suspects remain at large.
More recently, in another unrelated incident, two brothers were reported missing in October 2017, the same day their vehicle was found burned and abandoned on the side of the road. Six months later, Mario Alberto Garza and Rosvel Garza are still missing.
But unsolved murder cases are not unique to South Texas.
Nationwide, it’s becoming harder for law enforcement agencies to resolve murder cases, Escobar said. The national “clearance rate” — or the chance police will identify the killer — for homicide is on the decline.
In 2015 — the most recent data available — the FBI reported that the national murder clearance rate was just over 60 percent, down from 90 percent 50 years before.
“Sometimes people are getting more savvy about the way they commit murders,” Escobar said of one reason behind the declining clearance rate. “It just depends on the case itself … some cases are much more well-planned than others.”
Some cases may take 20 or 30 years to solve, he said, or they could be resolved by tomorrow.
Theories of the case
“There’s more than one theory of the case,” Escobar said, adding, “I think there’s a lot of assumptions being made in the community that are clearly wrong.”
While Escobar would not elaborate on these assumptions, residents have pointed to the fact that Oneida and Elizondo were working on a financial audit at the time of their death.
Last year, two law enforcement officials who were familiar with the case but not authorized to speak publicly, told The Monitor that a very specific message written on the wall of Garza’s home next to the women’s lifeless bodies insinuated that their murder was a result of them “pointing fingers.”
The only search warrants that have been publicly confirmed were executed at the home of Elizondo’s former husband, Osdy Luna, and at JJ’s Cabinets and JJ’s Construction LLC.
Luna, a former Starr County Sheriff’s Office investigator, was initially considered a person of interest in the case and was interviewed by the Rangers but never charged. He was terminated from the sheriff’s office in May 2016; no information was released about the reasons behind his termination.
JJ’s Construction is owned by Juan Jose Aguinaga Saenz, a former school district contractor who was was arrested in November 2015 for allegedly forging and cashing district checks. The case has yet to go to trial, and it’s unclear how he may be connected to the murder investigation.
“Assumptions and gossip don’t solve cases,” Escobar said. “You have to let the evidence lead you to the person responsible; you can’t come up with a particular theory.”
‘Prosecutors are not investigators’
There is only so much the district attorney’s office can do, Escobar said because “prosecutors are not investigators.”
Two former assistant district attorneys were assigned to work on Garza’s and Elizondo’s case for more than a year, he said. They drafted search warrants, reviewed the case notes and developed lists of people to interview, but “nothing came of it.”
Escobar said the Rangers do not have enough evidence to bring charges before a grand jury.
“I have confidence in the way the Rangers have conducted themselves here,” he said. “Whether the case is solved now or later on down the line, we expect the work will continue until we have the facts to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The waiting game, paired with the absence of updates and information, is excruciating for the women’s families, friends and colleagues.
Judy Solis, an attorney in Rio Grande City and school district board member, described her friends as “great people.”
The women’s friends are working to raise money to offer their own reward — in addition to the $10,000 offered by the Texas Rangers — for information about the women’s deaths. So far, Solis said, they have raised $7,000.
“I’m interested in having justice for my friends,” Solis said. “I just hope that I’ll live to see justice in this case and that their murders won’t be forgotten.”