One of the biggest murder cases in the Rio Grande Valley over the past five years has also gone unsolved with no arrests and details of the crime mostly left to rumor.
What is known is that Oneida Balderas Garza, 44, and Lourdes Elizondo, 33, were found murdered in Balderas Garza’s home the morning of March 23, 2016, in Rio Grande City, both bound at the hands and each with a gunshot wound to the head.
Officially, local law enforcement will say the case is an ongoing investigation, but when pressed about who was leading it, three agencies pointed the finger to one another.
When contacted about any updates on the case, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety said the Texas Rangers — DPS’ investigative agency which was widely believed to be leading the investigation — had assisted the Rio Grande City Police Department with the case.
However, Rio Grande City Police Chief Noe Castillo pointed to the county, explaining they were not conducting the investigation because the residence where the women were discovered was technically outside the city limits.
“That case was picked up by the county because it’s out of our jurisdiction,” Castillo said, adding that the residence might have a city zip code but was still outside the city limits. “We haven’t looked at it because it’s the sheriff’s office.”
A spokesman for the Starr County Sheriff’s Office, Maj. Carlos Delgado, responded via email with one line:
“The lead investigating agency is the Texas Rangers.”
Led back to the Rangers, The Monitor again reached out to DPS, who simply reiterated the Rangers had assisted the Rio Grande City PD.
With their declination to acknowledge themselves as the leading agency on the case, it’s unclear if anyone is actively investigating the case or whether it’s gone cold.
Insisting the case is ongoing is 229th Judicial District Attorney Omar Escobar, who said, in no uncertain terms, that the Rangers are leading the investigation, noting they were on the scene the day the women were discovered and had taken over since then.
“It is a Ranger case, bottom line,” Escobar said. “They have taken the lead on that case, they have taken the lead since 2016.”
During a trial earlier this month related to another murder case, that of Jose Luis Garcia Jr. who was acquitted last week in the 2017 murder of 17-year-old Chayse Olivarez, Texas Ranger Eric Lopez testified about an interview the Rangers had conducted relating to the women’s murders.
DPS had also previously commented on the case in 2018 for an article on the second anniversary of the murders. Then-DPS spokesman Lt. Johnny Hernandez said in an email at the time that the case “is still under investigation.”
Earlier this year, billboards were spotted along U.S. Highway 83 going to and coming from Starr County that displayed a picture of the two women and a number to the Texas Rangers that people could call if they had information on the case. The billboards, though, were paid for by the DA’s office, according to Escobar.
The DA said he believed there were people in the area who probably saw or heard something but just haven’t come forward, though he couldn’t say for certain.
“That has always been a problem for law enforcement, is people with knowledge who do not come forward,” he said. “I think that’s a problem nationwide.”
Another issue nationwide is the number of unsolved murders, Escobar pointed out.
In 2018, the national “clearance rate” — or the rate of cases for which someone is arrested — was 62.3% for murder and non-negligent manslaughter, according to FBI’s latest statistics.
Public criticism over the fact that the case has remained unsolved has largely fallen on Escobar, even though the DA’s office is not tasked with investigating a case but prosecuting it in court.
Still, as the March Primary elections draw closer, the hotly contested race for his position has only gotten more contentious, with Escobar’s detractors ramping up their criticisms of him on social media.
Among them is Dr. Norberto Cantu Jr., a former Rio Grande City school board trustee and former political ally of Escobar.
However, in lodging his criticism against Escobar, Cantu also gave credence to one of the most pervasive theories surrounding the murders.
“I was one of the candidates that Omar convinced to run for School Board,” Cantu wrote in a Nov. 5 Facebook post. “I believed in Omar at the time because he spoke about fighting corruption in our school district and our community.”
Cantu added that Escobar wanted a forensic audit to be conducted on the school district to unearth alleged corruption.
“My biggest regret is supporting the forensic audit not because of what it exposed, but because two ladies lost their lives as a result of the investigations prompted by the audit,” Cantu wrote.
“After all the money the district spent on the audit that Omar recommended, Omar refused to prosecute anyone and became aligned with Bacho again,” he said, referring to Basilio “Bacho” Villarreal, another school board member.
When The Monitor reached out to Cantu for further comment, he issued this statement:
“As the Chair of the Finance Committee during my time as an RGCCISD Board member, I asked the hard questions. When the DA Omar Escobar recommended that we conduct a Forensic Audit, we didn’t hesitate. Although it was a financial constraint, the benefits of cutting corruption outweighed the expense. The audit provided many red flags and two women at the business office were tasked with assisting the auditors and law enforcement.”
“Soon after their involvement cooperating with the entities, these women were brutally murdered. Omar Escobar never fully investigated the findings of the audit. He refused to hold anyone accountable and did not prosecute a single discrepancy found in the audit. We never got any answers and it made the public perceive our actions as one sided. I challenge Omar to tell us why he didn’t look into anything the audit revealed and why he’s now partnered with Basilio Villarreal.”
The Monitor followed up with Escobar over several exchanges as a jury deliberated the sentence for Jose Luis Garcia Jr.
“I challenge him to bring forth the evidence he has on this,” Escobar said of Cantu’s insinuation that the murders were a direct result of the forensic audit. “Because we’d like to see that.”
Following the 2014 school board elections, the Rio Grande City school board hired accounting and auditing firm Weaver & Tidwell LLP to conduct a forensic audit “into certain allegations of improper and/or fraudulent conduct” on the part of the school district’s employees, contractors, vendors and others from 2010 to 2015, according to a report the firm submitted.
The findings focused on the school district’s business with Starr Telecommunications — a company owned by Leonel Lopez, the father of former school board member Leonel Lopez Jr. — payments to vendors, and the school district’s procurement process for the technology department, which auditors concluded lent itself to preferential treatment to some vendors, including Starr Telecommunications and Liberty Solutions, an Austin-based computer and software company.
Escobar said that federal authorities were contacted and the allegations in the audit were deferred to them, confirming that FBI agents questioned individuals in Starr County over the audit’s findings.
“Even the federal authorities didn’t think there’s enough there to arrest anybody,” Escobar said.
The DA then questioned the timing of Cantu’s comments as it just happened to coincide with the emergence of possible new details in the case during Garcia’s trial.
Garcia’s defense attorney, Ricardo “Rick” Salinas, asked Lopez, the Texas Ranger, whether his agency had interivewed an associate of Casimiro Olivarez, the victim’s father, in the deaths of the two women.
Lopez testified that the Rangers had questioned that associate, named Ignacio Garza.
Escobar, however, noted that many people were questioned related to those murders but that didn’t mean they were implicated or were even persons of interest in the case.
“I find his timing very suspect,” Escobar said of Cantu’s Facebook post.
“Those statements were made to cast aspersions to law enforcement in Starr County, including the Rangers,” he added, further suggesting the comments were an effort to somehow sway jurors in Garcia’s trial in favor of the defense.
Garcia was acquitted of murder and tampering with physical evidence, a human corpse. However, he was found guilty of tampering with physical evidence for which a jury sentenced him to eight years in prison.
“I have to wonder if this was an attempt to influence jurors through social media postings,” Escobar said, suspecting jurors may have disregarded court rules preventing them from reading about or discussing the case. “I find it disgusting and despicable that some members of the community wanted to lose this case to advance (their agenda), because Chayse deserved justice.”
As for the 2016 double homicide, Escobar refuted the involvement of Casimiro Olivarez or his associate.
“They were never questioned; they were never implicated,” Escobar said. “There have been no arrests but it is an ongoing investigation.”
Salinas, Garcia’s defense attorney, said the idea that the defense and Cantu worked in concert to influence the jury was “crazy.”
Salinas clarified that the way the case came up during the trial was not to assert that Olivarez or Garza had anything to do with it, but to address the fear that his client, Jose Luis Garcia Jr., may have had of Chayse Olivarez and his family.
“ Those rumors don’t have to be true, that’s what he doesn’t get,” Salinas said of Escobar. “It’s just … whose ears do they land on and how does that affect your state of mind? And specifically, in this case here.
“We’re not offering it for the truth of the matter,” he said. “We’re offering it for the defendant’s state of mind because it creates a thought process in your head that can go to an element of the offense.”
Daniel J. Garcia, another defense attorney for Jose Luis Garcia Jr., to whom he has no relation, who currently sits on the RGC school board — and served on the board with Cantu — said he didn’t know of any evidence that pointed to their forensic audit as the motive.
“I don’t have any evidence of it other than, the only thing that I know is that they were the ones that pretty much provided most, if not all, the information that was given to the forensic auditors,” Garcia said.
The only other publicly available information about potential leads in the case are that in the early days of the investigation, law enforcement executed search warrants at the residence of Elizondo’s spouse, Osdy Luna, and at JJ’s Cabinets and JJ’s Construction LLC, which is owned by Juan Jose Aguinaga Saenz.
Luna, a former Starr County Sheriff’s Office investigator, was in the midst of divorce proceedings with Elizondo, while Aguinaga Saenz was a former school district contractor who was arrested in November 2015 for allegedly forging and cashing district checks. Payments to Aguinaga Saenz were the subject of one of the auditors’ findings from the forensic audit. His case, however, was dismissed in August 2018.
Neither were arrested in relation to the murders.
Escobar acknowledged that it would seem that there are two main theories in the case — each stemming from one of those two men. However, he said law enforcement couldn’t let that perception guide their investigation.
“The problem is engaging in cognitive bias,” Escobar said, explaining investigators can’t work backwards from a theory and try to find evidence to support it.
“That’s not the way investigations should really happen,” he said. “You can have theories but you always have to let the evidence lead you there on its own.”
“There are members of the public who want it to fit a particular theory, but they really don’t know what the evidence is showing,” Escobar added. “You just have to let the investigator do what they do.”
He reiterated that the Texas Rangers continued working on the case and their inability to solve it so far hasn’t been for lack of trying.
“I think it’s just one of those cases, like one of those many nationwide cases, that just have not been solved because you can’t make up evidence or you can’t create evidence,” he said. “They’re doing the best that they can.”
Monitor staff writer Mark Reagan contributed to this story.