EDINBURG — Investigators believe a 40-year-old McAllen man charged with kidnapping and murdering his ex-wife planned the violent episode and drove to South Padre Island after dumping the 37-year-old woman on a rural patch of land north of Donna.
“I’m going to suggest to you that a lot of the things which will ultimately be revealed in the investigation and prosecution of this case are planning by him,” McAllen police chief Victor Rodriguez said. “A lot of it involved planning on his part and we think the ultimate trip to South Padre Island was part of that planning process; theoretically, we think to misdirect us.”
Rodriguez made the comment at a news conference at the Hidalgo County jail Tuesday following the arraignment of Richard Ford, who was charged with capital murder for the death of Melissa Banda. The 37-year-old woman had died less than an hour after investigators say Ford forcibly abducted her from her McAllen home last Thursday.
Ford, who was described as uncooperative during the news conference, is being held on a total of $4.5 million in bonds on charges of capital murder and aggravated kidnapping/sexual abuse. Justice of the Peace Jaime Muñoz set bond on the capital murder charge at $2 million Tuesday. Ford was arraigned in McAllen Municipal Court on the kidnapping charge Saturday where he received a $2.5 million bond.
Rodriguez was joined by Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez and Hidalgo County Sheriff J.E. “Eddie” Guerra.
Investigators say a witness called police at around 3:49 p.m. last Thursday to report that a man abducted Banda from a home in the 7100 block of North Seventh Street in McAllen.
“In short, there was a nanny at the home who witnessed the event and that’s how it was reported to us,” the chief said.
A probable cause affidavit for Ford’s arrest on the kidnapping charge revealed that it was caught on surveillance camera in its entirety.
“ The video showed that as soon as Ms. Banda arrived at the home, Mr. Ford approached her from behind and grabbed her and covered her mouth,” the affidavit stated. “Ms. Banda began to kick and scream and Mr. Ford continued to wrestle with her until he got to the Dodge Journey. Mr. Ford is seen shoving Ms. Banda into the backseat and then he gets into the driver seat.”
At the news conference, Chief Rodriguez told reporters that investigators also obtained surveillance video that helped them identify the vehicle driven by Ford.
Over the next few hours, Guerra, the sheriff, said GPS records obtained by McAllen detectives and the FBI would lead authorities to Banda’s body and to Ford, who was located through that data near Beach Access No. 5 on South Padre Island at around 9:32 p.m. Thursday night, nearly six hours after investigators believe he kidnapped Banda.
Those coordinates showed Ford was on South Padre Island and investigators alerted the Island’s police department and Cameron County Park Rangers later arrested the man.
“The unfortunate thing for us is that when we found him we didn’t find her and that is what really alarmed us, because certainly the kidnapping was very, very violent and the fact that she was not with him at the time that we found him … and this is several hours later. She was not at the beach,” Chief Rodriguez said. “So we shifted our investigation and worked double time to figure out where they’d been and ultimately we were able to figure out some GPS data.”
The data lead investigators to an area east of FM 493 on Mile 14 1/2 North in rural Donna.
“The McAllen police along with the FBI obtained the GPS coordinates and they were able to track it and they noticed at this particular area the vehicle had been stationary for a little more than 12 minutes,” said Guerra, the sheriff. “So this was definitely an area of interest and that’s why we went to the area and searched the area Friday night.”
Investigators found Banda’s body at around 11:30 p.m. Friday, fewer than 36 hours after she disappeared.
“At this point we believe that she was killed where we found her,” Guerra said. “She was placed there approximately less than an hour after she was taken from her home.”
She died from a laceration to her throat, Guerra said.
“The pathologist who did the autopsy ruled that her throat had been lacerated with a very, very sharp object,” Guerra said. “At this time, that object isn’t recovered.”
The investigation also revealed that Banda did not have defense wounds, leading investigators to believe that she was unconscious at some point after her kidnapping, but Chief Rodriguez said that’s only a theory as to why she would not have the wounds, which are common on murder victims who die in a struggle.
Chief Rodriguez said he didn’t understand the level of violence in Banda’s murder.
“We’ve talked on a constant basis over the case,” he said. “And we fail to understand the need for such violence in this case.”
Banda obtained a protective order against Ford after McAllen police charged the man on Feb. 29 with assaulting Banda.
About three months later, Banda reported to police that Ford called her.
Police say Banda called them on June 30 to report that “her husband Richard Ford … called her … (that) morning … when answering the call Richard stayed quiet on the line … there is currently a protection order which prohibits him from making any contact with her.”
Chief Rodriguez said Tuesday that McAllen police followed up with Banda after the call and obtained the warrants for harassment and violation of a protection order that Cameron County Park Rangers used to arrest Ford last Thursday.
The chief did not elaborate further on how McAllen police followed up with Banda after the call.
Rodriguez, the DA, said that Banda did everything victims of domestic violence should do after police charged Ford with the Feb. 29 assault by taking out the protective order against the man.
“It’s not Ms. Banda’s fault,” he said. “It’s just a bad pereson who wanted to do a bad thing to Ms. Banda; a very, very bad person, a very evil person.”
Chief Rodriguez also described Ford as evil.
“We are terribly saddened by her passing. Our condolences go out to all of her family,” he said. “We wish there weren’t people that are as violent or as evil as Mr. Ford. We really do.”
While authorities say Ford is responsible for the murder, Guerra described the investigation as ongoing and fluid.
The sheriff said anyone with information on the case should call the sheriff’s office at (956) 383-8114 or through its Crime Stoppers hotline at (956) 668-3477. Anyone with information can also call McAllen Crime Stoppers at (956) 687-8477. Tipsters can also submit anonymous information through the smartphone app P3 TIPS.