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The Region

Church May Have Been Scene of Student's Slaying

January 09, 2003|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

A 19-year-old college student who was found dead off a remote Ventura County road on New Year's Day may have been killed on the grounds of the Fillmore church where her funeral was held six days later, investigators said Wednesday.

Items found in the parking lot of St. Francis of Assisi Church represented "a really big break for us" in the slaying of Valerie Zavala, a former Fillmore High School cheerleader, said Sgt. Ron Nelson of the Ventura County Sheriff's Department.

Less than three hours after Zavala's funeral, officers Tuesday cordoned off part of the church's parking lot and playground with crime-scene tape. Nelson said they were following up leads unearthed during the investigation.

For 10 hours, officers scoured the area, focusing on the far edge of the lot adjoining a dirt field, Nelson said. He would not describe the possible evidence they located but said it would be "subjected to scientific testing."

On Wednesday, officers equipped with metal detectors were back on the scene, hunting for additional evidence.

Nelson said that what investigators have found "makes them believe very strongly that they've uncovered the possible crime scene or a scene associated with Valerie Zavala's death."

No suspects have been named.

Zavala's father, Kevin Wilson, was buoyed by the finds. "I've got a lot of faith that it's going to happen really soon."

Zavala's partially clothed body was found jammed into a drainage pipe under a road near Santa Paula. She had been suffocated, according to an autopsy.

A sophomore at San Jose State, Zavala was back in Fillmore celebrating the new year with family and friends. She was last seen driving two friends home from a party, after which she planned to visit a former boyfriend.

The car she used was found New Year's Day in a parking lot near the church.

More than 300 mourners attended Tuesday's funeral of the aspiring schoolteacher, unaware that she may have died just yards away.

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Ventura County Crime Stoppers is offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for this crime. Callers may remain anonymous. The number is 494-TALK or 385-TALK.

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