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Fillmore Teen Held in Slaying

A high school senior is charged in the death of a college sophomore, found New Year's Day in a drainage pipe after giving him a ride home.

June 05, 2003|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

A Fillmore High School senior was charged Wednesday with murder and attempted rape in the January death of a 19-year-old college student who had given him a ride home from a New Year's Eve party.

The charges against Samuel Puebla include a special allegation that the slaying occurred during the attempted rape of San Jose State sophomore Valerie Zavala. The allegation would typically make a murder defendant eligible for the death penalty.

But Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Maeve Fox said prosecutors cannot seek Puebla's execution because he was a juvenile at the time of the killing. Puebla, now 18, appeared for an arraignment in Ventura County Superior Court on Wednesday afternoon but did not enter a plea. The matter was postponed to June 25. He remains in custody in lieu of $500,000 bail.

"I've spent five months just trying to go through the motions of living," said Kevin Wilson, Zavala's father. "And then you hear of the arrest and it's like going back to Jan. 1; it's starting all over and there's a long road ahead of us."

Zavala's partly clothed body was found New Year's Day, stuffed in a concrete drainage pipe under South Mountain Road, which runs south of California 126 in an agricultural area between Santa Paula and Fillmore. Zavala, who had returned home for the holidays, died of asphyxia and had suffered blunt-force head injuries, according to her death certificate.

Fillmore High Principal John Wilbur notified teachers of the arrest before school began and said extra psychologists and counselors were on hand to assist students with emotional issues.

Things appeared normal on campus, he said, and Zavala's two sisters attended classes before joining their father at Puebla's court appearance.

Wilbur said Zavala, an honor student and cheerleader who graduated in 2001, was "a really nice kid who was pleasant and always seemed to be smiling." He would not discuss Puebla or his academic performance, noting that the football team member is only a suspect.

Wilson said his 16-year-old daughter, Jessica, who knows Puebla from school, is having the greatest difficulty coping after the arrest.

"She feels very betrayed ... I guess that's a normal reaction," Wilson said. "All I can say is be careful who you trust."

Ventura County Sheriff Bob Brooks held a morning news conference to announce that Puebla had been arrested without incident at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday while he was a passenger in a car on Old Telegraph Road in Fillmore. Brooks described the suspect as a casual acquaintance of Zavala, an aspiring elementary school teacher who was serving as a designated driver for Puebla and another party-goer in the early hours of Jan. 1.

Though investigators knew Puebla was one of the last people to see Zavala alive, Brooks said it was repeated questioning, inconsistency of certain answers and additional evidence that led authorities to press for an arrest.

Court records show that search warrants were issued April 1, allowing deputies to collect a DNA sample from Puebla and to search his Fillmore residence and inspect a brown 1986 Toyota Supra at that location.

Other vehicles -- a gray 2002 Hyundai and the black 2003 Toyota Corolla that Zavala was driving for a friend on the night of the slaying -- also were searched.

Brooks confirmed that investigators had DNA evidence but wouldn't say who it belonged to.

More than 300 mourners attended Zavala's funeral at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Fillmore six days after her body was found. Within hours of the service, officers thoroughly searched the church grounds, where they discovered items indicating that the attack on Zavala may have occurred there on New Year's Day.

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Times staff writer Tracy Wilson contributed to this report.

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