Three alleged members of an East Los Angeles street gang have been charged in connection with the rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl who disappeared on her way to school more than 12 years ago.
George "Trooper" Barraza, 35, Eddie "Shrek" Chavira, 30, and Daniel "Snaps" Cervantes, 35, were charged in the slaying of Brenda Sierra. A fourth suspect, Rosemary Chavira, 28, was arrested and charged in March.
It was a shocking case that started when Brenda disappeared Oct. 18, 2002 while walking to a friend's house to get a ride to Schurr High School in Montebello. Her body was found under a mound of dirt 50 miles away off a road high in the San Bernardino Mountains the next day. The cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head.
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It was a brutal and senseless murder of a girl who prosecutors said had no ties to gangs. Investigators learned she had been repeatedly raped and it all started over an alleged gang rivalry, payback for Brenda's brother testifying in a gang shooting days before her disappearance.
"This is one of the worst," said Detective Larry Brandenberg in a previous interview. A homicide investigator with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, he spent seven years working the case. "This victim was totally innocent. She didn't do anything to cause this to happen to her."
Rosemary Chavira, Cervantes and Barraza were charged with one count each of murder, conspiracy to dissuade a witness and forcible rape with the special circumstances of felony murder during commission of a kidnapping and to further a street gang. Eddie Chavira, Rosemary Chavira's brother, is charged with one count each of murder and conspiracy to intimidate a witness.
A criminal complaint alleges while Eddie Chavira was in custody for a shooting witnessed by Brenda's relative he told a fellow gang member that he was going to have other gang members "take care of witnesses."
He allegedly also contacted his sister to help get other gang members to "take care of witnesses," prosecutors said in a news release.
Eddie Chavira and Cervantes are currently in prison in connection with a gang shooting.
Authorities believe Barraza is in Mexico. He is suspected of having connections to a Mexican drug cartel.
Rosemary Chavira, who pleaded not guilty in March, returns to court on Aug. 4 to set a date for her preliminary hearing. Because she was a minor at the time of the slaying, she faces life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted as charged. Eddie Chavira faces 25 years to life if convicted as charged.
Prosecutors will decide later whether to seek death against Cervantes and Barraza.
Brenda was walking to school on that Friday morning in 2002 when authorities believe she got into a car in which a classmate, Rosemary Chavira, was suspected of being in and asking if she wanted a ride.
"We still believe that there was someone who saw her get into the car that morning," Brandenberg said. "We would like to talk to that person."
Investigators believe that Brenda was taken to a secluded road on a dead-end street in a gang neighborhood nearby and beaten to death with a hammer in the middle of the afternoon. No witnesses came forward.
"I firmly believe someone on that street where she was actually killed may have seen something," Brandenberg said. "Maybe someone heard a girl screaming way back then, saw them put her in the car."
The suspects allegedly threw Brenda's body in the trunk and dumped it off a road in Crestline. A man walking his dog found the body the next morning. Her family quickly identified her remains.
The case went unsolved for years.
There was no movement in the murder investigation even as growing interest from then-Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina announced an increased reward for information leading to Brenda's killers.
Homicide detectives in San Bernardino County initially handled the case because Brenda was discovered in Crestline. After years with no resolution, the case was turned over to LA County Sheriff's homicide investigators in 2008. Two years later, under pressure to solve the investigation, the department dedicated homicide detectives to work the case full-time.
"We got the backing from the department, the resources we needed," Brandenberg said.
Five years later, murder charges are being filed against four people in the case.