Buried in the Backyard (2018–…): Season 2, Episode 18 - full transcript

After a horrifying discovery

in a backyard orchard...

We saw the hand
protruding from the dirt.

On the finger was a 1974

Rio Mesa High School
class ring.

...detectives in
a California farming community

follow the deadly clues.

When they opened up the car,

they found blood.

She noticed the ring
and they gave it to her.

Who is behind
this vicious murder?

She had been
in a marriage

that wasn't working out
that well,

and wanted to separate
from her husband.

You never had sex with her?

- Nope.
- A savage killer

slips through the cracks.

He snuck up
on a couple with a gun

and shot both of them.

And a case
is in jeopardy

of ever being closed.

I will always live
with the fact

that my mother was one
of those unsolved cases.

along the California coast,

the city of Oxnard
is a verdant farming paradise.

It's bordered
by the ocean on one side

and surrounded
on the other sides

by agriculture.

The city of Oxnard
is probably...

at least 50% Hispanic.

We do have
a big immigrant population.

A lot of farm workers.

The fields were actually
more like their backyards

than, anything else.

On a beautiful
spring morning in 1979,

one of those workers,
Jesus Gutierrez and his wife

are heading home after church.

As they were driving down
that road towards the house

he just happened
to be glancing

over the fields.

And he happened to notice
something suspicious

that caught his eye.

And he asked
his wife to stop

and back up.

And so she backs up
and he gets out

and looks closer.

And as he focused in on it
to see what it was,

it was a hand

of a human being
sticking out of the dirt.

They, immediately
drove the rest of the way

to their residence
and called the--

the sheriff's department.

It was very shocking.

He was definitely panicked.

You could hear it
in his voice.

by what they're hearing,

police jump
into their squad cars

and speed to the scene.

When our deputies arrived,

Mr. Gutierrez took him right
to the location,

saw the hand protruding
from the dirt.

It was obviously
a woman's hand.

Nail polish.

There was a corrugated piece
of metal

that had been dragged
and placed up

over the grave

to try to conceal it.

And there was also
a pair of panties

that were thrown on top
of that sheet of metal.

You could see
that her feet were sticking out

from under the debris.

She was wearing a pair
of black shoes

and, ankle-tightened nylons.

Police delicately
pull away the sheet of metal,

revealing the body
of a young woman.

And as we started
brushing dirt away

the body became more visible

and it was obvious
it was a female

with, dark hair.

Her blouse and bra
were hiked up over,

her breast.

She was naked
from the breast down

but for her shoes
and her, short nylons.

They found
stab wounds in her back

and also two bullet wounds
in her head.

We've located two spent
cartridges from a.22.

Seeing the condition
of her body

and the fact
that she was naked

told us that she was a victim
of a homicide,

possibly after
a sexual assault.

So, there was a rape kit
that was taken.

We were all shocked,
of course,

especially when you got
a girl being murdered

and, you know,
thrown into a--

a dumpsite
at a-- at a farm.

The scene is disturbing

for even
the most hardened cops.

Who has been so savagely killed

and buried
in this backyard orchard?

One of the things that was noted
was that the victim

had a ring on her finger

and it looked like
a class ring.

It had the identification

for Rio Mesa High School,

which is a high school
in the area

about two miles
from the location of the body.

A few feet away
from the body,

a small piece of paper
catches an officer's eye.

It was the receipt
from a local cleaner.

And it was not whether--

we knew it was fresh
and it had a date of Saturday,

for pickup.

This was Sunday morning.

It had an address and,

the name on it was A. Zuniga.

The name stops police cold.

It's one they've heard before.

In fact, they heard
it just a few hours earlier.

City of Oxnard.

I need the police department.

About 3:30 Sunday morning,

a number of hours
before we found the body,

the police department
had received a telephone call

from a gentleman
Enrique Zuniga.

Yes, sir.
Can I help you?

I need to make a report.

This is a real emergency.

Just a few seconds ago,
I was talking to my ex-wife.

She was calling
from a telephone booth.

And all of a sudden,
I heard a noise

and she said that someone
opened the door

and hit her from behind.

And she started screaming
and yelling.

You don't
have any idea where she was,

- though?
- No.

At that time,

the dispatcher didn't have
the capability

to locate the phone booth.

She pretty much told him,

"There's nothing that
we can do, sir,

because I don't know where
this woman was calling from."

All we can do
right now is take a description

and just kind of keep an eye
out for her.

Well, what--
what if she got killed

or raped or something?

Standing there
looking at the body

of this defiled young woman,

police are silently asking
the same question.

Have Enrique Zuniga's
worst fears been realized?

the investigation

was kicked into high gear.

Maybe it was Alma Zuniga

buried in that farm.

Their relationship got,
you know, a little heated.

He abused her a lot
and he would hit her.

The family immediately thought

he had something to do
with it.

City of Oxnard.

I need to make a report.

This is a real emergency.

Just a few seconds ago,

I was talking to my ex-wife.

in Oxnard, California

are confronting
a most disturbing case.

A haunting 911 call
is made just hours

before a young woman's body
is found sprawled

in a shallow grave
in a backyard lemon orchard.

What-- what is her name?

Her name is Alma Zuniga.

The victim is wearing a ring

from a local high school.

And near the body
is a dry cleaning receipt

with an address
and the name A. Zuniga.

Now, when investigators found

the, cleaning slip,

they then went to the address

and found Alma's aunt,
Maria Solis.

It's clear to investigators

that Alma's aunt Maria
knows nothing

of the 911 call
made the night before

by Alma's ex-husband, Enrique.

And still,
she's going crazy with worry.

Alma left with my aunt
at that time.

My aunt told the dictators
that Saturday night,

Alma was going out dancing
with her friends.

Her aunt,
became alarmed

because she hadn't heard
from her

and her car wasn't there.

With heavy hearts,

investigators pull out a photo.

We showed her a polaroid
we've taken of our victim.

And she immediately
identified her as Alma Zuniga.

My aunt and my sister
were very close.

And it was horrible.

I mean, you see
your-- your niece there

after your sister asked you
to take care of her,

you know, to look after her.

It's hard for my aunt.

It's harder still
for Alma's parents

and younger sister Cruz,

who get the devastating news
hundreds of miles away

in New Mexico.

My mom,

she just let out
a-- a scream

that I can still hear.

And my father, um...

just had her in his arms.

And the rest of the night

she just cried all night.

She cried and screamed and...

didn't wanna accept it.

And in my mind
I kept saying, "No.

No, that can't be true.

Who could have done this?


She was a good person.

Alma Rosa Lara

grew up
in a big working class family

in the dusty fields
of Southern New Mexico.

I come from a--
nine in the family

and, I was one
of the younger ones

and she was one
of the oldest ones.

Alma was like my second mom,

my best friend at that time.

She's the one
that just took care of me,

scolded me,
and was always there for me.

Alma was very strong-willed.

She loved life,
she was very adventurous.

Alma is just 18
when she boldly decides

to embark on a new adventure
to Oklahoma.

in a most unexpected moment,

she meets a handsome young man
named Enrique.

My dad actually told me
the story.

He said, um...

"I was working in Oklahoma
and I see this young girl,

and she was crying."

Apparently she got
into an argument with a friend

or something like that.

He told me, he said,
"Can I-- can I help you?"

And that's how
they hit it off.

My dad kind
of rescued her, you know.

He was her knight
in shining armor.

In a matter of months
the happy couple marries

and they're over the moon

when their son Jaime is born.

Her dreams at that time
were for Jaime.

Just have whatever...

we didn't have growing up.

But the love
they share for their son

isn't enough to sustain
their own relationship.

My dad did confess to me
that he was a drinker.

He liked to drink
and that was one of the reasons

why they separated.

Their relationship got,
you know, a little heated.

He abused her a lot

and he would hit her.

Hoping to take
her infant son Jaime

out of the volatile home,

Alma heads west
to the beautiful California

coastal town of Oxnard.

Her goal, at the time,
just making sure that--

that I was taken care of
and that,

you know, I had
some sort of a future.

Now, just a year later,

the hardworking mom
has been found

brutally murdered.

The family
immediately thought

Enrique had something
to do with it.

We always examine
the relationship

between a husband and a wife.

It's the most obvious.

There's some
heartfelt feelings

for separating
to begin with.

Could Enrique's 911 call

be part
of a nefarious cover-up?

Yes, sir,
can I help you?

I need to make a report.

This is a real emergency.

have eyes on Alma Zuniga's

estranged husband Enrique

after learning
of their abusive relationship,

and his alarming call to 911

the night she disappeared.

I'm calling
from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

Just a few seconds ago

I was talking to my ex-wife.

She's over there in Oxnard.

Enrique claims
he was more than

a thousand miles away
the night Alma was killed,

but detectives can't afford
to simply take his word for it.

There were no cell phones
in those days,

so you had to use a hardline.

They checked his phone records.

It didn't take long at all.

Probably not even a day.

The record showed
that Enrique's call

to Oxnard police
came from a landline

in Oklahoma City.

So, he had to have been
in Oklahoma City

at the time of the murder.

Enrique is clearly
out of state,

no chance
that he came out here

and abducted
and murdered his wife,

and then returned back
to where he lived.

It-- this wasn't
feasibly possible.

But is it possible
Enrique could have hired

someone else to kill
his ex-wife?

You need to go
and look at the evidence.

But there's a couple of reasons
why I wouldn't think

that would be
for-hire type of hit.

If you hire somebody
to kill somebody,

they're not gonna rape them

they're not gonna bury them,

they're not gonna--
have taken the time

to do all the things

the suspect in this case did.

So, we knew Enrique

was not involved in this.

I really don't have
any, memory of her

because I was a,

about a year
and a half old when--

when she was killed.

But, you know,
everybody has problems

in their relationships.

But I knew he loved her.

He loved her very much.


Give me a second.

I guess they were trying
to get back together.


he-- he told me, "I was talking
to your mom on the phone

when that happened to her,"
and, um,

he said it was--
it was horrible

being the last person
to hear from her.

With Enrique off the hook,

investigators start
at the beginning

from the moment
Alma was last seen.

Maria Solis, the aunt,

she told Alma
was out in town dancing,

and she described the vehicle
to us that Alma drove.

It was an old beat-up Pontiac,

black over blue.

And so, we went downtown
to see if, by chance,

we spot the car.

And probably
about 20 minutes later,

we're in an alley parallel
to Oxnard Boulevard,

the main street through town,

and we see the car.

We stopped,
we looked at it,

noted the license plate,

the license plate came back
registered to Alma.

When they opened up the car,

they found
on the passenger seat

what appeared to be blood

and on the door sill
on the passenger side.

We also found,
a cartridge,

unspent cartridge
on the floorboard,

similar cartridge
in-- in caliber

to what we found
at the scene.

A few blocks away,

detectives discover
another telling clue.

When they found the car
there was a phone booth nearby

with blood on the ground.

She was calling
from a telephone booth

and she stated
someone opened the door

and hit her from behind.

The theory was Alma
was kidnapped

from that phone booth

and taken away in her car.

The blood in this phone booth

and the car was processed
at that time,

all they could do
was what's called AB typing.

DNA hadn't been invented yet.

When the results
from the blood test come back,

they tell quite a story.

We knew we had a blood type

and that blood type
matched Alma.

But how did Alma's car
end up in downtown Oxnard,

five miles from where her body
was discovered?

Investigators hope
to learn more

from the neighbors
in this small community.

Alma is really interested

in Hispanic neighborhood.

And, it was
so tight-knit.

There was a lot
of concern and apprehension

in that community about
what-- what had happened.

As word got out
about her death,

more and more information
start coming in about her.

One neighbor
discreetly shares

an intriguing story.

This woman said
that she'd heard

about who the victim was

and had information
about the ring

that was found on her finger
at the scene.

The ring was a 1974

Rio Mesa High School
class ring.

The ring was not hers.
It had somebody else's,

information in it
and initials.

The woman said
she had found that ring

at the beach sometime prior,

and then gave it to a gentleman
she was dating

by the name
of Sebastian Carrillo.

Just how did Sebastian's ring

make its way
on to Alma's finger?

Sebastian Carrillo
said he dated Alma

for a number of weeks
off and on.

At some point,
she noticed the ring

and, asked him for it

and he gave it to her.

Investigators are suspicious,

when Sebastian explains

Alma had recently broken things
off with him.

might have been upset.

She broke it off.

Investigators felt,
my God,

maybe it was somebody
that she knew

because she didn't say anything
on the 911 call

other than he's back.

She said
that guy came back.

Led us to think
maybe it was Sebastian.

And no one saw him again
after that.

In the days
after the body of 23-year-old

Alma Zuniga is found buried

in a shallow grave
in a backyard lemon orchard,

investigators have their sights

on Alma's on-again,
off-again boyfriend,

Sebastian Carrillo.

During the time
that he was with Alma,

he was living
in Apartment #7.

Concurrently, Sebastian's
also having a relationship

with a woman
in Apartment #9.

Did Alma find herself

in the middle
of a love triangle

gone terribly wrong?

He told us that the
last time he'd been with her

was about the 8th of March

which would've been several days
before the homicide.

Sebastian's story
seems all too convenient

and investigators suggest
he take a polygraph test

to clear his name.

To their surprise, he agrees.

Sebastian's came back

as, truthful.

is free to go for now

and as investigators work
tirelessly to track new leads,

Alma's body is transported
back to New Mexico

where her grieving family
lays her to rest.

Our whole
neighborhood was there

and my mom's friends,

Alma's high school friends,

it was packed.

She was very loved.

I just didn't wanna live.
I mean...

I didn't care about life

but I kind of made a--

a promise to Alma
that I would look after Jaime.

After my mom died,

my great aunt
had me sent back

to my grandmother's house

which is New Mexico,

along with all my mom's
belongings and stuff.

Jaime grew up
as my little brother

but it was hard.

Every time he heard a car
come to the house,

he'd run to the screen door
and he would ask us,

"Momma? Is that momma?"

And-- and we would just...

pick him up
and-- and-- and hold him.

And, "No, mijo,
that's-- that's not momma."

It wasn't...

so much justice that we wanted.

We just couldn't
understand why.

Back in California,

investigators worked diligently

to give Alma's
heartbroken family

the answers it deserves.

We started
going door to door,

bar to bar,
restaurant to restaurant,

trying to track
Alma's activities.

The downtown area
of Oxnard back then

had many bars

and most of them
had music and dancing

for the population to unwind
and have a good time,

and the night that Alma
was out dancing,

she had run
into Christine Monan,

and Christine's boyfriend,
they were good friends.

Christine Monan
and Sergio Valdez

described an encounter
that Alma had shortly

before her death.

2:00, the bars close,

the three of them
went to the Army Navy Cafe

for breakfast.

Christine said that while
they were sitting and eating,

there was a gentleman
sitting to her left,


That smoking upset Alma

because she was trying
to eat her-- her meal

and the two words
were exchanged between them.

The gentleman was upset

and-- and Alma was upset.

Christine then walked

Alma out to her car

and they said their goodbyes,

all indications
were that the minute

she left the Army Navy Cafe,

she made the phone call
to Enrique.

Did the man
in the diner follow Alma

to the payphone
where she made the call

to her ex-husband, Enrique?

They gave us
the general description

of the man sitting
next to Alma,

a male, a Mexican adult.

They also sat down
with a--

a police sketch artist and--

and provided a composite
of their recollection

of what this person
next to Alma's look like.

With the sketch in hand,

detectives hoped to uncover
this man's identity.

There were two
or three people probably

that-- that had
some resemblance

to the composite

but no one that was firm.

We never talked to anyone

that really resembled
the composite.

It was frustrating.

Without answers or justice,

the weeks roll slowly
into months

for Alma's shattered family.

Would wake up
usually to my mom's

crying in-- in her bedroom

and just asking
over and over,

"Why? Why? Mija. Mija.

Porque? Mi Alma."


you know, Alma in--
in English means soul

and so she would say,
"My soul."

And in Spanish, "Mi Alma."

I mean, like, that
and they took her away.

They took her away.

I felt
that I would always live

with the fact that, you know,

my mother was one
of those unsolved cases.

They did
a lot of late work

and they never
were able to develop

a lead that was solid enough

to continue to the next level.

The years pass
impossibly slow

for Alma's family

and while the girl they love
is never forgotten,

her case is.

Until a day
in September of 2004,

25 years later,

when cold case
detective Scott Peterson

starts poking around.

He went
and found the file,

he found the property list,

and he saw that
on the property list,

there was a rape kit.

So he went to a freezer

and remarkably,

he found in the freezer

the evidence
including the rape kits

that had been taken the day

that Alma was found murdered

and had been sitting
virtually untouched

since 1979.

Now they have
the technology they need

to test the DNA from the kit.

We summoned the evidence

from the rape kits
and brought them

to the Ventura County
Crime Lab

and asked for a DNA analysis.

After so many years,

will the sample
still be viable?

Lo and behold,

there was a major profile

that appeared in those swabs.

There has been no justice

for Alma Zuniga in the 25 years

since someone
brutally murdered her

then buried her body
in a lemon orchard

but now, a DNA sample

could finally change that.

We found
that there was a rape kit

that was taken from Alma
at the time of autopsy.

They were able to develop
a DNA profile.

The question is,
will investigators be able

to find a match
to the DNA profile?

We discovered
the person that matched

the profile
taken from the swabs

that had been sitting
in the freezer for years.

It was John Clark Russell.

John Clark Russell
never came up on this case

but apparently, he's made
quite a name for himself.

Turns out he's well-known
in Ventura County

to law enforcement.

John Clark Russell
was a very violent person.

I found out
that he'd been arrested

numerous times since 1970.

For burglary, theft,

resisting arrest,


It was during one
of these arrests

where his DNA
was actually collected

and put into the system.

Investigators learn
Russell lives two hours away

in Bakersfield and don't waste
a minute heading his way.

They ultimately executed
the arrest warrant

and followed Russell to a gym

in a big shopping center.

When he comes out of the gym,
we're waiting,

and two of our investigators
approach him.

Hi, Mr. Russell,

I'm with the District
Attorney's Office.

Do you have

a second I can talk to you
about something

just-- just for a few minutes?

We wanted
to talk to you about

your friend, Alma Zuniga.

- Who?
- Alma Zuniga.

Alma Zuniga?


They showed him a picture.

I got a picture of her.


That's her in the yellow?

And he tells the detectives,

"I don't know who this is."

She was a friend of mine?

We're under
that impression, yes.

Do you--
do you guys remember

where I know her from?

This was back in the late '70s

when you lived in Oxnard.

- You lived in Oxnard, right?
- Yeah?

"Well, we heard
you were really

good friends with her.

We heard you were
intimate with her."

- No.
- You never had

- sex with her?
- No.

Russell arrogantly says,

"I know every woman
that I've ever had sex with

and this isn't one of them."

I don't forget
a face or-- or a name.

You never had sex with her?

You never knew her?


Obviously he has met with her.

Whether he knew Alma's name,

I don't know,

but he had been with her.

All right, Mr. Russell.

We have-- we have a warrant
for your arrest.

Put your hands
behind your back, cooperate.

Don't tense up on me.
Don't tense up on me, okay?

- Okay.
- All right,

John. You have the right
to remain silent.

Anything you say may be
used against you in court.

We took John into custody.

We drove him back to Ventura.

Once in custody,

police keep Russell talking.

Hi, Mr. Russell.
Remember me?

When you and I

spoke last, I came down here
and I got your DNA sample.

- Remember that?
- Yes.

And I told you

that I'd bring
the sample back

once we got-- got the results.

Do you wanna hear
about those?

- What is it?
- If I talk to you,

I have to read you your rights,
it's required, okay?

So, you have the right to remain
silent, you understand?


He was incredibly cocky,

and joking inappropriately,

almost talking down
to the investigators

in-- in a snide manner,

like we don't have anything
against him.

But it isn't long
before he starts tripping

over his own lies.

He said,
"You're telling me

that I stabbed some person,
put her in my car,

drove her to a remote place
while she's bleeding,

raped her, and then left her?"

I don't remember
telling him those details.

And that was telling.

He knew
what he was in jail for.

He knew precisely
why he was there.

The bottom line
was that Mr. Russell

left his DNA in Alma's body

and she never stood up,
ever again.

And so finally,
we had enough

to book him for murder.

The wait for Alma's
family has been so long coming

they can hardly process
the news of Russell's arrest.

I was at work

and my youngest brother
calls me

and he told me,

"Hey, they got
Alma's killer."

I had to sit down
and just like...


All those feelings
that I had put away

for such a long time

just came back rushing in me

and I'm like,
"My God. Help me."

It hit me
like a ton of bricks.

It was, you know,

different emotions,

anger, sadness, relief.

Like, wow, you know,
like, it's been solved.

More than 35 years

after Alma Zuniga's
horrific murder,

prosecutors take John Russell
to court.

But their case
isn't a slam dunk.

No one saw Mr. Russell
at the scene of the crime.

There were no statements

made by anyone
implicating him.

And they worry
the decades-old DNA evidence

might not be enough to convict.

The DNA evidence
was complicated.

The DNA was old.

I was kind of overwhelmed.

We just prayed that--

that justice will come
sooner or later.

Justice will come.

In December of 2014,

more than 35 years
after Alma Zuniga

was shot to death
and buried in a shallow grave,

her accused killer,
John Clark Russell,

goes before a judge, a jury,

and Alma's
still emotional family.

I felt like
this anger just--

just surfacing
and-- and, you know,

taking control of me.

And I didn't like it.

That's why I told myself
let God do the judging

and-- and give him
what he deserves.

It's not for me to judge.

Excuse me.

What it came down
to is the fact

that Mr. Russell's DNA profile

was the dominant profile

found in Alma's body.

But in a dramatic departure

from his original story,

Russell's lawyer
has an answer as to why.

The basic thrust
of Mr. Russell's defense

was that he had a consensual
relationship with Alma,

and that after that
consensual relationship,

someone else came along,

stabbed her, kidnapped her,

and raped her.

He had been extremely clear

that he did not have sex
with that woman.

He denied knowing her,
he denied ever seeing her.

When it comes time,

prosecutors lay out
their theory

about what happened
that horrific night.

Mr. Russell
was driving around

in the wee hours
of March 11th.

Alma had...

left an Army Navy Cafe.

John Clark Russell
probably drove by her

as she was out on the street.

Alma likely
didn't notice Russell

inconspicuously following her

to that phone booth.

We believe
he encountered Alma,

maybe asking her for date,

and she rejected him.

And she got
in the phone booth

and started talking
to her husband.

I think John Clark Russell

walked up to Alma
when she was on the phone

and he forced
the phone booth door open,

stabbed her in the back.

She was telling her husband,

"He's back.

Hit me in the back
and I'm bleeding."

He then takes her,
puts her in her own car,

drove her several miles out

to this remote orchard
off of Rose Avenue.

He had no connection
to the orchard.

It's a secluded place
where he believes

no one will hear
Alma's screams.

Once he got her
out there, he raped her,

shot her twice in the head.

He dragged her,

put her in the hole,
and then covered her up.

In the darkness,
he probably didn't notice

that he had left
her hand exposed.

He then walked back to the car,
drove back to Oxnard,

parked it in the automotive
business parking lot,

jumped in his car
and drove home.

Mr. Russell
had acts of violence

against women
before he murdered Alma

and then he had acts
of violence

after he murdered Alma.

And since he picks
random people to victimize,

she would have been perfect
for him to victimize.

The trial lasts two weeks

and it takes less than a day

for the jury
to reach a verdict.

Mr. Russell was found
guilty of all charges,

including first degree murder

for the kidnapping
and rape of Alma.

It was such a relief.

I was in the gallery
with Jaime

so I was hugging
and I'm congratulating him.

And there's a lot of emotion

going on right there
in the-- the gallery.

It was very rewarding
to be able

to do something good
for that family.

We started crying.

We cried.

When you're waiting
for something so long

and it's finally answered
and you're just, I guess,

crying in-- in gratitude.

Alma's family
can finally move forward.

And though time
has not healed their wounds,

they hope the truth
and their undying love

for Alma eventually will.

There's so much
of her that--

that needs to be remembered,

her humor, her laughter.

Me and my-- my aunts
and my wife were--

were driving, trying
to locate the-- the address

of where-- where her body
was found.

And her name is Alma Rosa,

her middle name was Rosa
which means rose in Spanish.

I said, "You know what?
Let's go--

let's go buy a dozen roses."

And we found the site
and we went and planted,

like every 10 feet or so,

a rose all the way down
on the-- on the fence

just to let her know,

if her spirit
might have been there,

she-- she can know
that-- that we were there

and-- and we remember her.


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