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Crime News Murders

A Look Back at the Murder of Katie Sepich and the Creation of Katie's Law

After the senseless slaying of the young MBA student, her parent's advocated for change in DNA collection and won.

By Grace Jidoun
Katie Sepich's mother Jayann Sepich

On the morning of August 31, 2003, 22-year-old Katie Sepich’s lifeless body was found near a remote desert landfill in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Last seen by friends leaving a local house party after a night of bar hopping, it would take nearly four years to identify her killer.

Detectives never gave up in their search for answers, and neither did her parents. Though it would take nearly five years to apprehend the perpetrator, her baffling murder led to Katie’s Law, a breakthrough in Federal legislation to expand DNA collection spearheaded by Katie’s mom, Jayann Sepich. 

Described by her mom as an “outspoken, vivacious, intelligent” 22-year-old woman, she grew up in Carlsbad, New Mexico, the oldest of three siblings. Katie graduated with a business degree from New Mexico State University and was set to start grad school to get her MBA in the Fall. She worked as a waitress at a local Mexican restaurant and had been dating a young man named Joe Bischoff for eight months.

In an interview with Dateline, her parents shared an unusual fact about Katie: “She had a very husky voice, and she couldn’t scream,” said her mom, Jayann. It was a condition that existed all her life.

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Who was Katie Sepich’s boyfriend Joe Bischoff?

Her boyfriend at the time of her death, Joe Bischoff, quickly became the prime suspect in her murder.

Over Labor Day weekend in 2003, Katie was partying with Bischoff and her friends, moving from one bar to the next before landing at a local house party. By many accounts, Katie and Bischoff were in a rocky phase of their relationship. While she would soon start a new and exciting chapter of her life at grad school, he planned to move several hours away to help with a family business. Despite this, he told detectives they planned to get married, and he had given Katie a ring with her birthstone.

That evening, a bar’s security camera showed Katie and Bischoff holding hands, but they later got into a fight at the house party, where Katie caught him with another woman. When questioned by detectives nine hours after finding her body, Bischoff admitted to drunkenly kissing another woman but denied killing Katie, according to Dateline. During the investigation, nearly all party attendees, some 30 or 40 people, agreed to provide DNA samples to police except for Bischoff, who took off for his family’s home within days of her murder. He was among the few people in her wide circle of friends who didn’t attend the funeral. Convinced he was the culprit, police stashed a hidden camera at her gravesite to catch a confession, according to Dateline, and her parents offered a reward of $50,000 for information (later, they upped it to $100,000). Detectives eventually obtained Bischoff’s DNA from Katie’s bedsheets, which ultimately exonerated him.

Katie Sepich's mother Jayann Sepich

What happened to Katie Sepich?

Katie walked home alone from the party that night, leaving behind her purse, phone, and keys. As she was attempting to get into her house, she was brutally attacked outside her bedroom window. Her roommate’s mom was inside the house asleep, and though there were signs of a struggle in some gravel, Katie could not scream because of her condition, and the roommate’s mom unfortunately never woke up.

The next morning, Katie's roommate reported her missing and shortly thereafter, her remains were discovered by target shooters at a local landfill. Investigators determined that she had been sexually assaulted, strangled, and partially burned. 

Katie’s mother, Jayann, told Dateline, “I had a feeling, call it mother’s intuition. I had a very anxious feeling from the time I woke up that morning.”

When her dad, Dave Sepich, later identified her body in the morgue, he told reporters, “I fell to my knees.”

Who killed Katie Sepich?

Gabriel Avila, a 23-year-old married father unknown to Katie, sexually assaulted and murdered her by strangulation before putting her in the back of his pickup truck and dumping her body near a landfill face down. He doused her body with alcohol and lit her on fire, but the attempt to destroy her remains failed.

When interviewed by police, Avila explained he was in Katie’s neighborhood to score cocaine while his wife was out of town, and he almost “ran her over” after he left the drug dealer’s home. He saw her again in front of her house: “I stopped and asked her if she needed help. She goes ‘I just can’t get into my house. I don’t have my purse.’” According to his confession to police, “She put up a little bit of a fight… and for some reason, I decided I was going to strangle her… had my hands around her… I locked and I couldn’t let go,” he stated.

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How did the police catch Gabriel Avila?

DNA from under her fingernails and other parts of her body was uploaded to the national forensic database CODIS, eventually leading to Avila’s conviction. Still, it took several years to make the match. The only other big clue was the tire tracks from Avila’s truck that led up to the spot where practice shooters found her in the early morning hours.

Less than three months after brutally slaying Katie, Avila was arrested on November 13, 2003, when armed with a knife, he broke into the apartment of two young women. The college roommates avoided an attack by locking themselves in the bathroom and calling 911. He was convicted of aggravated burglary and with intent to commit aggravated assault in March 2004, according to the Albuquerque Journal, however, when he was released on bond, Avila made a run for it. The fugitive avoided police for nearly a year before he was apprehended in November 2004 based on a tip. He was sentenced to nine years in prison.

A DNA sample was taken from Avila upon entering prison, but it took another two years to be tested. When results provided a partial match to DNA taken from Katie Sepich’s crime scene, investigators jumped into action, quickly locating the truck Avila used to dump her body. In the center console, they found a ring belonging to Katie (though not the same one her boyfriend gave her). Avila pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, rape, kidnapping, and tampering with evidence and was sentenced to 69 years in prison. “This case would not have been solved without the DNA sample. This guy was not on anyone’s radar screen,” her dad, Dave Sepich, told the Albuquerque Journal in 2006.

Gov. Susana Martinez and Katie Sepich's family hold a press conference

What is Katie’s Law?

When DNA evidence was found on Katie’s body back in 2003, her parents were hopeful it would lead to a quick investigation, but in New Mexico and nearly every other state, it was illegal to take DNA when someone was arrested. DNA was only entered into the system if someone was convicted and sent to prison.

“I have to tell you, I was stunned. I knew that when someone was arrested, they take their fingerprints, they take their photograph. But it was illegal to use the most advanced, accurate scientific tool available to identify horrible monsters that are hunting down and slaughtering our children?” her mom Jayann said in testimony before the Pennsylvania state legislature. This sparked a nationwide campaign led by Katie’s parents to get a law named after their daughter passed in all 50 states, requiring anyone arrested on a violent crime to submit a DNA sample. The DNA would then be added to the CODIS national database.

In 2006, “Katie’s Bill” passed in the New Mexico state legislature with only five “no” votes and was signed into law in March 2006. Due to tireless advocating by Katie’s parents, it became federal law in 2010, and “over 31 states now have a statute similar to New Mexico’s Katie’s Law on the books,” former New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez wrote in 2018.

“My mom just wouldn’t take no for an answer. She just decided this was too important,” her youngest daughter, Caroline, told Dateline. Though Katie’s Law would not have prevented her death, it would have enabled detectives to find Avila much faster.

Avila will be eligible for parole in approximately 2043 after serving 30 years of his sentence.

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