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Crime News Cold Cases

Karate Instructor ‘Hiding In Plain Sight’ Charged With Two Women’s 1981 Murders

Rachel Zendejas and Lisa Gondek were raped and strangled to death more than 40 years ago in Ventura County, California, where suspect Tony Garcia was stationed during his time with the U.S. Navy. 

By Jax Miller

A California man is under arrest after DNA allegedly linked him to the unsolved murders of two young women.

Tony Garcia, 68, was taken into custody on Tuesday and charged with two counts of murder and related charges for the 1981 homicides of Rachel Zendejas, 20, and Lisa Gondek, 21, as announced in a press conference by multiple officials. Both women were strangled to death and sexually assaulted before their respective cases went cold.

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“After more than four decades, justice is finally coming to the families of Rachel Zendejas and Lisa Gondek,” said Ventura County District Attorney Erik Nasarenko. “As this case demonstrates, murder charges can be brought at any time, and there is no statute of limitations for homicides.”

The case began on Jan. 18, 1981, when two newspaper delivery boys — ages 9 and 14  — came upon the body of single mother-of-two and community college student Rachel Zendejas in Camarillo  — about 50 miles west of Los Angeles. The victim was killed in a carport just across the street from her apartment, which she shared with her brother and two young daughters, ages 1 and 2.

“Sheriff’s investigators learned that she had gone out for the evening and hired a couple of babysitters to sit with her daughters,” said Ventura County Sheriff Jim Fryhoff. “After returning from an evening out, Rachel drove the babysitters home.”

Police handouts of Lisa Gondek and Rachel Zendejas

Officials say they believe Zendejas’ killer “accosted” her after she returned and attempted to exit her vehicle.

“Detectives from the sheriff’s office investigated the case for several years until all leads were exhausted and the case became cold,” according to county officials.

Before year’s end, on the night of Dec. 11, 1981, police say Lisa Gondek, a retail worker living in Oxnard  — about 10 miles west of Camarillo  — attended a club at the Port Hueneme naval base, according to Chief Benites of the Oxnard Police Department.

After going to a disco together, the friends dropped Gondek off at her home at around 1:30 a.m. the following day, one and a half hours before a neighbor called in reports of a fire coming from Gondek's apartment.

After members of the Oxnard Fire Department extinguished the “smoldering fires,” Gondek’s body was discovered in the bathtub, according to Benites.

The cases were investigated separately from one another until 2002, when a new look at the suspect’s DNA from Zendejas’ crime scene was submitted to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). The search yielded no results, but in 2004, investigators looking into Gondek’s case notified the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office, announcing they’d linked both homicides to a single suspect using DNA testing.

But once again, the DNA returned no results for a suspect, and the case went cold.

In December 2019, Ventura County’s Cold Case Unit stepped in and opened a line of inquiry using genetic genealogy  — the now-common practice of identifying possible biological relatives using advanced DNA testing.

The investigation provided “new leads,” and further DNA testing confirmed Tony Garcia, of Oxnard, was the suspect in both homicides, leading to his Feb. 7 arrest, according to the Oxnard Police Department.

Police handouts of Tony Garcia

Sheriff Fryhoff stated the suspect was born in Roswell, New Mexico, but was enlisted in the U.S. Navy and stationed at Point Mugu near Oxnard. He was discharged in 1980 but remained in the area, where he became a karate student and instructor “for many years.”

“The fact is, this suspect has been hiding in plain sight for over 40 years,” said Sheriff Fryhoff.

Chief Benites said they “identified a number of common denominators” between the suspect and the victims, but declined to say what they were.

Earlier in the press conference, Benites stated Gondek came to visit Oxnard from Connecticut for a planned two-week trip to visit a friend in the U.S. Navy and ultimately decided to move to Oxnard months before the murder.

However, it remains unclear if Gondek and Garcia knew one another.

Garcia is charged with two counts of murder, plus special allegations of committing murder while engaged in a rape and committing murder while engaged in a kidnapping, according to the district attorney’s office. He made his first courtroom appearance in Ventura County on Thursday, where he was ordered held without bail.

Investigators are looking into the possibility that Garcia might be involved in other crimes and are appealing to the public for help. Anyone with information can contact the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office Major Crimes Bureau at 1-805-383-8704 or email their cold case unit at coldcase@ventura.org.

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