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High School Prom King Strangled College Student During Attemped Sexual Assault
After celebrating at a New Year's Eve party, Valerie Zavala Wilson was choked to death. Her killer's criminal pattern led to his capture.
A time for new beginnings turned into a tragedy. On New Year’s Day in 2003, a 911 caller reported stumbling upon the body of a dead woman in a roadside drainage culvert in the citrus-farming town of Fillmore, California.
“The body was partially nude,” Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub told Homicide for the Holidays, airing on Oxygen. “The shirt was pulled up. The bottom clothing, pants or a skirt … was missing.”
The woman was covered with cypress branches and wore just one earring. Blood oozing from her ear wasn’t dry, an indicator the victim hadn’t been there for long.
Valerie Zavala Wilson slain after attending a New Year's Eve party
Investigators processed evidence at the scene, including shoe prints. They determined the death wasn't an accident. “Something happened on New Year’s Eve,” said Jose Rivera, Chief of Police, Ojai PD. “A violent crime occurred.”
The victim was identified as 19-year-old Valerie Zavala Wilson, who’d been reported missing by her family. “Her parents said that Valerie was beloved in the community,” said Ayub. “She had no known enemies. She wasn’t involved in criminal activity.”
Friends said Wilson had a contagious laugh. She was thinking about becoming a teacher and attending San Jose State University. She’d come home for the holidays.
Police learned that Wilson had attended a New Year’s Eve party thrown by a friend. She’d left for the party at 8:30 p.m. and checked in with her parents at 1 a.m., telling them that her friend Anna had been drinking so she was driving her home in Anna’s car. Wilson also agreed to drop off 17-year-old Samuel “Sammy” Puebla, a classmate of Wilson’s sister.
Detectives focused on tracking down Anna’s car to collect evidence and sought to interview Puebla. He confirmed he was at the party and that Wilson gave him a lift home.
“Sammy said they hugged real briefly when she dropped him off,” said Ayub. “And it was the last time he saw her.”
Valerie Zavala Wilson's ex-boyfriend becomes a person of interest
Police discovered that Valerie had planned to meet Isaac Flores, an ex-boyfriend after dropping her two passengers off.
“We learned from Valerie’s friends that Isaac had jealousy issues that had caused problems,” said Melissa Smith, a now retired captain with Ventura County Sheriff’s Office.
“When we heard that they were going to connect that night and that Valerie hadn't been seen since Isaac became a person of interest,” Smith added.
Anna’s car was found parked at a market a few blocks from the homes of both Flores and Puebla. Wilson’s purse, blouse, and jacket were recovered from the vehicle.
Detectives interviewed Flores, who confirmed that he and Wilson exchanged a number of calls and had made plans to get together. “Isaac indicated that Valerie never showed up at his house,” said Rivera.
Valerie Zavala Wilson's Cause of Death
Two days later, the autopsy revealed that Wilson had a busted eardrum and other contusions. “There was also blunt force trauma to her head,” said Rivera.
Other signs showed that Wilson’s body had been dragged. Indicators confirmed detectives’ suspicion that Wilson had not been killed where her body was found but was moved there after the crime took place. “The coroner determined that Valerie had died as a result of asphyxiation and the manner of death was ruled to be a homicide,” said Rivera.
As police worked the case, a fresh lead emerged a week into the investigation. A witness reported seeing a heavyset Hispanic man in his 20s standing outside a teal van at the spot where Wilson was found, detectives said.
A composite sketch was made and distributed to news outlets. Crime Stoppers offered a $1,000 reward for more information, according to investigators.
The next day a tip came in from a couple who was driving out of Fillmore after a New Year’s Eve party in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day. “They happened to look over and saw a subject standing next to Anna’s black sedan that was parked inside the market,” said Rivera.
They said the individual they observed was a man in his 20s who weighed about 200 pounds. The description matched the other witness’ report. It included that he was wearing a two-toned gray jacket.
High school senior Samuel Puebla becomes a suspect
The case stalled but eventually a new break in the case came when a detective who’d been away on vacation returned on Jan. 6. He was briefed on the case, including the fact that Puebla was likely the last person to see Wilson alive.
In early December, the same detective had previously interviewed Puebla about a robbery. In that case, he told investigators, Puebla dumped things that he didn’t want from the robbery in a dumpster at St. Francis of Assisi church.
“Criminals tend to do what is comfortable and what has worked for them in the past,” said Ayub. On Jan. 7, detectives headed to the church to search for clues related to Wilson’s murder.
In addition to cypress clippings, they found a pair of women’s underwear, an earring like the one on Wilson’s body, and shoe prints.
DNA later confirmed the clothes and jewelry were Wilson’s. DNA results from Wilson’s remains revealed something unexpected. “There was saliva on her chest,” said Rivera.
The investigators believed that Puebla put the evidence in the dumpster after Wilson’s murder, just as he did after the burglary. “We really refocused our efforts on Samuel Puebla,” said Ayub.
On Jan. 7, investigators obtained a warrant to search Puebla’s residence and to swab his cheek for DNA. Stashes of women’s underwear and cell phones found in his bedroom suggested that Puebla was stealing trophies from young women in the community.
During a second interview with authorities, Puebla initially stuck to his original story of how he’d shared a brief hug before getting out of the car.
“We confronted Sammy about the possibility of his DNA being found on the body of Valerie,” said Ayub. Puebla then changed his story. He claimed that he and Wilson had been kissing and that they were going to engage in consensual sexual behavior.
Knowing that Wilson was headed to see her ex-boyfriend, police didn’t buy Puebla’s revised account.
At this point in the interview, Puebla became uncomfortable and claimed that he was cold from sitting outside. Ayub went inside to fetch a jacket and ended up picking up a dark and light gray jacket matching the witnesses’ description.
The article was collected as evidence. DNA found on Puebla’s jacket was confirmed to be a match for Wilson’s. Saliva on the victim’s body belonged to Puebla. Additionally, a shoe print at the crime scene matched Puebla’s sneaker.
Samuel Puebla arrested and convicted for Valerie Zavala Wilson's murder
Puebla was arrested for murder, sending shockwaves through the community. He was a straight-A student and a prom king
“The community just couldn't believe that somebody like that had been living among them,” Santa Paula Times reporter Peggy Kelly told Homicide for the Holidays.
Puebla’s trial began on July 9, 2004. The prosecution made a case that Puebla turned violent after he made a pass at Wilson and she rebuffed him. They theorized he killed her at the church and later dumped her body in the drainage ditch.
Puebla was convicted of murder and murder during the commission of an attempted sexual assault. He was sentenced to life in prison. He is currently behind bars at Ironwood State Prison in California.
To learn more about the case, watch Homicide for the Holidays on Oxygen.