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Valerie Benavides Laguna and son died at Cristo Rey Cemetery in 2005; Investigators continue working case
The gruesome discovery of a battered body in the tranquil surroundings of a rural cemetery outside Cotulla in the summer of 2005 shocked the community, sparked rumors, raised suspicions among neighbors, and left all questions unanswered.
The crime was made all the more tragic when it was revealed that the murder victim was a local resident, well known in the community, and that her unborn baby boy had died with her.
Valerie Benavides Laguna, 26, heavily pregnant at the time, had been bludgeoned to death in the Cristo Rey Cemetery beside FM 624 on July 19, leaving few clues – if any – as to why she had been at that place and who had taken her there.
If her son had lived, he could be a senior in high school this year.
La Salle County sheriff’s deputies dispatched to the scene of the crime collected evidence that they believed would immediately lead them to a suspect. The sheriff’s chief deputy at the time, Chris Champion, was confident that prosecution by the 81st Judicial District Attorney would begin promptly and that it was possible a guilty verdict could lead to the death penalty for a culprit.
Today, 17 years and four sheriffs later, investigators remain as stumped over the double murder as they were in the first weeks of the case.
Mother and child were exhumed from their final resting place in 2014 when then-Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez’ officers believed DNA evidence would bring them closer to solving the crime.
The casket was returned to the ground only hours after being lifted.
The murder victims were finally given their own gravestone that year.
Successive sheriffs in La Salle County have reinvigorated public awareness of the ongoing investigation. Banners bearing Valerie’s photo have been hung on the fence at the county impound yard on North Main Street; rewards have been promised; and hopeful law enforcement officials have indicated they believe the case may be solved through forensic evidence.
To date, officers have remained tight-lipped, stating only that the case remains under investigation. The entire file, however, has been submitted with evidence to the Texas Rangers, whose cold case division continues working on a solution.
In La Salle County, the law enforcement telephone number has been posted for years, but no one with new information has come forward.
The sheriff’s phone hasn’t rung with that critical tip.
The investigation, however, continues unabated. Case files do not gather dust, and every officer involved has made it clear that law enforcement will not give up. Interviews have been conducted with anyone who may have seen Valerie on the last day of her life, or even in the days immediately prior, including relatives, friends and community members who interacted with her.
“Valerie was known in town as the young woman who walked everywhere,” Sheriff’s Lt. Homar Olivarez said of the murder victim. “She didn’t have a car. Locals would see her walking and they’d give her a ride.”
Olivarez was serving as an emergency dispatcher in La Salle County at the time of the murder and was on duty the day that Valerie’s body was discovered.
“We were a trusting and innocent community, in our own way, until that day in July,” the lieutenant said. “We had faith in the goodness of others. We wouldn’t imagine someone doing any harm to a woman like Valerie. She was a happy person, always smiling.”
It was one of those passing motorists, maybe someone known to her, who was last to see Valerie alive.
Investigators have been unable to determine whether Valerie was taken to Cristo Rey Cemetery against her will. They have yet to find any other witnesses to the woman’s last journey. They are confident, however, that whoever took Valerie to the cemetery either witnessed her murder or was responsible for it.
In a new investigative step, the sheriff’s office submitted physical evidence to Williamson County in August 2020 for a deeper DNA examination with state-of-the-art equipment that is capable of extracting trace elements from porous items such as clothing.
“We have followed up with a lot over the years,” Olivarez said in 2020. “It’s been a continual investigation between us and the Texas Rangers.”
If there is anyone else’s DNA on the evidence that may not have been previously detected, the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office NVAC machine may find it, Lt. Olivarez said.
Since then, La Salle County has worked with a private laboratory in Virginia, in collaboration with the Texas Rangers, who used state grant funding for cold case investigations in order to continue the effort.
“Things are actively being processed as we speak,” Lt. Olivarez said this week. “This gives me renewed hope that we will have forensic evidence in this case that will help us identify whoever was responsible.”
Last week, on the anniversary of Valerie’s and her son’s deaths, Sheriff Anthony Zertuche and his top-ranking officers hung a new banner on the fence at the impound yard. Valerie’s mother, Rachel Benavides, was there with other family members to witness the unveiling.
The fresh banner’s colors may be brighter, but Valerie’s photo is the same. Her cheerful face has been frozen in time for all the years in which her little boy should have grown up to become a man. She still smiles today the way she might have been thankful for a ride to the store, or the gift of a few dollars for groceries.
It is her innocence that taunts the people of Cotulla.
Investigators believe someone responsible for the double murder may have seen the sign or, perhaps more unsettling to those who continue to grieve, has passed the sign every day since the first was hung there, at least 15 years ago.
Sheriffs Robbie Thomas, Victor Villarreal, Miguel Rodriguez and Anthony Zertuche have each at some stage in their tenure made it clear they believe one or more people living in Cotulla today holds a key part of the story and may know something that will help bring closure to the Benavides and Laguna families.
The sheriff’s office continues asking that anyone with information related to the case call (830) 879-3044 and ask to speak to a sheriff’s investigator or a Texas Ranger.
“The community has hurt for too long,” Olivarez said in 2020, on the 15th anniversary of the crime. “Not only do Valerie and her child need peace, but the community as a whole needs to be able to put this to rest, finally.
“To the living, we owe respect,” Olivarez said. “To the dead, we owe the truth.”
“If you see something, say something,” Sheriff Zertuche said this month, reminding the public of the old adage. The banner he has hung displays his office phone number and a plea for information in the case.
“I will not settle on this case remaining unsolved,” the sheriff said. “We will continue to work this case until we bring the responsible to justice.”