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‘Hiding in plain sight’: California officials say suspect in cold case murders lived in area for decades

L-R: Tony Garcia is looking directly into the camera and not smiling; Rachel Zendejas is wearing a red pattern blouse and red pants and is leaning slightly over a table. She has shoulder-length brown hair. Lisa Gondek is seen in a picture smiling at the camera. She has short brown hair and is standing next to someone with their arm around her.

L-R: Tony Garcia, Rachel Zendejas, Lisa Gondek (images via Ventura County (Calif.) District Attorney).

California officials say that the man who killed two women in 1981 has been “hiding in plain sight” for decades.

Law enforcement from Ventura County and Oxnard announced the arrest of Tony Garcia on Thursday in the cold case deaths of Rachel Zendejas and Lisa Gondek, who were killed almost one year apart.

Zendejas, 20, was a resident of Camarillo, located between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. On the night she died, she had gone out to a nightclub with friends, Ventura County Sheriff Jim Fryhoff said in a press conference Thursday. The single mother, who was living with her brother and two young daughters while attending community college at the time, had hired babysitters that night, Fryhoff said.

“Based on the evidence left at the scene, investigators believe that Rachel was accosted as she got out of her vehicle after returning home from dropping off the babysitters,” Fryhoff said.

Her body was discovered by two newspaper delivery boys, who were 9 and 14 years old, in a carport across from where she lived. The coroner determined that she had been strangled to death, and evidence indicated that she had been sexually assaulted, Fryhoff said.

Investigators exhausted all leads on the case, Fryoff said, but it went cold.

At the end of that same year, on Dec. 12, 1981, Garcia allegedly murdered Gondek, according to Oxnard Police Chief Jason Benites. Gondek, 21, had moved to Oxnard, located a few miles west of Camarillo, from Connecticut, after a two-week trip in mid-1981 turned into a decision to stay in California full-time, Benites said. She was working at an area shopping mall at the time of her death.

On Dec. 11, 1981, she had gone out with friends to two area nightclubs, returning home after 1:30 a.m., when she was dropped off by friends.

At around 3:00 a.m., a neighbor reported seeing a fire coming out of Gondek’s apartment. Responding firefighters found Gondek’s body in her apartment bathtub. The medical examiner ruled she had been strangled and suffocated.

Officials didn’t link the cases until 2004 when DNA that had been entered into law enforcement offender databases indicated that the same person killed both women. However, no leads were generated at that time, and the cases went cold again.

Then in 2019, the Ventura County cold case unit identified Garcia as the suspect through “genetic genealogy,” in which law enforcement utilizes commercial websites to search for genetic connections to possible suspects. The practice has increasingly been used to solve cold cases and, at times, exonerate suspects.

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At a press conference on Thursday, Ventura County District Attorney Erik Nasarenko announced that Garcia has been charged with two counts of murder in the women’s deaths. He was also charged with the rape and kidnapping of Zendejas.

“Because the same alleged killer is named in both offenses, we have filed special circumstance of multiple murders against Tony Garcia,” Nasarenko said.

Benites said that there were some “common denominators” in the slayings of the two women, but it was too soon to release that information to the public.

Garcia is a longtime resident of Oxnard. A New Mexico-born Navy veteran who served from 1974 until being discharged in 1980, Garcia remained in the Oxnard area for decades, becoming a karate student and instructor, Fryhoff said.

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

“Since Lisa’s murder, to put this into some context, literally two generations of detectives have been working on this case,” Benites said. “We’ve been familiar with this case for many many years and we are glad to see it closed.”

Garcia made his first appearance in court on Thursday. His arraignment is set for Feb. 23, Ventura officials said. He is currently being held in the Ventura County Jail without bail.

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