Story by Ana Facio Contreras
Photos by Aurelio José Barrera
Since his daughter and granddaughter were murdered in Highland Park 17 years ago, Luis Navarro has waited for the killings to be solved under three sets of homicide detectives and three different chiefs of police. One thing, however, has remained constant: Navarro’s unwavering commitment to help find the person who killed his 22-year-old daughter, Veronica Ultreras and her 3-year-old daughter, Cynthia.
The 65-year-old plumber said the slaying of his second eldest child and his first grandchild has consumed his life, ended his marriage and alienated him from his family. His wife and four other children moved to Arizona more than 10 years ago, struggling to cope with the murders. Navarro told his family he would remain in California until police arrested the murderer. Earlier this year, Navarro once again convinced county leaders to renew their portion of a $100,000 reward to help find the killer. His effort to extend the reward is part of the oath Navarro said he made when mother and daughter laid in a casket at their funeral.
“I promised them I would never stop until the murderer was in prison,” said Navarro, a longtime El Sereno resident. “And I promised them that they would never be without flowers at their grave.”
The kindergarten teacher’s aide and her daughter were strangled in the early morning of Jan. 2, 1993 in their duplex at 848 North Avenue 50. In an attempt to cover up the crime, the killer set their Christmas tree on fire. Ultreras’ husband, Rodolfo “Rudy” Ultreras, was at work when the murders occurred.
Despite the $100,000 reward offered since 2004 by the city and county of Los Angeles, the double homicide remains unsolved. The reward, one of the largest in the history of Los Angeles, was offered through the offices of Los Angeles City Councilman Ed Reyes and county Supervisor Gloria Molina. Navarro has lobbied tirelessly each year to renew the reward. “We simply will not give up hope that this reward will compel someone to step forward with information that could lead to an arrest,” Molina said in an e-mail. “Veronica’s family deserves justice and closure. It is long overdue but we remain determined.”
About six weeks after the reward was renewed, on the same weekend as the Los Angeles Marathon, Navarro walked the hilly streets near the Highland Park duplex where his daughter was killed, passing out and posting 600 fliers in English and Spanish advertising the $100,000 reward “I have walked for 15 hours since yesterday,” Navarro said while taking a short break for water. “This is my marathon.”
“We’re offering $100,000 for information on the murder of my daughter and granddaughter,” Navarro said in Spanish as he handed a flier to a woman pushing a baby stroller out of a clothing store on Figueroa Street. “Please read this and talk about it with your family.” The young Latina woman looked at him and nodded before walking away. “There’s $100,000 reward for information,” Navarro yelled out at a man who rushed by as he took a flier bearing the faces of his daughter and granddaughter.
Only a handful of people he spoke to on Figueroa said they remembered the crime. A street vendor selling aprons near a Food 4 Less store said she remembered. “ Yes, I remember it was a woman and her child who died in a house that burned. I remember seeing it on TV,” said Hilda, who only gave her first name, in Spanish.
A Difficult Case
The night before the double murder, Navarro said he had been babysitting his granddaughter, Cynthia. He had been playing with her and by 9 p.m. the rambunctious toddler had fallen asleep in his arms. Veronica later picked up her daughter and took her home. Navarro cherishes the memory of the last moments spent with his granddaughter. “To dedicate your life to this is not easy,” Navarro said removing his eyeglasses to wipe away tears. “Every interview is painful and it hurts to talk about it.”
But Navarro, who has given dozens of interviews to reporters over the years, said he continues to speak to the press to keep the homicide case in the news. Over the years, Navarro has come up with ways to draw publicity to the unsolved homicides, including going on a hunger strike for several days and protesting in front of city hall and the police department. In his desperation, he even contacted a famous psychic who never responded to his inquiry.
Navarro said he finds it frustrating and “heartbreaking” when he learns of a homicide case in Los Angeles that is solved relatively quickly, within weeks or months. He gets upset at what he perceives to be an inequality in the resources that are directed at solving different homicides in the city. “I don’t blame the detectives but the system. The system is harsh,” Navarro said. “They (detectives) work with what they have, and the hours they are permitted to work.”
The homicide detectives, meanwhile, have grown accustomed to Navarro, who calls twice a week to check on the case. “Sometimes he calls me on the weekends when I’m not in the office,” said LAPD detective Ray Morales. “We’ve been managing our relationship together and so have many other detectives who have worked this case over the years. Some have since retired. It’s a unique relationship. It’s not one that most people are used to. “
Morales said solving the murders have been difficult in part because they happened at a time when some high-tech, crime-fighting tools were not readily available to aid the investigation. “We are pursuing some of the traditional and the current forensic advances on the case as best as we can and hopefully that will help us and help the family.” He wants to encourage people who live or lived in the neighborhood where the murders occurred to call police. “Anyone who wants to talk about this case, whether it’s a memory, whether it’s something someone told them, we’re not going to be critical of what the information is, we just want something that we can add and see if it fits.”
Navarro said he knows many Latinos are often mistrustful of police but he hopes that somebody will soon call with information that will lead to the arrest of the killer. “I think this will be the year when the case is solved. If it’s not, I will keep fighting,” Navarro said.
When he gets tired from his solitary mission, Navarro stops at a small church near his home and asks God to give him the strength to keep on going. He also visits the grave of his daughter and granddaughter every Wednesday. “I talk to them and ask them to help me with the case.”
The police ask that anyone with information in the case call the 24-hour anonymous tip line at 877- 529-3855.