DNA leads to arrest of Texas man in 1996 rape, murder of California teen found in ravine

LOS ANGELES — Gladys Arellano would have celebrated her 42nd birthday Saturday, surrounded by family and friends.

Instead, Arellano’s sister and niece clutched each other’s hand tightly on Wednesday as Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department officials announced the arrest of the man accused of raping and killing Arellano, 17, before tossing her body into a Malibu ravine in 1996.

Jose Luis Garcia, 43, was arrested by U.S. marshals Sept. 29 in Dallas. He was extradited Oct. 14 to Los Angeles County, where he is being held on $1 million bail.

He is charged with murder in Arellano’s slaying.

“This case is typical of the type of cases that the unsolved detectives are faced with on a daily basis,” Detective Lt. Hugo Reynaga said. “We are gratified that we were successful in bringing this tragic case to a close.”

Arellano’s niece and goddaughter, Samantha Moreno, spoke movingly of the need to remember her godmother, as well as all other women who are victims of violence.

“Recognizing her life is important. Beautiful Latina souls from Boyle Heights should never be forgotten,” Moreno said. “Acts of violence against women should never be forgotten.”

Moreno thanked the detectives who never lost sight of finding justice. Gladys Arellano’s case was worked by retired detectives Joe Purcell and Shaun McCarthy, who both work part-time on the Sheriff’s Department’s Unsolved Case Unit.

“Thank you for not giving up on our Gladys, who was a loving daughter, sister, aunt and godmother,” Moreno said. "Gladys was only 17 when she was murdered. She had a beautiful soul. She was beautiful, intelligent, gorgeous and she had a radiant smile.

“She had such big dreams for her life. My grandparents would have been so proud of her.”

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Moreno said she was grateful Garcia was off the streets after nearly a quarter-century.

“We want nothing more than for him to pay for his brutal crime,” she said. "We recognize that this will not bring Gladys back, but we are relieved to know that there will be justice for Gladys.

“This is a victory that we acknowledge in her honor, and we look forward to more victories.”

The victim’s sister, Elizabeth Arellano, offered a similar statement in Spanish.

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Gladys Arellano was last seen at her Boyle Heights home on Jan. 28, 1996. When she failed to return home, her family reported her missing the next day, Reynaga said.

The detective said the teen’s partially-clothed body was found 30 feet off a main road, in a ravine, in Topanga Canyon on Jan. 30. She had been raped, beaten and strangled.

“Serology evidence was collected from Gladys' body and subsequently a DNA profile was uploaded to the state and federal DNA databases as (that of) an unknown offender,” Reynaga said. “Although an extensive investigation was completed by homicide investigators at the time, no match was identified through the DNA databases, and the case remained unsolved.”

That was until Nov. 10, 2019, when Garcia was arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department for a domestic assault charge. During the booking process, a DNA swab was taken from Garcia and processed, then uploaded into the California DNA database.

In December, cold case investigators got a hit.

Watch Wednesday’s news conference below.

Detectives visited Garcia at his home in Fontana, where they questioned him about his knowledge of the Arellano killing, which took place when Garcia was 19 years old. They also obtained a second DNA swab from him, Reynaga said.

The Los Angeles County crime lab tested the swab, which confirmed that Garcia’s genetic profile matched the unidentified sample taken from Gladys Arellano’s body in 1996.

By that point, Garcia had relocated to Texas, where he was arrested late last month.

According to Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, the department’s Unsolved Case Unit is made up of 12 retired homicide detectives who all work on a part-time basis. Among the dozen investigators is a combined experience level of 500 years on the job, he said.

“These detectives continuously review cold cases and take all the pieces of workable information and leads which have not been exhausted, and they’ll take them as far as they will go,” Villanueva said. “Newly-discovered witnesses, advancements in science and technology and anonymous tips contribute to the success of these investigators in solving these cases.”

The Sheriff’s Department is still seeking additional information on Garcia, including any information about other crimes he may have committed. Besides California and Texas, he also has ties to Colorado.

Anyone with information can contact Purcell or McCarthy at 323-890-5500 or call Los Angeles Regional Crime Stoppers at 800-222-TIPS (8477). Crime Stoppers can also be reached online at lacrimestoppers.org.

Moreno offered encouragement to other families awaiting justice in cases long gone cold.

“There is hope,” she said. “And we pray for you and your loved ones. We pray that the system will bring these criminals to justice.”

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