From the moment they occurred during the same week 39 years ago, the homicides of Carla Walker and Linda Espinoza had only one thing in common — both remain unsolved.
Walker, a high-profile junior at Western Hills High School in Fort Worth, was abducted in the parking lot of a Benbrook bowling alley. Her body was found in a culvert near Lake Benbrook several days later with evidence that she had been raped and strangled.
The Walker case was heavily publicized and heavily policed, initially by as many as 25 Fort Worth officers, then by Tarrant County detectives and the Texas Rangers. One retired Fort Worth officer worked the case to his dying day, convinced he knew who did the killing.
Compared to Walker, the 23-year-old Espinoza was a face in the crowd.
She resided at least part-time with family at 306 N. Washington St. on Cleburne’s east side and was probably unknown to readers of the Times-Review until her nude, badly decomposed body was found Feb. 14 in a creek bed near Grandview. A knife wound to the chest proved fatal.
Johnson County Sheriff’s Office personnel worked the Espinoza case as attentively as their limited manpower allowed.
According to a Feb. 16, 1974, Times-Review article, “C.C. Kennard, criminal investigator for the 18th Judicial District, said he and Sheriff’s Department investigators Al Stone and Jerry Hughes talked to probably 15 persons.
“[Kennard] said there have been no arrests and they have no good suspect on the information now available.”
Ironically, that may be to the advantage of the current Johnson County Cold Case squad as it begins another investigation of a long-dormant case.
There is considerable information about the Espinoza case to explore. For one, her home address is East James in one story and North Washington in her obituary.
The cold case squad has a number of members to explore such discrepancies. That includes the group’s latest addition, Jim Varnon who, until his retirement, worked as Fort Worth’s ace crime scene investigator.
According to the Times-Review article, “The last contact anyone reported with Ms. Espinoza was early on the morning of Dec. 14, 1973. At that time, police received a report of a disturbance at her residence on E. James St. Police Lt. N.H. Laseman found some mattresses on fire in the back yard and called the fire department.
“A friend of Ms. Espinoza’s told police she had received a call from [Espinoza] saying she needed some help, and [fire personnel] responded, finding the mattresses on fire, but Ms. Espinoza was not there and they never saw her alive again.
“Kennard said that at the same point in time, Hill County officers received a call from a passing motorist that a nude woman was fighting with two men on the roadside of IH-35W in Hill County. The officers went to the scene but found no one. They did find a bundle of women’s clothing.”
The story said officers conjectured she was killed elsewhere and dumped about a mile north of Grandview, where a bridge intersects the east service road of the interstate.
Another story said Espinoza was found by two teenage brothers, Hoby and Joe Hughes, who were hunting raccoons. They reported their find to James Blake and Wesley Leonard, employees of Johnson County Water Supply Corp.
The obituary identified her as being survived by sons Joseph and Larry Espinoza and mother Mrs. Mary Cortez, all of Cleburne, three brothers and two sisters.
The same week, the Times-Review reported that an Espinoza family member at the Washington address was charged with assault on a 6-month old child. The complaint, filed in the court of Peace Justice Vernon Asher, was signed by Police Lt. Billy Hudson. The charges were eventually dropped.
Questions for law enforcement of today:
What was Espinoza’s primary residence? Why was she at the East James Street residence the night of the mattress fire? When was she last seen at the Washington Street residence? Was she abducted? If so, where and when? Who were the men with whom she was fighting near Grandview? Was the bundle of clothing preserved as physical evidence? Did she have a history of problems with any acquaintances or family members?
Who killed her?
Matt Smith contributed
to this story.