On the Run

After the brutal murder of a Tucson woman, police allowed the prime suspect to walk away

On March 14, 2008, Martha Flores, a 46-year-old mother of two, was found dead. She had been brutally murdered.

The main suspect was never arrested, even though the Tucson Police Department had him under guard at a local hospital following the murder. He was allowed to walk away—and he promptly disappeared. DNA evidence eventually linked him to Martha's murder, and there is a warrant out for his arrest.

This is a story I know well. Too well—and the fact that I asked so many questions about it may have cost me my job.

In 2008, I was the counselor at Our Mother of Sorrows Catholic School (OMOS), the school that Martha's children attended. I never met Martha, but an outside counselor and I provided grief counseling for the school community after her death. Martha's family members described her as "one of the sweetest people you would ever meet." She was a beloved member of the church community and the OMOS Mothers' Club.

On the evening of March 14, 2008, Martha's husband—the couple was going through a divorce—was returning their children to Martha's home. After she did not respond to phone calls or knocks, Martha's husband called her sister, Gabriela Estrada, who traveled to Martha's residence, along with a neighbor. Gabriela and the neighbor looked through a crack in the blinds—and saw Martha on the floor. They called 911.

Gabriela told me she immediately suspected Joaquin Brambilia Vasquez. She described him as a man "wanting a relationship with her that Martha did not want."

He is the brother of Rocio Brambilia Zamora, a friend of both Martha and Gabriela, and also a member of the OMOS parish.

The night Martha Flores was found dead, Brambilia Vasquez was hospitalized after he allegedly took over-the-counter drugs and crashed his sister's car in what was believed to be a suicide attempt.

According to TPD records, Gabriela told an Officer Galvan that Brambilia Vasquez "is known to be very jealous and violent." She told him "her sister wanted to stop seeing him, but he was very insistent that she stay with him." She also told police that he "used to show up at her sister's house almost every day, and at all hours of the day." She also noted that Martha had told her, "(Brambilia Vasquez) had a violent past in Mexico and that is why he moved to the United States."

When the lead detective, William Hanson, interviewed Gabriela, she told him: "Joaquin's sister, Rocio (Brambilia Zamora), is a good friend of ours. She didn't like Joaquin dating Martha. ... (The night of the murder), I called Joaquin's phone and talked to Rocio. Rocio told me that Joaquin had an accident and was at the hospital. ... I told her, you know he would do this. ... Rocio said that she was sad he did this to my sister."

According to other police records, Brambilia Vasquez was in a one-car accident in a white Ford Escort on the night Martha was found. Police "located an empty box of 48 count Benadryl inside the Ford Escort." A Walgreens receipt for the Benadryl was found in Brambilia Vasquez's wallet.

A Det. Whitfield left the murder scene to join a Det. Deakin at St. Joseph's Hospital, where Deakin told Whitfield that Rocio Brambilia Zamora said she was hearing "bad things." When Det. Deakin attempted to get more details, she said "she wanted a lawyer."

Officers were assigned to stay with Brambilia Vasquez.

Det. Deakin spoke to Rocio Brambilia Zamora for a short time and then advised her (Zamora) that she was being detained pending further investigation, according to a report by another officer. "Zamora told the nurses that her body felt numb and triaged (sic) to be seen in the emergency room." Her husband, Francisco Zamora, was with her at the hospital.

After Zamora was released from the emergency room, Det. Hanson "took a recorded statement from her ... with her husband present (Spanish- speaking assistance)." Det. Hanson recorded, "She denied any knowledge of the murder or any statements made by her brother about the victim."

Later that night, Det. Hanson and Det. Whitfield "served the search warrant on Joaquin Brambilia Vasquez for his DNA and hand swabs." According to Det. Whitfield, the search warrant was served on the suspect's car, a white Ford Escort belonging to Rocio Brambilia Zamora.

Det. Whitfield also records contact with one of Martha's neighbors, who "around 20:15 hours on March 13, 2008, saw a white Ford Escort in front of the victim's house." (Records indicate that although Martha Flores was found on March 14, she was probably killed on March 13.)

On March 15, 2008, Det. Hanson was called at home by TPD dispatchers, because Brambilia Vasquez was being released from St. Joseph's Hospital.

Det. Hanson, accompanied by Spanish-speaking Detective Rede, went to the hospital that night. Det. Rede wrote: "I then advised Brambilia (Vasquez) that Det. Hanson wanted to speak to him regarding an incident with his girlfriend (Martha Flores). Det. Hanson advised Brambilia of his Miranda Rights. Brambilia evoked his Miranda Rights. ... I advised Brambilia that his girlfriend had passed away under suspicious circumstances. Brambilia advised me that his sister Rocio had advised him an hour earlier that Martha had been beaten and left for dead. ... Brambilia advised me that he had better wait to speak to an attorney prior to making any statements."

Rede continued: "Det. Hanson provided Brambilia with his business card and contact information. I advised Brambilia in Spanish that he could contact Det. Hanson after he obtained legal representation if he wished to make a statement."

In an interview with Det. Hanson, he told me that it was not clear when Brambilia Vasquez left St. Joseph's Hospital. He said he called the Zamora home the next night, on March 16, 2008, and was told Brambilia Vasquez was not available.

A DNA test came back positive in September 2008, and a warrant was issued for Brambilia Vasquez's arrest.

Det. Hanson told me that he's done all he could to arrest Brambilia Vasquez, but was not specific. He said that Brambilia Vasquez wouldn't talk at the hospital, and there was no confession and no eyewitness. Hanson said had he arrested Brambilia Vasquez, he might have been accused of false arrest. Hanson acknowledged that he could have called Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but said that they would have deported him in 72 hours.

I asked Det. Hanson if he was looking for him, and he said, "He's in Mexico." He also said that Rocio Brambilia Zamora claims not to know where Brambilia Vasquez is.

Rocio Brambilia Zamora declined to comment for this story.

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