Family still clings to hope nearly 38 years after Temple girl’s abduction
DAVID STONE | OUR TOWN TEMPLE
It was early afternoon on a Sunday when Angelica Gandara left her North 6th Street home to visit her grandma three blocks away. The 11-year-old briefly stopped at a friend’s house, then continued on her short journey. After a visit with her granny, she headed home. Angelica never arrived. That was nearly 38 years ago — July 14, 1985 — and she remains missing.
“We lived a block from Jackson Park, and she used to walk to grandmother’s house fairly often,” said Laura Gandara Mendoza, Angelica’s older sister. “Grandma lived on Main, so it was a quick walk.”
“We know she stopped at a house on the corner to see if her friend wanted to join her. The friend was busy, so Angelica continued on her own. She made it to grandma’s, and she left there at 3:30 p.m. She was never gone long when she went for a visit, so when it was 5 o’clock and she wasn’t back, we were concerned.”
Olivia Gandara, Angelica’s mother, said her youngest daughter was shy but happy. When she wasn’t home when expected, the family began checking the usual places.
“We called Grandma and were told Angelica had been gone for a good while,” Olivia said. “We checked with the friend on the corner and called for her in the park.”
“We were going to go to our farm in the country that day, and Angelica didn’t want to go. She decided to go to her grandmother’s instead.”
Family members figured Angelica had stopped at a friend’s house for a visit and lost track of time, but as the day turned to evening, they began to search.
“We started calling her friends and Lanier classmates, and we searched the alleys and the park,” Laura said. “After a couple of hours, we were really worried so we called the Temple police. They joined the search and started knocking on doors and talking to people in the park. No one saw or heard anything.”
Olivia said Angelica was a timid girl and would have never hopped in a car with a stranger.
“Never,” she said. “She was a homebody, and there’s no way she would have run away. And, she knew better than to get into a stranger’s vehicle. She had to have been abducted.”
Laura said the family was told by police that witnesses had reported two suspicious incidents — one the day before Angelica disappeared and one that might provide a clue as to what happened.
One neighbor allegedly saw Angelica pushing her niece in a stroller on July 13, according to a report on The Charley Project’s website. The Charley Project is an organization that profiles more than 14,000 “cold case” missing people. The report stated the neighbor saw a blue car pull up alongside Angelica and the driver attempted to get her to accept a ride. Angelical kept walking, and the car made the block, pulled back up to Angelica, then drove away.
“Angelica loved her niece,” Olivia said. “She enjoyed pushing her in the stroller and entertaining her.”
Another witness told authorities they saw Angelica inside a 1977 Chevrolet truck along with a white man and woman about the time she was on her walk, according to The Charley Project report. The witness told authorities the truck’s hood, front fender and bed were painted red and white. The doors were blue and white and the top of the truck was painted white. According to the witness, the vehicle was dirty, dented and “junky.”
Laura said police have had suspects in the case, and both men have been in prison for decades for crimes against girls. One of the men, Ramiro Rubi Ibarra, had a relationship with Angelica’s aunt who lived next door, and he eventually married her.
“We would see him next door, but he wasn’t a friendly person,” Laura said. “We actually had very little contact with him.”
In 1997, 12 years after Angelica had disappeared, Ibarra was convicted of the 1987 rape and murder of a 16-year-old girl from Waco. According to The Charley Report, Ibarra was an acquaintance of his victim’s family and he broke into their home and killed her. He was sentenced to death and is still awaiting execution on Texas’ death row.
In 2007, authorities announced they had considered former Fort Hood soldier David Elliot Penton a person of interest in Angelica’s disappearance and in the disappearances and murders of several other young girls, according to The Charley Report. Penton has been incarcerated in Ohio since 1987 and he signed a plea agreement admitting to the murders of three girls in Texas.
Penton’s Texas victims disappeared over a period of 18 months in the Dallas area, and they ranged in age from 4 to 9 years old. Penton had been convicted of manslaughter in the child abuse death of his own infant son in 1984, but he fled while free on bond and remained at large until 1987 when he was charged with the murder of a 9-year-old Ohio girl.
Penton’s cellmates alerted investigators that he had implicated himself in the disappearances of the three Dallas girls, and police feared he may have been involved in other Texas abductions. In fact, according to Penton’s cellmates, he claims to have abducted and killed more than 50 children.
“I was told Penton had trophies he had collected from victims, such as locks of hair and panties,” Laura said. “A few years ago, police collected Angelica’s DNA to see if it matched DNA collected at his home. A detective told us Penton mentioned Angelica’s name at one time, but he was never charged in her disappearance.”
“Still those are the two suspects we think could have been involved,” she said. “But nothing has been found to connect them to Angelica’s disappearance.”
According to Deputy Chief Jeff Clarke, the Temple Police Department has followed up on all leads over the years but has not been able to locate the girl or her abductor.
“Over the years, various leads and tips have been followed in the case, but none have resulted in concrete evidence or information about what may have happened to Angelica,” Clarke said.
“In the years since Angelica’s disappearance, advances in technology and forensic science have given investigators new tools to help solve cold cases like hers,” he added. “Even with the advances, no new persons of interest have been identified.”
Although portions of five decades have passed, the family still clings to hope that Angelica is alive and justice will be served to her abductors.
“We still have hope,” Olivia said. “I hope there’s someone out there, maybe someone who reads your article, that knows what happened that day. That is my hope.”
Laura’s sentiments echo those of her mother.
“Maybe the person responsible will confess,” she said. “Angelica had to have been abducted. She was smart — she knew better than to ride with a stranger. Someone grabbed her.”
“You know what is really frustrating?” Laura asked. “This still happens, even with all the tools and safeguards in place. Kids are taught about stranger danger, and it still happens a lot. It’s a sad situation.”
The Gandara family still honors Angelica’s memory and prays for her return every July.
“Absolutely,” Olivia said. “We miss her so much. We have a vigil on the anniversary and hang posters with green ribbons to remember missing children. This past year, we had bracelets made with Angelica’s name and photo on them. We will always remember her.”
Clarke said the case remains under investigation by Temple police.
“I urge anyone with information about Angelica’s whereabouts to come forward,” he said.
Over the past few years, the investigation has grown quiet.
“We hear from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children every few years,” Laura said. “They call to offer counseling and to let us know they are there for support. They also do age progression posters to show what she would look like as she aged. But that was a few years ago. We haven’t heard much lately, but we miss her every day.”
“If someone knows something, saw something or heard something, please come forward,” she said. “We need to know.”