Rosa Avina was murdered over $750 worth of drugs, Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin said Wednesday, and five people have been arrested in connection with her savage death.
Four people have been charged with murder in the Oct. 24 case where the 27-year-old Livingston woman was bound, gagged and burned alive and another man is being held as an accessory to the crime.
Avina was killed in retaliation for taking marijuana and an "eight ball" of crystal methamphetamine two weeks before, Pazin said at an afternoon press conference.
Avina's family members and friends were glad to hear arrests have been made in the case and described her as a fun-loving, considerate person.
Pazin said Avina was duped into going willingly from Livingston to a house on Clifford Avenue in Turlock where a fake home invasion robbery was staged.
It was at this point Avina was bound and taken in the early morning hours to a remote South Avenue location in Ballico, doused with a flammable liquid and set on fire.
Burned beyond recognition, Avina walked nearly a mile before collapsing. She died two days later in a burn unit at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose.
"We have lowered the bar on what a life is worth," Pazin said. "She met them (attackers) a couple weeks previous and allegedly ripped them off. They (drug traffickers) are ruthless."
Arrested on charges of murder, conspiracy, mayhem, torture and kidnapping were Alvaro Montanez Reyes, 28, of Livingston; Omar Cebrero, 28, of Turlock; Luis A. Valencia, 24, of Delhi; and Urbano M. Ortega, 27, of Livingston.
Renulfo M. Ortega, 23, of Livingston, is being held as an accessory to murder and on a conspiracy charge and unrelated narcotics warrant, Deputy Paul Barile, Merced County Sheriff's Department spokesman, said.
Those arrested were characterized as members of a mid-level drug trafficking organization with no central ringleader.
"It (home invasion) was a ruse to get Rosa out of the area; she was basically kidnapped," Pazin said. "This had nothing to do with her personal life. Regardless of lifestyle, no one deserves this type of demise. It was the barbaric drug trade in Merced County which has spilled into Stanislaus County and will go full circle to Fresno County. This was a convoluted case and a demanding investigation."
Pazin drew parallels between Avina's death and the murder of a man on Santa Fe Drive in the Ballico area in August and a May case where a man's burned body was found in an abandoned Gustine barn but did not say specifically the cases were related.
Officers have yet to "connect the dots" in these cases but can't discount possible ties. Merced County is a hotbed of meth production, Pazin said, and drug traffickers don't know jurisdictional boundaries and operate over a wide area of the San Joaquin Valley.
Avina's family understandably is upset over losing a family member and trying to work through this tragedy, the sheriff said.
Investigation of Avina's killing took the department's Special Tactics and Reconnaissance team and Major Crimes Unit officers to Ballico, Delhi, Livingston and Turlock. Eight search warrants were served during the investigation.
A vehicle stop in Delhi led to the unrelated arrest of four people in connection with the recent sexual assault and molestation of a 16-year-old Turlock girl, according to Sgt. Jeff Lopes and Capt. Dave Young of the Turlock Police Department, which collaborated in the Avina murder probe.
Arrested on rape and lewd-lascivious conduct were Victor V. Gonzalez, 30, of Turlock; Pedro G. Vasquez, 31, of Livingston, Ezequiel B. Rios, 32, of Turlock and Elver A. Torrez, 24, of Livingston.
All have immigration holds and Torrez also is charged with drug sales.
Avina's longtime friend, Olivia Ramos of Atwater, said she didn't deserve what happened to her.
Ramos had known Avina since she was in eighth grade and they went to Atwater High School together.
"She was fun, full of life. She liked to make people laugh and she was a clown trying to cheer us up," Ramos said. Avina talked to Ramos about a week before her death and had visited Ramos' children about two weeks before the incident.
Rosa Avina's hero in life was her mother, Isabel Avina, Ramos said. Avina was part of a group of girls who kept in touch since school days. The tallest of the group, her friends jokingly called her "Mom," Ramos said.
Ramos said Avina liked all kinds of music and dancing. Avina's brother, Felipe Avina of Atwater, was glad to hear arrests were made in connection with his sister's murder.
"It's nice to know these animals won't be on the streets anymore," Felipe Avina said. "This (murder) doesn't make sense to me and was a heinous crime."
Rosa Avina was a fun-loving person who was happy to be alive and never hurt anybody. Felipe Avina said he last saw his sister a couple months ago at a relative's birthday party.
Marina Avina, Rosa's sister, said she was glad somebody has been caught and hopes justice will be done. She declined further comment.
Reyes remains in Merced County Jail in lieu of $1 million bail. Cebrero, Valencia and Ortega are being held without bail, according to a correctional official.
Barile said the story of Avina's murder has gone to media outlets across the country.
Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209-385-2485 or firstname.lastname@example.org.