Three men were arrested in connection with the alleged murder of a 20-year-old Fullerton woman who has been missing for more than a week, and one of the suspects is the woman’s former boyfriend, police said Tuesday.
Investigators believe the men kidnapped and shot Jeanette Gomez Espeleta, who was last seen on July 17. The kidnappers then dumped the woman, who was eight months’ pregnant, in Long Beach Harbor, Fullerton Police Sgt. David Stanko said. Her body has not been found, he said.
Police believe Richard Tovar, 21, of Anaheim, was the father of Espeleta’s child. Espeleta told her parents that she had recently served Tovar with court records notifying him that he would soon be responsible for child support, said her sister Jennifer Gomez Espeleta.
Stanko said it may have been Tovar’s reluctance to pay child support that led to Espeleta’s death.
“There may have been a financial motive,” he said.
The two other suspects are believed to be Tovar’s acquaintances, and were identified by police as Henry Joseph Rodriguez, 22, of Anaheim and Nicholas Jeffrey Gray, 20, of Fullerton.
“We have a conspiracy and we have cooperation” from at least one of the accused men, Stanko said. Authorities said none of the three have a criminal history.
The three men were booked at the Fullerton city jail in lieu of $250,000 bail. They face murder and conspiracy charges and will be arraigned Thursday.
“Since [several] witnesses came forward, we started focusing on all three” suspects, Stanko said. “Media attention put pressure on people who knew to call.”
Stanko said investigators had interviewed Tovar soon after Jeanette Espeleta disappeared but did not focus on him until a few days before his arrest. Tovar was under police surveillance when officers arrested him in a Santa Ana parking lot Monday night, he said.
According to police, Rodriguez turned himself in on Monday night and Gray surrendered to authorities early Tuesday.
Espeleta, who worked as a bank employee, was last seen leaving the 24 Hour Fitness gym in Anaheim on July 17 about 4 p.m., her sister said. She was on her way to visit relatives in Moreno Valley when she disappeared.
Police believe the woman met up with the suspects some time in the afternoon of July 17 near the MainPlace mall in Santa Ana and was kidnapped, Stanko said. Within 24 hours, the kidnappers then wrapped her body, weighed it down and dumped it from a boat near an oil platform in the early evening, he said. They also believe it was Tovar who shot Espeleta.
Authorities will look for her body today near the Long Beach Marine Stadium, police said.
Investigators have the 21-foot ski boat they believe was used by the kidnappers to dump the woman’s body, Stanko said, but do not have a murder weapon.
Authorities said the kidnappers abandoned Espeleta’s Honda Accord near Rosarito in Mexico and possibly torched it.
Stanko said Mexican authorities are cooperating with the investigation.
Espeleta’s sister Jennifer, 23, who lives in Moreno Valley, said she typically spoke to her sister twice a day. The two were especially close since their parents, Benjamin and Veronica Gomez Espeleta, spent part of the year out of the U.S. in their native Philippines.
According to Jennifer Espeleta, her sister was excited about the impending birth of her daughter.
“We were planning a baby shower, and she had already named the little girl,” said Natalie Alvarado, Jeanette’s roommate. “She was preparing for her life to change after she had the baby. She was optimistic and happy.”
Times staff writer Greg Hernandez contributed to this story.