Questions Surround Student's Death

Times Staff Writer

A popular 19-year-old college student who volunteered to drive two friends home from a New Year's Eve party in Fillmore never made it home herself, authorities said Thursday.

As news of Valerie Zavala's death spread through the tightly knit Ventura County farm town, her friends from high school converged on her house. She was known for pouring herself into school activities, even earning a sports letter by compiling statistics for the wrestling team.

"We had about 40 of her friends show up, and they stayed an hour or two," said Zavala's father, Kevin Wilson of Fillmore. "It was just beautiful."

Authorities say they are treating the case as a homicide, though a coroner's spokesman said an autopsy will not be completed until this morning.

Zavala's body was found in a concrete drainage pipe off a remote road outside Santa Paula on New Year's morning. She had been a cheerleader at Fillmore High School before graduating with honors. A sophomore at San Jose State University, she was her sorority's fund-raising chairwoman and was preparing for a career as an elementary schoolteacher.

"She was a bubbly, vibrant, outgoing kid," Wilson said. "She was a very trusting person. I don't understand why things like this have to happen to people like her."

Visiting her family in Fillmore during her winter break, Zavala attended a New Year's Eve party and apparently left about 1 a.m. to serve as a designated driver for the two friends. The friends arrived home safely, Wilson said.

"She took a friend's car to drive two people home, and that was the last time anyone saw her," her father said. Her next destination was to be the home of her former boyfriend, said Wilson, adding that she never got there.

Ventura County sheriff's deputies declined to comment Thursday on any details of the case, except to say they had seized a car they believe may be related to the case.

The car had been left overnight in a shopping center parking lot off California 126 in Fillmore, Sgt. Ron Nelson said.

At San Jose State, a candlelight vigil was held Thursday night by members of her sorority, Alpha Kappa Delta Phi.

Zavala's "Chug a Bug" nickname among her sorority sisters was given for her habit of frequently gulping water from the bottle she kept close at hand, said Ann Tampol, the sorority's president.

Tampol said the 75-member group is an "Asian-awareness society" with a sisterhood largely of Asian descent.

"She was Hispanic but that didn't stop her" from immersing herself in the largely Asian group, Tampol said. "When she felt a certain way about a decision, nothing would stop her. She wasn't one to follow the crowd."

As fund-raising chairwoman, Zavala organized car washes, got her friends to work cash registers at the campus bookstore, and staged other events whose proceeds would go to the sorority for social functions.

"What sticks out the most is how caring she was about everyone in the sorority," said Tampol, who last saw her Dec. 21 at a semi-formal sorority dance in a Burlingame hotel ballroom.

Zavala, who lived with her grandmother in San Jose, did not have a steady boyfriend, Tampol said.

In Fillmore, Zavala left behind two younger sisters and a younger brother. Her mother lives in Oxnard. "She was always there for them," Wilson said. "They all just loved each other."

She also left behind her stars -- the star key chains, the star-emblazoned hats, the star jewelry, the stars she loved to stick on this and that.

She was crazy about stars, her father said, even getting a star and a fairy tattooed on her lower back, and another star on one of her wrists. "It was her favorite thing," he said.


Staff writer Catherine Saillant contributed to this report.

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