Family, Friends Mourn Slain Student

Times Staff Writer

Here are the things Michelle Wilson said she will miss most about her daughter:

She will miss her smile and the smell of her when they hugged. She will miss their marathon Julia Roberts film fests, her love of morning cartoons and the way the 19-year-old college student from Fillmore would shout, "Guess what, guess what, guess what?" when she grew excited.

In fact, Wilson said she will miss everything about the young woman who was crazy about the stars and was studying to be an elementary schoolteacher. Her daughter, Valerie Zavala, was suffocated early New Year's Day as she made her way home from a party. Investigators have not identified a suspect.

"We were not just mother and daughter; we were best friends," Wilson said through tears at Zavala's funeral Tuesday morning, which drew more than 300 mourners to St. Francis of Assisi Church in Fillmore.

Afterward, family and friends filed to nearby Bardsdale Cemetery, where white doves flew overhead and Zavala's sorority sisters gathered around her coffin to sing a farewell song.

"I know she didn't get to become a schoolteacher, but she was a teacher to all of us," her mother said at the church service. "Valerie is truly a star, and now she has joined the stars above. So every time you look at the stars above, remember that's my baby."

Zavala, a former Fillmore High School cheerleader and honor student, was on a break from her studies at San Jose State. The popular sophomore drove two friends home from a New Year's Eve party in Fillmore and had planned to visit a former boyfriend when she disappeared.

Her partly clothed body was found New Year's Day stuffed in a concrete drainage pipe under a road near Santa Paula.

Ventura County sheriff's detectives have recovered the black, four-door 2003 Toyota Corolla that Zavala was driving and interviewed dozens of potential witnesses in a case that has rocked the normally quiet farm town.

"We are following whatever leads we have, and we are still processing all of the evidence we have," sheriff's spokesman Eric Nishimoto said.

Father Joseph Hernandez told the overflow crowd at the funeral that it was important to concentrate on the good that Zavala had brought to each one of their lives.

"This little town, quiet and innocent in many ways, was visited by a horrible evil," he said.

Then Wilson told friends and family how her daughter liked playing the alphabet game while driving, loved to fish with her grandfather and couldn't wait for her grandmother to knit her a new beanie cap.

She talked about Zavala's first day of elementary school, when she had no problem saying goodbye and marched bravely out the door. And she talked about her daughter's move to college.

"She was so scared to go away, but she knew she had to go. And I was so proud to see her put her foot forward and do what she had to do," Wilson said. "I just want to tell her friends, 'Stay in the good moments she gave you. Remember her smile and she will always be with you.' "


Times photographer Spencer Weiner contributed to this report.

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