Hollister police on Friday, July 13 announced the arrest in Mexico of a suspect in the 2014 murder of Hollister teen Ariana Zendejas.
Police Chief David Westrick said Jose Antonio Barajas, a 24-year-old U.S. citizen, was arrested by police in Guadalajara, Mexico on Thursday, July 12, on a fugitive warrant. He was deported by Mexican authorities and flown the next morning to San Jose, where he was immediately transferred to the San Benito County jail. He was booked on charges related to the shooting death of Zendejas on Aug.1, 2014. The victim was 19 years old.
The arrest, announced in an emotional afternoon press conference at Hollister police headquarters, came two days after Hollister detectives and the FBI were able to confirm a tip that local detectives had received last year about the suspect’s location in Guadalajara. A warrant for murder and kidnapping had been in the law enforcement database since 2014.
The arrest, which Westrick said occurred without incident, was the result of a coordinated effort with the FBI, ICE, U.S. Marshals, Mexican federal police and Jalisco state police that included several surveillance operations, Westrick said.
The suspect was flown back to the U.S. via commercial airline under guard of Mexican and U.S. federal agents, Westrick said.
“This young lady was absolutely innocent,” Westrick said at the press conference, which was attended by the victim’s mother, sister and several friends and relatives. The announcement of the arrest came six days before what would have been her 24th birthday.
He said investigators had identified the prime suspect shortly after the shooting, then learned that Barajas had fled to Mexico.
“I’ve had this picture on my desk since the day that we started this investigation,” the chief said, pointing to several large photos of Zendejas to his right. “I’m a father, I’m a parent, I love this community, and we will never forget this young lady, and that’s why the Hollister Police Department has always had this case at the top of our stack.”
“Hopefully today this will start the healing process for Ariana’s family,” he said.
The victim’s mother, Marisela Zendejas, spoke in Spanish of her love and her loss. Ariana’s younger sister, Camilla Zendejas, a freshman at San Benito High School, and cousin Jesus Ruiz, spoke. “We never gave up hope” that the suspect would be caught, said Ruiz.
The family was notified of the arrest a couple of hours before the July 13 announcement. Ariana’s father, Jose Angel Zendejas, was at work and could not leave in time to attend the press conference. The family attends Sacred Heart and St. Benedict’s Catholic Church in Hollister.
“Four years ago the life of an innocent victim was lost—we did not forget her,” said FBI Special Agent In Charge John F. Bennett in a July 13 statement. He said the arrest was “the result of tenacious and collaborative work of the FBI and our partners at the Hollister Police Department.”
“This case demonstrates that no matter how long it takes, we will find criminals—wherever they may hide—and bring them to justice,” Bennett said in the statement
At the July 13 press conference, Westrick declined to comment on one key aspect of the Zendejas murder case: the role of the victim’s friend Vanessa Flores—was she kidnapped at the time of the killing, was she an accomplice, or was she instrumental in locating him in Mexico, leading to this week’s arrest?
Hollister police had initially believed that Flores, a friend of Zendejas who disappeared after the shooting, had been kidnapped by Barajas.
Six months after the killing Flores appeared alone at the U.S./Mexico border, prompting Hollister police at the time to say they were not sure whether she was a victim or accomplice.
Flores told immigration authorities at the time that she was a U.S. citizen and had been a missing person. At the time, Westrick would not discuss what Flores knew about the Zendejas killing, the whereabouts of Barajas or the circumstances of her reappearance in February 2015, except to say she had been with the suspect in Mexico.
At the July 13 press conference in Hollister, Westrick continued to decline to comment on Flores or her status, except to say that it remained under investigation.