Feb 3, 2016

Law enforcement used tips, surveillance, children’s lunch trays to ID Badger Basin murder victim

How do you identify a body without a head, an arm or hands?

“I obviously can’t get into many details, but, you know, with any crime, it always starts with the smallest tip,” Park County Sheriff Scott Steward said, when asked a variation of that question on the Big Horn Radio Network last month.

Steward was speaking about the January 2014 discovery of a mutilated corpse in Badger Basin, now known to be the body of 30-year-old Juan Antonio Guerra-Torres.

Three people — Guerra-Torres’ longtime girlfriend, Sandra Garcia, her brother Pedro Garcia Jr. and family friend John L. Marquez Sr. — are facing charges in connection with his murder. They have all formally denied the allegations in court and have trials scheduled for later this year.

But before authorities could come up with their list of suspects, they faced the difficult job of figuring out whose death they were investigating.

“In this case, we were basically spinning our wheels; we couldn’t even identify the individual,” Steward said last month on KODI-AM. “Then it came with just a few tips.”

The remains of Juan Antonio Guerra-Torres, who was murdered in January 2014, lie in an unmarked grave at Riverside Cemetery in Cody. File photo by CJ Baker

While the sheriff didn’t get into the specifics, court records made public last year offer many details about how law enforcement identified Guerra-Torres.

The documents say authorities not only got a couple crucial tips, they also conducted surveillance and even acquired Guerra-Torres’ children’s DNA from school lunch trays to try confirming whose body they had found.

An affidavit from sheriff’s investigator Joe Torczon included in court records indicates that law enforcement caught its first big break in early March 2014 — two months after a duck hunter and his son found the corpse along a Bureau of Land Management road off Wyo. Highway 294.

Juan Antonio Guerra-Torres
Two people came forward to tell a Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation agent they thought the victim might have been Guerra-Torres, who they knew as “Chucky.” They said no one had heard from him since early January 2014.

When DCI Special Agent Juliet Fish presented them with photos of the clothing found on the body, the pair said it looked like Guerra-Torres’. He didn’t lace up his boots — just like the half-laced ones found on the body — and the embroidered piteado belt found at the scene looked like the kind he bought at Californian flea markets, Torczon wrote of the citizens’ account.

They also said Guerra-Torres had tattoos with the letter “J” and the Virgin Mary on his left shoulder — the shoulder that had been completely removed from the body, Torczon wrote.

The concerned citizens also explained that Guerra-Torres — a Mexican citizen who split time between California and Clark — had several children with Sandra Garcia.

In early April 2014, the Powell Police Department’s school resource officer and investigator helped collect meal trays at Westside Elementary School while two of Guerra-Torres’ and Sandra Garcia’s children were having lunch, Torczon wrote.

The officers ended up getting both children’s spoons and one child’s milk carton. DNA taken from one of the spoons and compared with DNA from the mutilated body indicated the murder victim could be the child’s father, according to Torczon’s summary of state crime lab testing.

Sandra Garcia
The same day the Powell officers collected the lunch trays, agent Fish and Torczon interviewed a member of Guerra-Torres’ extended family. The woman said she “knew” the murder victim was Guerra-Torres “because of the physical description and the belt that was shown in photos that were released to the public,” Torczon wrote.

“(The woman) explained that she didn’t think anything until no one could find Juan Antonio Torres,” Torczon wrote.

Phone records showed Guerra-Torres’ cell phone was last used on Jan. 6, 2014, around the time he’s believed to have been killed, Torczon said.

Records also showed Sandra Garcia pulled her kids out of school the day after the Sheriff’s Office announced the discovery of the mutilated body; the day after that, she started using a new phone number, Torczon’s affidavit says.

Bolstering their suspicions, law enforcement also found Sandra Garcia’s DNA on a tongue ring recovered from the corpse’s pocket.

In mid-April 2014, authorities mounted a surveillance camera on a light pole outside the Powell home Sandra Garcia was sharing with Pedro Garcia and his family.

Pedro Garcia Jr.
In addition to monitoring the Avenue C residence, Fish and another DCI agent approached Sandra Garcia, pretending to be interested in buying her 2006 GMC Yukon. Torczon said she told the plainclothes agents that Guerra-Torres was in California and, like her, wanted to sell the vehicle.

Law enforcement moved in and conducted a series of searches and formal interviews in late May 2014, but they didn’t come up with any hard evidence, sheriff Steward said.

“We had our suspicions and we interviewed our suspects early on — or at least two of them — and didn’t get anywhere,” Steward said last month on KODI.

Arrests would not come until March 2015. That’s when authorities re-interrogated Pedro Garcia, who’d moved to Georgia. According to law enforcement, he changed his past stories and confessed to having played a role in Guerra-Torres’ murder.

Pedro Garcia reportedly told investigators that Sandra Garcia asked him to help kill Guerra-Torres, explaining he’d become deeply indebted to people in the Mexican drug world who were threatening to kill their entire family. Charging documents quote Pedro Garcia as saying he hired Marquez to commit the crime.

Pedro Garcia told law enforcement that Sandra Garcia brought Guerra-Torres to a pullout off Wyo. Highway 294. Marquez then shot Guerra-Torres to death and dismembered his body with an axe, according to Pedro Garcia’s account.

Marquez, who declined to speak with authorities, has called his arrest on the allegations “ludicrous.”

John Marquez, appearing for court last year.
When interviewed in May 2014, Sandra Garcia reportedly told investigators she’d taken Guerra-Torres to a spot outside Cody where he planned to meet with someone he owed a debt to in the drug world. That early January day was the last time she saw him, charging documents say.

Charging documents also quote Sandra Garcia as describing Guerra-Torres as mentally, emotionally and physically abusive.

The member of Guerra-Torres’ extended family interviewed by authorities also reportedly described Guerra-Torres as being abusive to his long-time partner.

“(The woman) stated that she asked (Sandra) Garcia one time why she did not leave Juan Antonio Torres,” Torczon wrote. “(Sandra) Garcia told (the woman) that Juan Antonio Torres threatened ... that he would send his friend from California to hurt her.”

Torczon said the family member recalled being told that Guerra-Torres had stolen money from drug dealers. Pedro Garcia also said Guerra-Torres had been involved with drugs, telling authorities that Guerra-Torres supplied him with methamphetamine.

The two citizens who initially tipped off law enforcement said Guerra-Torres “had a lot of people who did not like him,” Torczon wrote. “They did not like him because he was illegal, but seemed to have a lot of money. This offended the Latino community who were in the country legally.”

No one claimed Guerra-Torres’ remains after his murder or identification. His body lies in an unmarked grave at Cody’s Riverside Cemetery.

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