A federal court Monday in St. Louis found Leobardo Barraza guilty in connection to the 1998 slayings of a Prospect Heights woman and her 5-year-old son, giving a painful closure to the victims' family.
Convicted of kidnapping resulting in death, Barraza planned to kill co-worker Maria E. Eloiza, 26, and 5-year-old Jesus Ramirez before they embarked 10 years ago on that ill-fated summer drive that ended outside St. Louis, prosecutors say.
The verdict was read in front of Senior U.S. District Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh of the Eastern District of Missouri, said U.S. Attorney's office spokeswoman Jan Diltz. The six-day trial started on July 22 after two years' worth of delays.
Barraza lured Eloiza with a story that a trip to Mexico for drugs would bring $40,000 after they delivered the narcotics to Barraza's uncle in Detroit, prosecutors said. Barraza convinced Eloiza to bring her child so it would look like they were traveling as a family, prosecutors added.
Paula Eloiza, Maria's eldest sister, and the rest of her Wheeling family have endured the mystery surrounding the deaths for a decade. She's learned to forgive, as the Eloizas have found solace through Catholicism.
"It's a relief for us, but at the same time it's painful," Paula Eloiza said. "It's better if he stays in jail for his whole life, but at the same time I feel upset for his parents - they didn't do anything wrong."
A second man, Jose Jesus Hernandez, also rode with Barraza and the victims, authorities said. Barraza's friends testified he told them Hernandez raped and killed Eloiza, while Barraza killed the child, according to prosecutors. Hernandez was also indicted at the time of Barraza's arrest two years ago, charged with kidnapping resulting in death. He remains a fugitive.
Family reported Eloiza and her son missing on Aug. 21, 1998, and three months later hunters found their bodies in a wooded area in Missouri, about 40 miles from St. Louis.
Police searched Eloiza's room and found a note saying she was driving to Mexico with Barraza and if she failed to return that they shouldn't look for her, the U.S. Attorney's office said. Barraza denied making the trip and fled to Mexico to escape further questioning, prosecutors added.
Barraza evaded custody for eight years until U.S. marshals brought him in on July 27, 2006, after he was arrested near Colorado Springs, Colo., as local police charged him with possession of a stolen vehicle, authorities said. Using a computer program matching aliases, police were able to connect Barraza to the slayings.
He's scheduled for sentencing on Oct. 15, and faces a maximum sentence of life in prison. Barraza is ineligible for the death penalty as he was 16 when the slayings happened.
Paula Eloiza testified through tears last week, before returning to the Chicago area on Friday. She left her parents, Ernesto and Maria, to watch the rest of the trial.
She said Barraza wore an unapologetic glare that made it difficult to take the witness stand.
"He's not crazy; he's evil," she said. "To be honest with you, when I saw him, when I was face to face, I think he was like the devil."
She said she'll return to St. Louis for Barraza's sentencing, and doesn't care if Barraza decides to deliver an apology to the family.
"He can't escape God's justice," Paula Eloiza said.
Barraza met Eloiza while the two worked at Chicago Bagel and Deli in Wheeling. Deli co-owner Sharon Harkavy, said Barraza never showed any signs he was capable of slaying. She thought he would go "the straight and narrow."
"He went to school every day and never missed a day at work," she said.
Harkavy said Barraza, though 10 years younger than Eloiza, constantly asked her out on dates and she regularly shot those requests down.
"Maria was as beautiful inside as she was out," Harkavy said.
Harkavy added Eloiza was levelheaded and doted on her son. The chance to use the money offered by Barraza on her child may have been the reason Eloiza took the trip, Harkavy said.
Prospect Heights police detectives Al Steffen and Mark Porlier logged thousands of hours on the case and were in St. Louis for the trial. The case was tried by both the U.S. Attorney's and Cook County state's attorney offices.