Once upon a time in America, there was a young woman named Paty who seemed to be doing everything right.
She was devoted — to her family, to her church, to her job, to doing well in college so she could eventually get her own piece of the dream her parents had left a country to find. She didn't hang out with a bad crowd. Though any young man would have loved to have the pretty, smart, dark-haired young woman on his arm, she'd only had one real boyfriend in her life, and had kindly turned down all other suitors since they broke up, deciding instead to put her energies toward her studies. She was the good one, her friends and family say, the best of them, the most caring, the one who was always willing to help.
So it was even more of a mystery, then, when 20-year-old Patricia Garcia Guardado disappeared on her way to class one sunny morning last October, after leaving her burgundy Scion parked and locked in a lot behind a Burger King across from UALR. Four days later, fishermen found her body floating in a water-filled rock quarry near Sweet Home.
Though Patricia Guardado was Hispanic, this is not a Hispanic story. It's not a story about an outsider. It's not a story about The Other. This is a story about a young woman who anyone would have been proud to call their daughter; a born-and-raised Arkansan who seemed to be doing everything right and yet still met an end none of us would wish on an enemy. Left behind: friends, family, and a grieving mother and father who still ask themselves why. The whys eat at them, along with the knowledge that out there, somewhere, is a witness with information that will finally bring Patricia's killer to justice.
The room where we met Leonor Garcia — a small, dusty space in the midst of being converted into a restaurant, one door down from El Paisano, the store she and her husband own in Levy — happens to be the same place where she learned from detectives and her priest that her daughter was dead. That room in shambles, cluttered with sawed-off lengths of two-by-fours, drop cloths, carpenter's tools and assorted screws and nails, could serve as a fitting metaphor for the way her life has been since then.
"She was the apple of my eye," Garcia said through an interpreter. "She had a lot of dreams and a lot of hopes — a lot of dreams that she wanted to fulfill upon her graduation, which was coming up in 2013."
Patricia was always a smart child, her mother said, always dedicated to her school work. She'd graduated with good grades from Joe T. Robinson High School in Little Rock, then had gone on to UALR, where she was a student in the International Business program. In addition to her classes, Patricia worked as a teller at the Metropolitan Bank branch on McCain Boulevard in North Little Rock. About a month before she disappeared, Garcia said, Patricia's manager had told her that after she graduated with her degree, she could have a full-time career with the bank.
"For her, this was like a dream come true," Garcia said. "She told me, 'You know, mom, when a lot of people graduate, they struggle to find a job. With me, that's not going to happen. I already have a job, and I have a promise from my manager that when I graduate, I'll have a career here if I want it.' "
Patricia's friends and family also remember her as a kind and loving young woman with a sense of responsibility beyond her years.
"She was one of those young ladies who you were glad was a friend of your child," said Maria Garcia, the mother of one of Patricia's close friends (and no relation to Leonor Garcia). "She was always very respectful, a kind person. ... Whenever her mom or her siblings needed anything, she was always there. She was always thinking about them, always concerned about them."
Karen Alejandri was close to Patricia from the time they were both girls. Though they saw less of each other once Alejandri went off to UCA and Patricia stayed in Little Rock to attend UALR, they remained friends. She said that Patricia's relationship with her mother was very close and she couldn't believe that Paty had hidden anything from her mother. "Her mom was really open with her," Alejandri said. "Her mom would give her enough liberty to trust her to go out. It wasn't like she would sneak out. Her mom and her, by what I saw — my perception — they had a really good relationship."
Several others we spoke to also said they couldn't see Patricia keeping anything from her mother — especially a hidden romantic entanglement or anything dangerous. Family friend Angelina Lublin, who had trusted Guardado enough that Paty had a key to her house and sometimes met her daughters at the school bus when Lublin couldn't, said through an interpreter that "they were so close that even to buy a schoolbook, Patricia would ask her mom's opinion. ... They were like close friends at times. When they went shopping, it was like a friend-to-friend thing, not mother/daughter."
Leonor Garcia said that Patricia had had only one steady boyfriend, but "he was going around with other girls," so Paty and the boy had broken up over a year before she died. Sometimes, when Patricia would see him around town, she would become depressed.
"I would try to pick up her spirits by saying she should get another boyfriend," Garcia said. "She used to tell me, 'No, mom. Right now I want to focus on my studies. There will be time for that later, but right now I just want to study — romance and all that can wait.' "
The morning Patricia Guardado disappeared —Oct. 12, 2011 — was just like any other Wednesday. Garcia borrowed her daughter's car and drove from their home near Alexander to downtown Little Rock to take Patricia's younger sisters to school at St. Edward Catholic Church near MacArthur Park. When she got back home around 8:30 a.m., Paty was already out of bed and dressed. Garcia offered to make her lunch, but Patricia said she was already late leaving for her 9 o'clock class. Scheduled to work at the bank that day after school, Patricia was wearing her dress clothes. As she was on the way out the door, Garcia stopped her to admire the woman her daughter had become.
"I remember I told her she looked very beautiful," Garcia said. "She was all fixed up, and had put on some makeup. She looked like the picture of a young woman going out into the world. The only thing I remember telling her was: 'What a pretty daughter I have.' She sort of looked embarrassed, and said 'Oh, mom.' She smiled at me, and that was it."
Patricia's normal routine was to call her mother after she got off work, sometime between 4 and 6 p.m. That day, however, she didn't call. Sometimes, Patricia would stop by El Paisano to see her relatives before coming home, so Garcia called there, but they hadn't seen her. She called a cousin who attended some of the same classes as Paty at UALR, and learned that Paty hadn't attended her first class at 9 a.m.
Panic began to set in. Patricia's brother called local police departments to see if she'd been in an accident, but got no information. Garcia called Paty's cell phone, but it kept going through to voice mail.
"By 7," she said, "I knew, and even said out loud, that something had happened to my daughter."
In desperation, Leonor put her younger daughters in the car and went out looking, driving aimlessly through the gathering dark. They drove to UALR and circled through the parking lots near the campus where she knew Paty sometimes parked. As Garcia cruised the lot near the Mexican Consulate across from the school, her daughters spotted something.
"My two younger daughters started crying because they saw her car," Garcia said. "They told me, 'There's Paty's car!' ... I couldn't tell because I had tears filling my eyes. I couldn't see. I came in through the entrance to the Consulate. They kept saying, 'It is her car! It is her car!' I parked behind it, but there was nobody in there."
The doors to the car, which was parked squarely and neatly in the slot, were locked. Garcia called the police. Eventually, it was determined that the only things missing from the car were Paty's purse, cell phone, backpack and a pair of prescription eyeglasses. From that moment, the search for Paty began. In many ways, it's never stopped for Leonor Garcia.
Garcia said that she was at the lot until midnight. Officers tried tracking Patricia's cell phone that night, but to Garcia's knowledge, they never were able to get a fix on it (Garcia said the phone, along with Paty's purse, keys and backpack, have never been found). She didn't sleep that night, or the next. The next morning, family, friends and fellow parishioners from St. Edward met in the lot behind the Burger King and fanned out. Garcia said she searched where her instincts told her to look: in parks, alleyways, dark streets, anyplace where her daughter might have been dumped out of a car.
Carissa Noriega was one of those who helped with the search. A UALR student who didn't even know Patricia, Noriega said she learned about Guardado's disappearance from a TV news report. The next morning, she was taking her boyfriend to the gym on campus when she drove by the lot where Guardado went missing and saw the searchers gathering. "It was disappointing. It was basically the family and some church members from St. Edward's. That was it. The school wasn't there. Students didn't come who didn't know her. I was the only student there who didn't know her, who just wanted to help."
Noriega went on to organize a search for Guardado through social media, and reached out to news stations to encourage them to keep covering the case. "Doing that, it really touched my heart," she said. "I didn't feel like a lot of people were helping. It was hard for us to get any coverage. There were some channels that showed up, but it just felt like when the family was trying to get help in the community, people were slow to react."
Similarly, Noriega said the Little Rock Police Department didn't seem to take the case seriously enough in what she calls the "crucial" early hours and days after Guardado's disappearance, when Leonor Garcia was telling them it was totally unlike her daughter to go missing like that. "Maybe they were doing things behind the scenes," Noriega said, "and there's a reason why we felt like they weren't showing up to these events and they weren't calling us back, and they weren't rushing to help, but certainly before they discovered and identified her body, they were not doing everything that they could."
Also involved in the search early on was Father Jason Tyler, the parish priest at St. Edward. Tyler said he heard that Paty had gone missing on Thursday. By Friday, searchers had printed up fliers and were handing them out. The family asked if they could hold a prayer vigil at the church on Friday night at 6 p.m. "I thought maybe we'd have 20 or 30 people," Tyler said, "but I bet we had 150 to 200. This was very impromptu, word-of-mouth, with very little notice this was going to happen, but we had that big of a crowd here." Tyler said he was impressed with how the whole congregation of St. Edward stepped up to help. With masses presented in both Spanish and English at the church for 20 years now, Tyler said it can feel like two congregations sharing one building at times, with the two rarely crossing. The story of a missing daughter — a girl who had volunteered at the church's Fall Festival just a week before her disappearance — clearly touched parishioners' hearts, both white and Latino. "By Saturday and Sunday," Tyler said, "[the white parishioners] were right there side by side with the Hispanic people, handing out leaflets and missing-person fliers."
Garcia was up again on Sunday morning, ready to search, when she got a call from police detectives telling her they needed to meet. "When we got there," Leonor said, "the detective showed up, and he told us that he wanted to tell us before we heard it on the news: They had found a body in a place called Sweet Home."
It says a lot about Garcia's mind at that moment — about her fierce hope — that even after a detective went to her house to collect Paty's hairbrush and toothbrush to make a DNA match, Garcia went out and searched for her anyway. "In my conscious mind, I refused to accept it and believe it," Garcia said. "That Sunday, after he came to my home and took those items, we still went out and looked for her. I didn't want to accept that she was gone. It wasn't until two in the morning on Monday that we stopped searching for her."
The next morning, Leonor and the searchers had gathered again in the parking lot behind the Burger King when she received a call from detectives, asking her to meet them at El Paisano at noon. Around the same time, Father Tyler received a call from LRPD Detective J.C. White, asking if he could meet them nearby. Together, Tyler and the detectives settled on the parking lot of the Kroger store on Camp Robinson Road, just down from El Paisano. When he arrived, Tyler learned what he'd already feared: That the body found in the lake at Sweet Home was Patricia Guardado. Detective White asked Tyler if the priest wanted to be the one to tell the family, or if he should do it.
"I asked him, 'Well, do you speak Spanish?' " Tyler said. "He said he did not. I said, 'It's probably better for me to break the news, because while some of the people there will speak English and some won't, I think it would be better for whoever is in the room to get the news all at once without translation.' "
In separate cars, Tyler and the detectives drove to El Paisano. A crowd of friends and supporters was waiting outside, and as Tyler walked through them, someone cried out "Tell me it's not really true!" in Spanish. "I didn't know what to do or say," Tyler said. "I think I shook her hand or hugged her or something, and just kept walking."
Inside, Garcia was waiting. After asking all but immediate relatives to step out of the room, Tyler told Patricia's family that she was dead. It was, he said, the hardest thing he's ever done in his six years as a priest.
"I was totally unprepared for the outpouring of grief that came at that moment," Tyler said. "I've been in the hospital with people who have died. I've been with friends and family members of those who have died in accidents or unexpectedly. Each of those has its own pain and its own difficulty, but none of them really had as much of a feeling of tangible grief as that moment."
At the words, Tyler remembers, Leonor Garcia yelled "No!" Then the whole family surged forward and surrounded him, bear-hugged him and each other, embracing him so tight, he said, that he wondered if his arms would come off. And there they stood in that room: priest, detectives, Paty's family, the moment surely seeming to hang forever, the people who had loved her gripped in a vise of loss and sorrow.
the place where they found the body of Patricia Garcia Guardado was often called a pond in news reports, but it's really a lake — an old granite quarry filled with rain, so deep that the water there is the dark blue of dusk. Even though it's only a few hundred yards off state Hwy. 365, it feels like wilderness, a windy place surrounded as it is by spotted shadow, sawbriar and pine. On a bluff above the water stands a simple wooden cross that bears the name "Paty."
Even all these months later, the cross is still bright white. Among the trinkets left at the shrine is a fading paper bookmark that says "Sonrie, Dios te Ama" — "Smile, God Loves You." Patricia's mother put the cross there. Last December, Father Tyler came to bless it. Garcia said she is sure her daughter, who had only recently started driving and was still nervous about going anywhere in town other than to UALR and the bank, had never been there in her life.
Since Patricia died, Leonor Garcia said she has never quit searching for who killed her daughter. Detectives still haven't told her how Paty died, or where they suspect she was for the days she was missing. Garcia was never allowed to see the body. At the vigil and funeral for Patricia held at St. Edward — both of which were so well-attended that people filled the church until the crowd flowed out the door, down the front steps and into Sherman Street — the casket had to remain closed. Father Tyler told her that was a blessing. The last image she has of Patricia is of her standing in the doorway, a woman going out to meet the world.
Garcia meets with Detective White regularly. When they met last week, she said, he told her there had been no new developments. He has told her he can't reveal the details of how her daughter died yet, saying that it might compromise the case. "When he says that to me," Garcia said, "it makes me understand how this might hinder the investigation. I agree with it, and I say, 'OK, if that's what it takes to keep the investigation going, I will wait.' "
Police spokesman Lt. Terry Hastings said that withholding information on cause of death, even from the family, is common in an unsolved homicide case. He said even he doesn't know how Patricia Guardado was killed. "Many times when you question suspects, and they talk about how a person was killed, the method they used and where the person was injured becomes important to make sure we have a true suspect. That's why we protect those details tightly."
Hastings said that since Guardado's body was found, the department has received hundreds of tips. "Detectives have run all those tips down and talked to everybody you can imagine about it, trying to get a better handle on it. They're still doing it. This is not a closed case by any stretch of the imagination. We're still actively investigating it."
Police have run into several factors that are making the case more difficult to solve, Hastings said. The most obvious is that they just don't know where Patricia Guardado went after she left her home for school. Though the lot where her car was found is surrounded by businesses and near the Mexican Consulate, it apparently wasn't covered by any surveillance cameras. Since her death, yellow signs have been put up warning drivers to park there at their own risk, and that the lot isn't monitored.
"We found her car, which tells us she ended up at school," Hastings said, "but did she get in the car willingly with somebody? Did somebody take her? That makes it difficult. We've found no one around there who saw anything."
Another factor, Hastings said, is the language and cultural barrier. "Hispanics historically don't trust police because of the relationships they've had with police in the countries where they came from," he said. Currently, there are nine homicide detectives, on the force. Hastings said none of them speak Spanish, so they have been relying on a Hispanic officer temporarily assigned to the Guardado case for translation. Department-wide, Hastings said, there are around 10 officers who are fluent in Spanish.
Police are investigating to see if an attack on a woman at Little Rock's Rave Motion Pictures movie theater on Nov. 20, 2011, is linked to the Guardado murder. That night — a little over a month and less than two miles from where Patricia Guardado's car was found — a woman was leaving the theater just before 8 p.m. when two Latino men, one of whom police say was Crescencio Duran, (a.k.a. Salbador Carillo) of Little Rock, tried to stun her with an electric stun gun and, according to the original incident report, "attempted to grab her." After she managed to break free and crawl under a car, an accomplice — also armed with an electric stun gun — jumped out of a nearby car and also came after her, but the woman's screams alerted passersby who came to her aid, and the two assailants sped away. Carillo, who was in the Pulaski County Jail charged with firing a gun from a car in January, was charged in February with robbery in the Rave case. An internal police flier circulated prior to his arrest said he was "wanted for questioning in regards to the homicide of Patricia Guardado." At this writing, Salbador Carillo is still on the Pulaski County Detention Center roster as an inmate.
For now, all Patricia Guardado's parents, family and friends can do is wait. A parishioner at St. Edward who works with Lamar Advertising arranged for a number of large billboards about the case to be put up around Little Rock and North Little Rock, and every store in Southwest Little Rock seems to have a flier in the window seeking information. Patricia's friends want to believe. God is big, one of Patricia's friends told us, and there is no such thing as a perfect crime.
"We want to see the killer brought to justice," Father Tyler said, "but we also want to see a grieving family be a little more at peace. ... We'd love for the greater Little Rock community to see Paty Guardado as one of their own, and to see that this is not just a Hispanic situation, or a Latino or Mexican thing."
The Arkansas Times talked to Patricia Guardado's father, Martin Guardado, at length, but he decided that he didn't want to be quoted for the story. A bricklaying contractor who worked his way up from nothing, he and Garcia have been separated for two years and are in the process of divorce. The anger and frustration comes off him in waves at times when he talks about how other stories about the case have focused too much on the family's personal life, particularly the reports that gave the names and ages of his surviving daughters. He said several times that he doesn't want people to feel sorry for him. He believes Detective White will eventually find the killer, and that writing about it will make witnesses more reluctant to reveal what they know.
Garcia, on the other hand, talks to anyone who will listen. Since the murder, she said, she has never once turned down an interview request. She has stacks of fliers about the case, each offering up a $10,000 reward along with the numbers for the Little Rock Police Department and the Mexican Consulate. When she sees a flier that is ripped, she takes it down and puts up a new one. She talks to everyone she can think of. She will never stop, she said.
"Whoever it is, I just want them to pay," Garcia said. "They have to pay, because what they did to her is not something you do to a human being." She said she doesn't know why there haven't been any results in the case so far, but believes in her heart that the killer will be found. "Every time I talk to [the detectives], I tell them, 'Please don't forget about our case just because we're Hispanics. Please keep remembering this case. Please don't abandon it.' " The detectives tell her that one day, they'll call and say they have her daughter's killer. "I want to believe that," she said.
Garcia drives Patricia's car now, the sporty burgundy coupe that Patricia loved. She'll never sell it, she said, because the car somehow keeps them connected. During our conversation at El Paisano, she said that she can sense her daughter's presence every time she drives that car.
Every Wednesday morning, Garcia drives Patricia's Scion to the lot behind the Burger King across from UALR, parks, then sits there for at least an hour in the place where her daughter disappeared. From behind the wheel, she watches the students come and go with their bags and backpacks, so full of hope and promise.
"I sit in the car and try to imagine," she said. "I try to retrace her steps. I still ask myself: how in the hell could my daughter disappear at 8:45 in the morning and nobody saw anything? I can't believe it. I don't believe that's possible."
If you have any information regarding the kidnapping or murder of Patricia Garcia Guardado, contact the Little Rock Police Department at 501-580-8706, or the Mexican Consulate at 501-372-6933, ext. 223. All tips will remain confidential. Those wishing to contribute to the reward fund can do so at any Metropolitan Bank branch.