Details of Disappearance Espeleta was last seen leaving work at the Bank of America branch in Fullerton, California on July 17, 1998. (Some agencies may state that the branch was located in Santa Ana, California). She apparently told her co-workers that she planned to head directly home afterwards. Some media reports state that Espeleta disappeared after visiting a fitness club in Anaheim, California before returning to her family's residence in the Moreno Valley.
Espeleta was driving a silver two-door Honda Accord with the California license plate number 3SLD082 at the time of her disappearance. She never arrived home as scheduled and has not been heard from again.
Authorities believe that Espeleta was abducted and died of multiple gunshot wounds on the day of her disappearance. They think her vehicle was burned and abandoned by her murderers somewhere in the Baja, California canyons, and her remains were taken about a mile off the Long Beach, California shoreline, wrapped in a tarp and chains, weighted down, and dumped in the ocean.
Espeleta's family members told investigators that it was very uncharacteristic of her to leave without warning and not contact anyone. She had all phone calls transferred to her pager if she was not at her residence.
Espeleta was preparing to move back into her family's residence in July 1998. She was excited about giving birth to her child, whom ultrasound determined was a girl. Espeleta planned to name the baby Alyssa Kaitana. Her relatives said she was looking forward to becoming a single mother. She planned a baby shower and asked her mother to prepare Philippine pancit noodles for the event.
Authorities suspected Richard Tovar, an Anaheim, California resident, Espeleta's former boyfriend and reported father of her unborn child, was involved in her disappearance. Espeleta's sister said that she had filed paternity suit papers against Tovar prior to her disappearance. He reportedly refused to acknowledge the unborn child was his daughter.
Authorities believed that Tovar was angered as a result of the impending suit and intended to murder his former girlfriend and her fetus to avoid having to make child support payments. Espeleta told her loved ones that Tovar would not be pleased with the support suit. She wrote a letter to him in early July 1998 and requested that he leave her and her baby alone, calling him an "irresponsible coward."
Tovar was arrested and charged with plotting and executing Espeleta's presumed abduction and homicide on July 28, 1998, eleven days after she disappeared. His friend, Henry Joseph Rodriguez, was charged as his accomplice.
Tovar attempted to assist investigators locate Espeleta's remains in the Pacific Ocean after his arrest. Searches extended from the waters near Long Beach to Mexico, but no evidence was located.
A mistrial was declared in Tovar's case in August 2000, more than two years after Espeleta disappeared. A key prosecution witness refused to testify during the trial. Tovar was eventually convicted of Espeleta's homicide in September 2000 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Rodriguez was convicted in 2000 and sentenced to 40 years to life in prison, but his conviction was overturned in 2003. He was convicted again at his second trial. However, in February 2016, his conviction was overturned a second time and a third trial was ordered.
Espeleta's body has never been recovered, but foul play is suspected due to the circumstances involved.
- Fullerton Police Department
Updated 2 times since October 12, 2004. Last updated July 2, 2017; distinguishing characteristic and details of disappearance updated.