For 30 years, Fresno police kept 8-year-old’s slaying case active
Victoria Ann DeSantiago was the little girl no one could forget.
Her abduction, brutal rape and murder at the hands of a stranger in 1979 sent shock waves across the Valley. Parents and children were jolted from the comfort of their innocence. To many, Fresno no longer felt safe.
Victoria was 8 when she, her sister, Eva Marie, 3, and the small dog left their Fresno home about 2 p.m. on Feb. 3, 1979. They were abducted while walking back from a convenience store.
Eva Marie was found crying, but unharmed, several blocks away about 7:30 p.m. Victoria’s nude and bludgeoned body was found in a dry creek east of Clovis two nights later.
Fresno police never stopped looking for Victoria’s killer, and her murder remained on the community’s collective mind. For 30 years, people asked investigators the same question: What are you doing about the Victoria DeSantiago case?
It remained an active cold case until Wednesday, when police announced the arrest of Fernando Eros Caro, 59, in Victoria’s murder.
Caro is serving a life sentence in San Quentin for killing two Fowler teens in 1980. He also is believed to be responsible for killing two Bakersfield girls in 1981 but has not been prosecuted in that case.
Victoria’s death deeply affected people who didn’t even know her. Pamela Bursiaga, 40, said the crime changed her life. She was 9 when Victoria was killed.
“When you’re young, you think nothing’s going to happen to you,” said Bursiaga, who grew up in Visalia and still lives there. “Her death was always in my head.”
Victoria’s murder made Bursiaga think the world was an unsafe place.
“I was always afraid after that,” she said. “If I went out to play or to the store, I was always with my brothers or my friends. I never went out alone.”
Fresno police Sgt. Carlos Leal was 10. Back then, the case made parents in his neighborhood more cautious, he remembers. Leal, now an investigator with the department’s cold case unit, helped solve the case.
People never forget Victoria’s murder, he said. “It impacted a lot of folks. Victoria always came up. The community didn’t forget it.”
Tony Waters, a professor of sociology at California State University, Chico, said it’s not unusual that this type of case would remain in the public consciousness.
“What’s really important to us is child welfare,” Waters said. So when a child is abused or killed “we tend to remember it and talk about it. That’s why cases like this stick in people’s minds.”
The case even moved Eugene and Juanita Junette of Fresno to launch a child-safety coloring book, Play It Safe, now distributed in more than 60 countries and 30 languages. Some 93,000 books were distributed worldwide last year.
The Junettes have spent their lives getting the coloring books published and in the hands of parents and children, but they credit the DeSantiagos with helping promote the project in the early years after Victoria died.
Play It Safe gives parents a nonthreatening way to teach children about safety, Eugene Junette said.
Police Chief Jerry Dyer joined the Fresno police force in 1979, shortly after Victoria’s kidnapping and murder. “It really captured the media, the Police Department and the community,” Dyer said. “She was an innocent child, and people thought that could have been their daughter.”
The mystery of the case — the unknown stranger remaining at large for years — “created an enormous amount of fear,” Dyer said. “I know people who were hypersensitive about the whereabouts of their children after that.”
Solving Victoria’s murder after 30 years “brought me a tremendous amount of satisfaction,” Dyer said.
“There may never be closure for her family, but I do hope they have a sense of peace and justice.”
In the years since Victoria’s death, her family has tried to forget the pain but remember their daughter.
“We don’t want to forget her, but we want to forget the way we lost her,” said Eva Marie, now Eva Ulibarri and living in Hanford.
“We talked about it sometimes, but we didn’t want to dwell on it. We always put it on the back burner.”
Their parents, Joe and Angelina DeSantiago, declined to be interviewed for this story.
Ulibarri doesn’t remember many details about their kidnapping. For her, there are a lot of unanswered questions, like why they went to the convenience store.
“We were supposed to go next door to our aunt and uncle’s house and borrow some bread,” Ulibarri said. “We just kept going, but I don’t know why. That’s a question we’ll have to ask Victoria.”
And she doesn’t remember why she thought two men abducted them. Investigators now believe Caro acted alone.
Now 34, Ulibarri has two daughters of her own. The youngest is 5 and the oldest will turn 8 in November. “She’s so close to the same age” as Victoria when she died, Ulibarri said.
It’s a challenge to instill both confidence and caution in her daughters, she said.
“The bus stop is right out front of our house,” Ulibarri said, “and I still watch them until they get on the bus.”
By Paula Lloyd / The Fresno Bee