Last week marked the anniversary of one of the darkest days in the history of Bullard and the East Texas community when a young girl was taken from a local church by a family member and found dead four days later.
Kayla Gomez-Orozco, 10, of Tyler, attended a prayer service with her mother at Bullard First Assembly of God on Tuesday, Nov. 1. After the service, several members of the congregation were in the lobby area when they noticed that young Kayla was missing.
An AMBER Alert was issued for Gomez-Orozco after midnight, which began a frantic four-day search for a little girl throughout the city of Bullard and the East Texas area.
However, many people were unaware that Kayla was missing at the beginning of the investigation due not receiving an AMBER Alert on their cell phones because law enforcement officials did not have a license plate number for the vehicle they considered to be a part of the investigation.
The case received regional, statewide, and national attention through the press, including being the highest trending topic on Facebook, as well as being mentioned in news stories on the internet, radio, and television, most notably the Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016 broadcast of ABC’s Good Morning America.
The city of Bullard became the epicenter of a national search, with local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, from the Bullard Police Department and the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department to the Texas Rangers and the United States Marshals Service and Federal Bureau of Investigation converging at Bullard City Hall, then later relocating to a building owned by First Baptist Church of Bullard.
Law enforcement agents worked tirelessly last week, searching every possible lead, interviewing family members and church members in an effort to bring the girl home safely.
Law enforcement officials began their search for Kayla, which lasted three days before welcoming assistance from the Bullard and East Texas communities, prompting over 1,000 volunteers to line up in the Bullard High School parking lot and give of their time and efforts in the search for any sign of the missing girl, some as early as 5:30 a.m.
Not knowing how to help the search for young Kayla, many members of the Bullard community gave assistance through providing meals, snacks, water, and more to first responders and law enforcement members, in an effort to keep them available to continue searching.
The Bullard community came together to pray for the safety of Kayla during an evening prayer vigil Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, in front of Bullard City Hall. Several Bullard churches canceled their Wednesday night services to attend the event, hosted by the Bullard Ministerial Alliance. Approximately 600 people attended the prayer vigil, as the community’s pastors read scriptures of comfort and care, and later breaking out into choruses of “Amazing Grace” and “Praise God.”
During the late hours of Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016, the body of Gomez-Orozco was found inside of a water well on Zavala-Garcia’s property, located in the 23000 block of Old Jacksonville Highway, north of Bullard. The well was approximately 25-to-28 feet deep and filled with approximately six to eight feet of water, according to Smith County Sheriff Larry Smith.
To gain some closure and to support the family of Kayla, over 600 people attended a prayer rally at Brook Hill’s Herrington Stadium Saturday night after Kayla’s body was discovered for praise and worship and prayer, led by the Brook Hill Praise and Worship Team.
In an interview with Bullard Banner News, Bullard Mayor Pam Frederick described the events of the week of Kayla’s disappearance as “unreal,” while also saying despite the tragedy, she was proud of the way the Bullard and East Texas communities responded.
“It’s just unreal, and it really hits too close to home,” said Frederick. “It’s not even real to me yet. She was a fourth grader at the school I teach at in Tyler, and the case began when she went missing in Bullard, so it hits double for me. However, to come out and see the amount of people that came to the prayer vigils, as well as the large number of people that came together to search for Kayla, was very heartwarming to see. I am very proud of the Bullard community for stepping up and assisting in any way possible.”
After locating the body, officials arrested Zavala-Garcia, who is described as a relative by marriage of Gomez-Orozco. He was given a consensual polygraph exam by officials after his arrest, during which he answered “yes” to questions regarding causing Gomez-Orozco’s death; however, Zavala-Garcia later recanted his answers.
In the indictment against him, jurors believe Zavala-Garcia “did then and there intentionally cause the death of an individual, namely, Kayla Gomez-Orozco, by homicidal violence through a specific means unknown to the grand jury, and [Zavala-Garcia] was then and there in the course of committing or attempting to commit the offense of kidnapping.”
Jurors also that Gomez-Orozco may have been sexually assaulted and physically assaulted by Zavala-Garcia, possibly striking her with a blunt object, as well as causing her asphyxiation and drowning.
The affidavit also states that Zavala-Garcia placed the girl inside of the well in a 17-minute timeframe after kidnapping her from the church, according to officials.
Zavala-Garcia now sits in the Smith county Jail awaiting his Capital Murder trial in the case of Kayla’s death with a $10 million bond and an Immigration Detainer. In April, Smith County District Attorney Matt Bingham filed a motion to pursue the death penalty in Zavala Garcia’s murder trial.
On Tuesday, Oct. 10, a pre-trial hearing for Gustavo Zavala-Garcia was held with both prosecutors and Zavala-Garcia’s defense team before the 241st District Court of Judge Jack Skeen Jr. inside the Smith County Court House in Tyler.
Presently, Zavala-Garcia is slated to appear in two more pre-trial hearings in 2017 (Wednesday, Nov. 8 and Thursday, Dec. 14), as well as an additional hearing in 2018 (Thursday, January 4), with voir dire central panel selection on Thursday, Feb. 8 and voir dire individual selection on Monday, Feb. 12.
Skeen predicted approximately 200-300 people will be sent notices when voir dire begins.
According to Judge Skeen’s schedule, the official start of Zavala-Garcia’s murder trial is scheduled for Monday, March 19.