LAS CRUCES, N.M. (KRQE) – The Dona Ana Sheriff’s Department zeroed in on one group of students after the Labor Day Weekend murder of Katie Sepich in 2003. “We then focused on the people of the party she was at,” said Former Dona Ana County Detective Joe Reynaud.
DNA was taken from Dozens of male students including Katie Sepich’s boyfriend. “Anyone who remembers the case, remembers that the first suspect was her boyfriend,” said Katie’s mother Jayanna Sepich.
According to detectives, Katie’s boyfriend was a suspect because the couple had gotten into a fight the night before she was murdered. Detectives say Katie walked home alone the night of the party and that the following morning her body was found in the desert in a well-known party spot. She had been raped, strangled and burned.
After months of testing, everyone at the party was cleared. “I think it would have broken my heart it if it had been someone she knew, someone that she trusted,” said Jayann Sepich.
Katie’s killer was soon booked in jail, but not for her murder. Gabriel Avila was convicted of aggravated burglary for breaking into the apartment of two New Mexico State University coeds.
At the time detectives had no idea Avila, who was sitting in jail, charged for another crime, was Katie’s killer. He was allowed to bond out before sentencing and wouldn’t be linked to the college student’s death for years. Back then, DNA was only pulled after the criminal was processed into prison.
Week after week investigators would put suspect’s DNA into the national database, hoping that someone new would pop up, someone that could be Katie’s killer. “When we found out they didn’t have any suspects, I started thinking we need a bigger net. You can’t catch any fish, we would need a bigger net,” said Dave Sepich.
The Sepich family had an idea on how to make that happen, change the law and name it ‘Katie’s Law’. Their idea was a law that would require all suspects of violent crimes to give a sample of their DNA when they’re arrested, not after convicted. They knew it was a long shot to get it passed, but Jayann Sepich still typed up a letter to lawmakers and then told Katie’s story in Santa Fe.
While Katie’s Law sat in limbo, there was a break in Katie’s case. Three years after the college student’s brutal death, there was now a DNA match and a confession. “He realized through the DNA evidence that there was no hiding the fact that he was involved,” Reynaud said.
The suspect was Gabriel Avila. Avila would confess even before a trial date could be set. In that confession, Avila gives detectives details about Katie’s final moments alive.
Detectives knew that Katie walked home alone from the party. Avila saw Katie and offered her a ride. She said no, but Avila secretly kept following her and then saw his chance to strike. “She didn’t want to wake up her friend’s mother and she didn’t have the key to the house so she tried to get in through a bedroom window, which was behind a high row of bushes,” said Reynaud.
Prosecutors believe the DNA match is what shook Avila into confessing and the pleading guilty before a trial. Former Dona Ana County District Attorney Susana Martinez said Avila would also lead them to the truck used in the crime. Inside the truck is where he kept one of Katie’s rings.
Avila was sentenced to 69 years in prison. “I didn’t realize how important justice was until we got it,” said Jayann Sepich.
The Sepich family couldn’t shake the thought that had there been a law in place to pull DNA from suspects upon arrest, Avila would have been pinned as Katie’s killer months after her death and not years.
That was about to change because the letter Jayann wrote to lawmakers got their attention. Katie’s Law was enacted in 2006.
KRQE requested an interview with Gabriel Avila through the New Mexico Department of Corrections but have not received a response.
To learn more about the Sepich family’s fight, go to dnasaves.org.(Video Courtesy: DNA Saves; ‘Coed Nightmares’ )