Related stories: Solving a cold case
The buzzards were the first clue for Heyden Smith that something was wrong that Sept. 1 morning 20 years ago.
Looking for what the Berryton resident thought was a dead animal near his property, the buzzards prompted Smith to search his bean and tomato fields along North 1400 Road, two miles southwest of Stull.
Smith instead made a far more gruesome discovery as he followed the buzzards to a metal drainage ditch under the road.
“I saw that foot sticking out there … when I found her,” Smith said.
The foot belonged to Nilsa Sanchez, 37, a Lawrence-area mother of two, whose strangled body had been stuffed into a 36-inch-wide culvert under North 1400 Road.
Tuesday marks the 20th anniversary of Smith’s discovery. Law enforcement is still looking for Sanchez’s killer, in what local authorities say is the county’s only remaining unsolved murder over the last four decades.
A 20-year mystery
Sanchez was born in New York City, and after serving nine years in the Army, moved to Lawrence in 1983. She lived at 1310 Pa. in Lawrence with her 7-year-old son, Brian Holmes. Her daughter, Margaret Negron, was 21 at the time and lived out of state.
Sanchez spent time working at a local Hardee’s restaurant. People said she was an avid walker, and at some point she attended classes at Kansas University.
On Aug. 24, 1989, at least 20 people saw Sanchez walking along U.S. Highway 40 west of the city, where the entrance to the Kansas Highway 10 bypass is now. Eight days later, Smith found her body, about 10 miles from where she was last seen walking. But what happened in those eight days and how she ended up in the area where she was found remains a mystery.
Retired Douglas County Sheriff Loren Anderson, who was in charge of the Sanchez investigation, said he knew early on that it would be a difficult case to solve.
“You could sense immediately that we got a real tough situation here,” Anderson said.
Investigators were starting with very little to go on other than Sanchez’s badly decomposed body, and Anderson said it took authorities several days to piece together the very basics of the case.
“We don’t know where she came from. We didn’t know who she was,” Anderson said. “I don’t remember anything that gave us a real clue.”
Two days into the investigation, Anderson activated the Capital Area Major Case Squad, or the M-Squad, a unit of law enforcement agents in the region who assist in criminal investigations.
The M-Squad logged more than 4,000 investigative hours, followed more than 500 leads and collected more than 300 pieces of evidence, but made no arrests. After 12 days of assisting local authorities, the squad was deactivated and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department continued the investigation.
Laura Graham, general counsel for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, said the KBI has also investigated the case. The case remains “open,” but “it’s not actively being investigated,” she said.
Anderson said deputies followed leads in several states but never found any evidence or suspects that “would set you on fire.”
At the time, the M-Squad asked for the public’s help in locating a man, described as in his 30s or 40s with a round face and a mustache. The man was last seen wearing a painter-type cap featuring a brightly colored floral design and a white bill, and he was reportedly driving a 1968 Chevrolet four-door sedan, painted green with a red-primered or rust-colored top.
Sgt. Steve Lewis of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department declined to provide details about this man or many other details regarding the case.
“I cannot specifically discuss any of the evidence,” he said recently. “It’s still an active case.”
Lewis said the sheriff’s department continues to periodically work on the investigation. He also said that evidence has been maintained and that they are “taking full advantage of technological advances.”
However, Lewis would not comment specifically on whether any DNA evidence from the scene had been tested using technology that was not available in 1989.
‘My daughter needs help’
While a motive or suspect has never been publicly identified, a visit by Sanchez’s mother, Angelina Guadalupe, to Lawrence a month before the murder revealed that Sanchez was experiencing some personal problems prior to her death.
Guadalupe, 64 at the time and living in Long Island, N.Y., visited Lawrence in July 1989 and became concerned about her daughter’s well-being.
During the visit, Guadalupe learned that her grandson had been placed in the custody of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.
Sanchez was arrested on April 19, 1989, during the removal of her son and charged with misdemeanor counts of battery on a police officer and obstructing the legal process. Sanchez was placed on two years’ probation following the incident. Court records do not indicate the reason Brian was removed from the home.
In a Journal-World article following the murder, Guadalupe said that she expressed concerns for her daughter’s safety to social service professionals.
“I told the social worker, my daughter needs help,” she said. “The social worker said we are working on that. I said it is an emergency.”
During her stay with her daughter that July, Guadalupe said, Sanchez slept in late, rarely ate and disappeared for hours at a time on long walks.
Guadalupe’s visit lasted two weeks. A month later, she received a call from local authorities telling her that her daughter had been murdered.
Guadalupe returned to Lawrence to make funeral arrangements days after the murder.
Marcia Epstein, who was then and is still the director at Headquarters Inc., a local crisis counseling center, worked with Guadalupe while she was in town to find housing and cope with her daughter’s death.
The custody and adoption records from the case remain sealed, but Epstein said that Guadalupe unsuccessfully attempted to gain custody of Brian following the murder. Coupled with the recent death of her daughter, Epstein said, Guadalupe was “devastated.”
“She clearly was a loving grandmother,” Epstein said. “(Not getting custody) was a huge blow for her.”
The Journal-World/6News was able to locate Sanchez’s daughter, Negron, who is living in Maryland. She did not want to talk about the case. Guadalupe and Brian, who is now 27, could not be located.
Despite the years gone by since the murder, Lewis, the sheriff’s spokesman, said “there’s always hope” some evidence might provide a break in the case.
But with the amount of time gone by, Anderson, the retired sheriff, said he isn’t optimistic about there being a resolution to the case.
“When you get that much time, it narrows your options,” he said.
The two decades have dimmed Anderson’s memories about some of the details of the case, but the disappointment in not solving Sanchez’s murder remains fresh.
“It does nag at you,” Anderson said. “And you think about it often.”