"At 2.15pm that afternoon the phone rang and our lives were shattered with just six words: Have you talked to Katie today?"
-Jayann Sepich, Katie's mother
It was the 30th of August 2003. A Saturday. Twenty two year old Katie Sepich was at a party to celebrate Labor Day weekend. She was due to go to another party on Labor Day at her parent's house in Carlsbad, New Mexico, United States and they had invited a big group of family and friends over for a cookout.
Katie was incredibly close to her family and spent a lot of time with her parents, Dave and Jayann Sepich, and her two siblings A.J. Sepich and Caraline Sepich. Katie was the oldest child and looked out for A.J. and Caraline. Katie had a natural ability to make people warm to her instantly. She was likable and loving but had strong opinions about certain things. She liked to make plans. Her plan that weekend was to spend time with friends and her family and have fun. She worked as a waitress at a Las Cruces Mexican restaurant and had a bit of time off.
Katie was a graduate student at New Mexico State University and she had just entered the MBA program at New Mexico State University. Katie told Jayann that she didn't really know what she wanted to do after college but she knew she wanted to change the world.
Katie lived with her friend Tracy. That night, the night of the 30th of August, Katie went to a party with Tracy. The party was at a house that was five blocks from where they lived. There were around thirty people at the party that night. Katie was there with Tracy, some other friends and her boyfriend Joe Bischoff.
Tracy and nearly everyone at the party, including Joe, slept at the house where the party was held. When Tracy woke up, she couldn't find Katie. She called her several times. Tracy looked for her at their house but Katie had not made it home. Joe said that he last saw Katie around 3am in the early hours of the Sunday morning, the morning of the 31st of August. Joe said that Katie left to go home but he didn't know why. She left without her purse , phone and keys.
Tracy called all of her friends but nobody knew where Katie was. She even contacted some of the hospitals in the area but Katie was not in any of them. She called Katie's parents and asked:
"Have you talked to Katie today?"
Those six words were the beginning of what was to become an unimaginable nightmare for the Sepich family.
Katie's family had not spoken to Katie that day. And she was reported missing. Just a few hours later, they received devastating news. The body of their first born child was found south of the old Las Cruces landfill in the desert area. Target shooters found Katie's partially clothed body. She was naked from the waist down. She was lying face down and her legs were spread apart. One leg of her jeans was between her legs.There was bruising around her neck and there were scratches on her legs and arms. She had been brutally raped, sodomized, strangled, and set on fire. There were a number of burn marks on her back and arm.
The Autopsy determined that Katie's cause of death was strangulation. She had been sexually assaulted and the burn marks on her body were the result of a flammable liquid thrown on her body. Somebody then tried to set her on fire but the fire burned itself out.
Police did not believe she was murdered where her body was found as there were no signs of a struggle.
They searched Katie's house and discovered that her bedroom window was locked but the screen had been removed. They found her shoes. She had made it home that night. There were signs that a struggle had taken place just outside her bedroom window. Katie had fought for her life and there was DNA found under her fingernails. DNA was detected on anal and vaginal swabs that were taken too. A DNA profile had been extracted and uploaded into the national forensic database called CODIS.
Police believed Katie may have tried to gain access into her bedroom via the bedroom window as she had left her keys at the house where the party was. They believed she was grabbed from behind and raped and strangled just outside her house.
Police spoke to everyone who was at the party. They discovered that at the party, Katie saw Joe kissing another girl and as a result, they had a huge argument and that was why she left alone at 3am without taking her belongings with her. That was a detail that Joe had not shared with the police. Police were convinced that Joe was hiding something.But Joe told police that he didn't see Katie after she left the party that night. He told them he drove by Katie's house shortly after she left but he did not get out of the car to check on her.
The next day, he called her multiple times. But Joe had Katie's phone. So he knew she would not be able to answer it. Police were suspicious and asked for a sample of his DNA. Joe refused.
Joe eventually agreed to provide a sample. It wasn't a match.
The case went cold.
Over three years after Katie's body was found, twenty seven year old Gabriel Avila was arrested. He was convicted of burglary, resisting arrest and fraudulent refusal to return leased property and sentenced to a term in prison. Due to that, he was required to submit a DNA sample and that sample turned up a partial match to the DNA that was found under Katie's fingernails.
Gabriel's wife told police that she found a diamond ring in Gabriel's truck. The ring was Katie's ring.
Police spoke to Gabriel. He was in prison serving a nine year sentence for aggravated burglary. He broke into the home of two female students. They woke up, saw him and called the police. He was arrested. He denied that he was involved in Katie's murder. But when police showed him the ring and told him about the DNA, he confessed.
According to his version of events, Gabriel saw Katie when she was walking home. He was out driving around in his truck that night as he wanted to buy cocaine. He almost hit her with his truck and he got out of the truck to see if she needed assistance. She told him she was fine and that she lived just a few blocks away. Gabriel said that he got back in his truck and drove away. He said that he stopped down the road to urinate and he saw Katie again so he decided to follow her.
Gabriel saw Katie at the window at her house and he asked her if she needed help. According to Gabriel, Katie told him that she was trying to get inside through the window as she forgot her keys. Gabriel said that he suddenly lost it and grabbed Katie from behind and took her down to the ground. Gabriel pulled Katie's pants down and raped her, both vaginally and anally.
Gabriel then strangled Katie with his hands and stopped when she stopped moving. He believed she would be able to identify him. He drove to the landfill where her body was later found and tried to set her body on fire using a bottle of alcohol that was in his truck. It was a completely random attack. He never saw Katie before that morning.
Gabriel pleaded guilty to multiple felonies and was given a 69 year prison sentence.
Katie's parents pushed hard for Katie's Law. When Katie was murdered, the DNA found under her fingernails was uploaded into the national forensic database, CODIS, and her parents were told that once a week, that evidence would be cross-referenced against the offender database to look for a match.
That gave Katie's family some hope that whoever killed Katie would be caught as they wanted justice for their daughter but they also wanted to ensure that nobody else was attacked in the same manner by the same person. They discovered though that in New Mexico and in nearly every other State, it was illegal to take DNA when someone is arrested. It was only entered into the system if they were convicted and sent to prison. Her parents were incredulous at the manner in which DNA is obtained.
Katie Sepich's parents
Due to that, they wanted Katie's Law which would require anyone arrested on a violent crime to submit a DNA sample. Less than three months after Katie's murder, Gabriel was arrested for aggravated burglary with a deadly weapon and resisting an officer. Had Katie's Law been in effect, police would have taken a DNA sample at that time from Gabriel. It would not have saved Katie but it would have solved her case a lot sooner.
But Katie's parents were aware that while it would not have saved their daughter, there were cases that involved people who could have been saved. Some of the cases involved men who killed several different women and if their DNA had been taken earlier, some of the women would have been saved.
Katie's parents testified in front of different States so that Katie's Law would be signed into Law in different States. Jayann gave powerful statements and described how their lives had changed forever:
"Our Katie was dead. There are no words to describe the agony. No way to express the pain. We fell into a deep, black pit with no way out There was no tomorrow. All joy was gone. Katie's father had to go to the morgue to identify his beloved daughter. He later told me that when they pulled back the sheet and he saw her beautiful face, bruised and contorted in pain, he fell to his knees and asked God to take him too. And I will never forget the hardest moment of my life-leaving my baby at the cemetery on that cloudless September afternoon. Knowing that on this earth I would never again see her smile or hear musical laughter. We had lost our daughter to a monster. And we needed justice."
Katie's Law was signed into law in New Mexico and Katie's Law and/or a version of it was signed into law in 28 States. Through the determination and fight of her parents, Jayann and Dave, they are making Katie's wishes come true. Through Katie's Law, Katie is changing the world. This law has, continues to and will save lives.
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"When someone just disappears for no reason, it's shocking, it's devastating. I just feel like my life stopped that day and I've just been in a tailspin ever since."
- Adam Vaughan, Janine's brother
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