Crime

A missing mom. A shallow grave. The unraveling of a six-year mystery

A Brother’s Pursuit for Justice

Ilsy Barrios vanished in September 2012, purportedly abandoning her family to be with another man. Her brother, Gelberth Barrios, never believed it.
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Ilsy Barrios vanished in September 2012, purportedly abandoning her family to be with another man. Her brother, Gelberth Barrios, never believed it.

At his home in North Carolina, Gelberth Barrios Monterroso was growing concerned.

He hadn’t heard from his younger sister, Ilsy Barrios Monterroso, in several days.

Those occasional phone calls, text messages and Facebook posts had been a lifeline for the two Guatemalan immigrants since Ilsy had moved from North Carolina to Fort Worth in 2003.

But that fall of 2012, Gelberth noticed, his littler sister, who was 29, was no longer updating her Facebook page. No snapshots of the kids. No selfies like she was prone to share.

“Time passed — September, October — and nothing. She didn’t post anything,” he said.

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Ilsy Barrios Monterroso disappeared in September 2012. Courtesy/Family

He tried calling but she never answered. Was she having phone issues? Maybe she had gotten a new phone but just hadn’t shared the number.

December came and still no contact.

“I didn’t see anything,” he said. “I saw that people would say, ‘Merry Christmas’ and she didn’t say anything.”

A mysterious discovery

Kyle Sullivan was beginning to give up hope.

The Fort Worth homicide detective had faced challenging cases before, but the identity of skeletal remains unearthed from a shallow grave in the city’s far westside seemed destined to remain a mystery.

A construction crew working in a wooded area northwest of Calmont Avenue and Altamere Drive happened upon the skull on March 20, 2013. In a shallow grave nearby, authorities found the rest of the remains.

Forensic anthropologist Dr. Dana Austin with the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office soon determined it was a woman. She was Hispanic or possibly Asian, between 21 and 35, with long, wavy brown hair. She’d had a dental bridge to replace a missing lateral incisor.

She had been murdered, though officials would keep her cause of death to themselves.

Countless hours and thousands of dollars would be spent trying to learn her name.

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From left: Suzanne Baldon, Forensic Artist, Dr. Dana Austin, Forensic Anthropologist, Tarrant County Medical Examiner and Fort Worth homicide Detective Kyle Sullivan at a June 2013 press conference. Max Faulkner Star-Telegram archives

Sullivan scoured missing person reports and databases.

In June 2013, at a press conference at the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office, authorities released a drawing of the woman’s blouse and displayed a clay facial reconstruction done by Suzanne Baldon, a forensic artist, which featured the deceased woman’s real teeth.

And while there were some promising leads, dental and DNA comparisons were not matches.

Sullivan could only speculate that the woman may have been from out of the state or the country or living a high-risk lifestyle that made it less likely for her disappearance to be noticed.

“Out of sight, out of mind,” he remarked.

Last year, the police department even paid thousands to Parabon NanoLabs, a Virginia-based company, to create a composite of what the woman likely looked then like based on analysis of her DNA — a tool usually reserved for identifying suspects, not victims.

It was a last-ditch effort, Sullivan admits, and one that yielded no results.

“How do you solve a case when you don’t know someone’s name?” Sullivan said.

A journey of hope

Ilsy was the fourth of five siblings, raised in a rural town in a coastal region of Guatemala where people grew rice, corn and cattle.

She was especially close to her father but so much like her mother — hardworking and independent.

“She was just like my mother. She was very strong,” Gelberth recalled.

In a country plagued with crime, Ilsy was not naive about danger. In 1999, she was home when a gunman broke in and fired shots. Her father took a bullet to the arm, but recovered in a hospital. Another sister was grazed by a bullet.

Getting police to help in their homeland is difficult, Gelberth said. People don’t report these incidents to police.

“It’s not like here,” he said, referring to the U.S.

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Gelberth Barrios with Ilsy’s oldest daughter. Courtesy/Family

Perhaps the violence was among the reasons that at 17, Ilsy, newly married and pregnant, decided to move with her first husband to the United States in 2000.

They traveled from Central America to the Texas-Mexico border on bus and by foot, sometimes running through brush — making the same perilous journey thousands of other undocumented immigrants have made in search for a better future.

“We have the dream of having a job and living a better life — of having a better house. That’s the dream that brings people here to the United States,” said Janet Maldonado, Ilsy’s longtime friend.

Gelberth, who had come to the United States a year earlier and found work in California, helped the couple pay for their pilgrimage.

They initially settled in North Carolina, where Ilsy’s husband had family. Soon, she would convince her brother to join them there. For a time, they lived together — Ilsy, her husband and their baby girl who was born in 2001 in North Carolina.

Ilsy worked in a kitchen where food was prepared for senior citizens while her brother worked in construction. The economy was good. Immigrants were welcome.

A new start

But after Ilsy’s first marriage ended in divorce, the yearning to start over drew her and her young daughter to Fort Worth, where she heard there was work. They arrived in 2003.

Ilsy worked as a waitress. She picked up extra income by making and selling tamales and tostadas at soccer games on weekends.

She sometimes sent Gelberth pictures and teased: “Look, what I cooked today. You want some?”

Roughly a year later, she shared with her brother the news that she had a new boyfriend, Joaquin Diaz Lopez, a pipeline worker. The two were living together and planned to marry.

The couple would eventually have two children, a boy, now 13, and a girl, now 9.

“She was always with him,” he said.

When Ilsy first disappeared from social media, Gelberth suspected that maybe she was limiting her posts because of Lopez.

Ilsy had previously shared with her big brother that sometimes Lopez would get jealous if she posted too much on Facebook.

Gelberth had never met Lopez, only talked by phone, but heard stories from Ilsy that indicated he could be controlling and sometimes violent.

“He was a male chauvinist,” Gelberth said. “He wanted to dominate her.”

Gelberth said Ilsy had even talked of leaving him but worried about what that would do to the children and didn’t want to break up the family.

A missing friend

Maldonado and Ilsy had been 11 when they met and became playmates.

The two friends had grown up in Guatemala in nearby towns — a friendship that grew when Maldonado would visit relatives who lived near Ilsy’s family.

“We would talk and we played,” she said. “It was a nice childhood friendship.”

Like Ilsy, Maldonado had come to the United States. After not seeing each other for about seven or eight years, they’d reunite when Ilsy moved to Fort Worth. Both were now mothers and would get together for birthdays and family parties.

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Ilsy’s friend, Janet Maldonado, now lives with regret she did not do more to find Ilsy. Deanna Boyd Star-Telegram

Ilsy wanted to work and would soon get a job at a restaurant in the mornings. But later, Ilsy met a new man and would tell Maldonado that she wasn’t going to work anymore.

“I am together with someone,” Maldonado recalls Ilsy telling her. “I am not going to work anymore because my husband told me not to work anymore. I am going to focus on my children.”

Ilsy, Maldonado would learn, was pregnant with her son and planned to be a full-time homemaker.

Maldonado said she saw less and less of her friend.

Sometimes, when they talked, Maldonado was moved to ask if everything was OK because she wondered if there were problems in Ilsy’s relationship. If there were issues, Ilsy never revealed them.

In fact, the last time the two friends spoke, the conversation had this familiar theme. It was Christmas Day 2011, a day after Ilsy had gathered for festivities at Maldonado’s house. The party became momentarily uncomfortable when Lopez confronted another guest.

“He was very jealous,” Maldonado said. “Another man looked at her and he went to the other man and asked ‘Why are you looking at my wife?’”

Maldonado asked him not to create any problems during the holidays. He calmed down, but he left with Ilsy.

The following day Maldonado called to check on her friend but Ilsy assured her everything was fine.

They never talked again.

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In June 2012, three months before her disappearance, Ilsy posted this photo on Facebook and a message in Spanish: “Whatever happens, remember I love you. Bye.” Courtesy/Family

“After a while, months and days went by, and I didn’t hear from her,” she said. “I started to call her on the phone. I looked for her on Facebook, but she didn’t answer. We didn’t hear anything. I thought she had moved to another state and that’s why she didn’t communicate with us and then time went by and we no longer knew anything about her.”

In June 2012, Maldonado grew worried about Ilsy after seeing a picture of her on Facebook that included the words, “Whatever happens, remember I love you. Bye.”

“Her eyes looked sad,” Maldonado said.

That post was made on a Facebook account that listed Houston as Ilsy’s home. Maldonado thought maybe Ilsy had moved there and sent a friend request, but didn’t get a response. She also sent three messages on Facebook Messenger.

In 2014, Maldonado again felt the weight of unanswered questions and went to Ilsy’s home.

No one answered when she knocked on the door.

Growing suspicions

Gelberth was finally able to reach Lopez in 2013, inquiring about his sister’s whereabouts. He said Lopez told him the couple had separated and that Ilsy had left the family.

“I never believed it,” Gelberth said. ”I knew she would never leave the children behind.”

When he asked about the children, Lopez said a sister was taking care of them.

Ilsy’s friends would hear the same rumor. Like Gelberth, they didn’t believe it.

“I was thinking, that’s impossible,” said Delcy, another friend who asked that her last name not be used.

She had previously watched llsy’s two youngest children when the young mother went back to work. “She can’t leave the kids. Not (the oldest daughter). He’s not even the father.”

Maldonado agreed the rumors didn’t make sense, remembering how Ilsy would take her children everywhere with her.

“She loved her children very much. One time she told me, ‘I would never leave my children. I will take them anywhere I go,’” Maldonado said. “She looked like a loving mother. I can’t imagine that she would change overnight and abandon her children. No.”

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Ilsy Barrios with her three children. Courtesy/Family

Delcy said a woman later contacted her, asking her to drive her to the apartment where Ilsy had last been known to be living.

“She told me her mom in Guatemala is asking about her,” said Delcy, who remembers being alarmed that even Ilsy’s mother did not know the whereabouts of her daughter. “We went to the apartment. We knocked on the door. Nobody came out. Then we went to the office to see if she moved to another apartment.”

But the complex was under new management and the staff knew nothing about Ilsy.

Delcy said she later saw Ilsy’s son at a soccer game. She tried to talk to the boy, but only had time to say hi before his friends called him back.

Sometime later, she spotted Ilsy’s youngest daughter at a Family Dollar store. She followed the girl through the aisles where she saw Lopez and the other two children at the cash register.

“They were ready to pay already. We got closer and talked to the little girl,” Delcy said. “We said “Hola” and then the father just called her like, ‘Come over here.”

She said the Lopez paid and quickly ushered the three children into his truck.

“We tried to follow him but we lost the truck,” Delcy said. “We never saw where they were living.”

Maldonado once spotted Joaquin and Ilsy’s oldest daughter at a J.C. Penny in 2015. The girl didn’t appear to recognize her, but Joaquin avoided Maldonado and left quickly with the girl.

Maldonado’s earlier thoughts that Ilsy had gone to another state or back to Guatemala dissipated. She now wondered if her long-time friend was in prison or maybe dead.

“I said to myself, ‘Something happened,’” Maldonado said.

Seeking help

Through the years, Gelberth Barrios tried to find some answers in a confusing American law enforcement system that sprawled between two states and two countries.

“I always tried to find help from the consulate. It was very difficult,” he said.

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Gelberth Barrios speaks at his home in Benson, NC on Friday, April 26, 2019 about the disappearance of his sister Ilsy Barrios. TRAVIS LONG tlong@newsobserver.com

He said at one point in 2016 Lopez told him that immigration authorities picked up his sister and speculated that she was deported. Gelberth went to the consulate and they helped him determine that there was no record of her being deported.

He reached out to friends of his sister. At some point, he went to the police in Durham to report her missing but was told he’d have to do so to in Texas.

Another relative tried to report her missing in Texas, but he wasn’t a direct relative so that proved difficult.

Gelberth Barrios said he also continued to send messages to Lopez, asking more vehemently where his sister was, but he was ignored. He felt his family was both victims of Lopez and a system they didn’t understand.

No one on the Lopez’s side of the family reported her missing or helped, he said.

“A lot of things passed through my mind,” he said, recalling how he wondered: “Maybe something happened.”

A mystery solved

The message was left for Sullivan, the homicide detective, in January.

A high school counselor had been meeting with a teenage girl. During one of their talks, the teen had mentioned that her mother had run out on her family in 2012, and hadn’t been seen since.

Suspicious, the woman and a second counselor began scouring the internet and stumbled upon an article about the police department’s efforts to identify a female whose skeletal remains were found in a shallow grave in March 2013. The article included a photo of a clay sculpture of the victim’s face.

They looked up the Facebook page of the teen’s mother, Ilsy, and noticed a striking similarity between the teeth displayed on the clay sculpture and those in Ilsy’s photo.

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Two high school counselors contacted Fort Worth police after realizing that a student’s mother, who’d reportedly abandoned her family in September 2012, looked similar to a clay reconstruction done of an unidentified woman found dead in a shallow grave in early 2013.

Upon receiving the tip, Sullivan also pulled up Ilsy’s Facebook page, zeroing in on her smile and finding himself filling with hope.

He met with the counselors and later the teen to learn more about her missing mother. He didn’t tell the girl that he investigated homicides, nor did he mention the unidentified remains.

The girl told Sullivan about her mother’s disappearance six years earlier. She recalled for him how her mom and stepdad had been arguing one night and that she and her two younger half-siblings awoke the next morning to find their mother gone.

On that day, her stepfather drove her to school and later picked her up. That evening, while at home, she said her stepfather indicated he had just gotten a text from her mother. He even showed it to her.

It read, Sullivan said, that Ilsy had run off with another man and asked Lopez to take care of her kids.

The teen didn’t hide her bitterness. She asked the detective to pass along a message to her mother if he found Ilsy.

“Tell my mother if you find her, I don’t want anything to do with her. She ran out on me. She made my life miserable,” the girl said.

Sullivan took a DNA sample from the teen.

The Tarrant County medical examiner’s office compared it to the DNA profile from the remains and, in March, confirmed the remains belonged to the teen’s mother, Ilsy Yanely Barrios Monterroso.

For Sullivan, finally being able to put a name to the homicide victim after more than six years of searching was a short-lived victory.

“It was definitely a relief,” Sullivan said. “It was definitely good news when I got it.”

But now, he says, the real pressure is on.

“Now I’ve just got to find out who did it.”

More unanswered questions

For Gelberth Barrios, the answer seems clear.

He believes the person responsible for his sister’s death is the same man who presented himself as a victim.

“He made the children believe that their mother left and abandoned them,” he said. “I want there to be justice. I want him to pay.”

Lopez, it turns out, has been in the Tarrant County Jail since January, charged in a sexual assault of a child case. His bail is set at $100,000.

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Joaquin Diaz Lopez is in Tarrant County Jail on an unrelated sexual assault of a child charge. Tarrant County Sheriff's Office

His two younger children have been placed in foster care. The oldest daughter is 18 and living with family.

“We have talked to him, Sullivan said. “He’s provided an account of his wife’s disappearance and verified that he never reported his wife missing.”

Sullivan said he has not been eliminated as a suspect in the case.

“I still consider him to be a prime suspect,” Sullivan said.

Lopez declined a request by the Star-Telegram for a jailhouse interview.

Defense attorney Bob Gill, who is representing Lopez on the sexual assault of a child charge, said he believes homicide detectives are only targeting Lopez because he was Ilsy’s husband. He said Lopez has rightly denied any involvement in her death.

“I think the police consider him a prime suspect because they just don’t have anybody else,” Gill said.

If Ilsy was killed, Gill said it happened after she left her family.

“She abandoned the family. Abandoned Joaquin. Left him with three kids, one of whom was not his,” Gill said. “And he’s done the best job he can to try to raise those kids in her absence.”

Gill said he also expects Lopez to be vindicated on the sexual assault charge.

“It was an isolated uncorroborated outcry,” Gill said. “Our investigation has shown that the alleged victim is very unstable.”

Gill said Lopez worked hard to provide for his family.

“He misses his children very much and they miss him,” Gill said.

He said one of Lopez’s brothers has been attempting to gain custody of the children through the courts, an effort that Lopez supports.

“He’d rather be out of jail taking care of them himself. If he can’t be, he’d like to have them with family,” Gill said.

Ilsy’s remains are still at the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s office. Her family is making arrangements to have them sent to Guatemala.

Maldonado learned about Ilsy’s death from Gelberth in March. She said she has a heavy heart that she didn’t do more to help Ilsy or to find her family.

“I feel guilty,” she said in Spanish, tears filling her eyes. “Why didn’t I do something? Why didn’t I go to the police?”

“She was a very nice person to me,” Maldonado added. “It is sad to know what happened to her because I knew her and I didn’t do anything. I didn’t try to get help or ask what happened — so many months passed, so many years passed and we should have looked for her. We stayed there waiting and the years passed by quickly.”

Gelberth said there were many victims in his sister’s case.

“Everything was a lie,” he said. “He lied to the children. He lied to all of us.”

Tips?

Anyone with information about the homicide of Ilsy Barrios is asked to call Detective Kyle Sullivan at 817-392-4340.

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For 23 years, Deanna Boyd has covered crime for the Star-Telegram. She digs deep into the stories behind the tragedies and hosts Out of the Cold, a podcast about unsolved murders in North Texas. She is a University of Texas at Austin graduate and has won several journalism awards through the years.
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