Last week we looked at the murder of former child actor Carl Switzer, “Alfalfa” of The Little Rascals. Our subject this week is the murder of Darrell Lunsford, an East Texas police constable. His murder was the first case where dashcam video led to the quick arrest of the killers. The video also ensured their conviction.
Darrell Lunsford is Murdered on the Highway
At about 1:20 on the morning of January 23, 1991, Constable Lunsford noted a vehicle he considered suspicious. It was a ten-year-old Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme with Maine license plates. As the car passed through the tiny town of Garrison, Texas on U.S. Highway 59, Lunsford pulled it over. Lunsford got out of his cruiser, but before he did, he activate his dashboard camera.
Three Hispanic men occupied the Cutlass: the driver, Reynaldo Villarreal, his half-brother, Baldemar, and Jesus Cortez Zambrano. Lunsford asked Reynaldo for identification. He claimed to have a driver’s license but said he didn’t have it on him. Reynaldo failed to mention that the three were heading to Chicago from Houston with 30 pounds of marijuana.
At 1:27, Lunsford asked to look in the Cutlass’s trunk and the men reluctantly agreed. When he and Reynaldo opened the trunk, the scent of marijuana was immediately evident. Although told to stay in the car, Baldemar got out and joined Reynaldo in talking with Lunsford. Suddenly, Baldemar grabbed Lunsford by the legs while Reynaldo grabbed him from behind. The two men, soon joined by Zambrano, then began to kick, beat, and stab the immobilized officer.
Not content to disable Lunsford, Baldemar shot him in the neck with the officer’s own gun. The bullet severed his spinal cord, killing him instantly. The three dragged the body to a nearby ditch. Then they sped off in the Cutlass, leaving Lunsford’s body and his cruiser on the side of Highway 59.
Darrell Lunsford Murder Suspects Captured
Shortly before the murder, Sheriff’s Deputy Don Welch drove by the traffic stop. Moments later, when the Cutlass zoomed past him, Welch turned around and found Lunsford’s body. He radioed for help. Chief Deputy Thomas Stanaland noticed the video camera in Lunsford’s cruiser. He watched the video, then made a copy of the tape.
Analyzing the video, police were able to identify the three suspects. The trio had abandoned their Cutlass less than a mile from Garrison when they realized Welch had spotted them. On foot now, and toting 30 pounds of marijuana, they didn’t move fast. A highway patrolman spotted and arrested Reynaldo Villarreal later that same day. Two days after that, authorities found and arrested his brother, Baldemar. It took another week, but Zambrano was soon in custody as well.
All three men stood trial for murder and were convicted. Baldemar Villarreal, the actual shooter, received a life sentence. Reynaldo Villarreal received a 40-year sentence while Jesus Zambrano drew a 30-year term.
A few months later, on September 21, 1991, Texas State Trooper Andy Lopez, Jr. stopped a suspicious vehicle along U.S. Highway 77 in Refugio, Texas. In an eerie echo of Lunsford’s murder, three Hispanic men were in the car transporting a cargo of marijuana. At first, they men allowed Lopez to open the trunk. But then, one of the suspects drew a handgun.
Lopez quickly knocked the suspect off balance and drew his own gun. The two men exchanged shots. The armed suspect continued to fire at Lopez while the other two fled on foot. By the time help arrived, the armed suspect had suffered mortal wounds in the gun battle. Lopez credited the video of Lunsford’s murder with helping him learn what mistakes to avoid in a similar situation.
According to Bureau of Prisons records, Baldemar Villarreal is in prison in Beaumont, Texas with no release day. He is likely to spend the rest of his days behind bars. Reynaldo Villareal languishes in the Federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. His planned release date is January 2026. Jesus Zambrano served 27 years of his 30-year sentence and was released in 2018.
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