Local News

Thursday, Jul 26 2012 09:48 PM

Bakersfield man arrested in connection with 1979 murder of Oxnard woman

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    Photo is courtesy of the Ventura County Sheriff's Department. The picture is John Clark Russell.

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BY RACHEL COOK Californian staff writer rcook@bakersfield.com

Three decades after a young Oxnard woman was shot, stabbed and buried in a shallow grave, a man who lived in a quiet cul-de-sac in Bakersfield was arrested on suspicion of murdering her.

Just after 5 p.m. Thursday, the Bakersfield Police Department announced that Ventura County law enforcement had arrested John Clark Russell, 63, for the 1979 murder of Alma Zuniga. The arrest came about seven years after DNA evidence linked Russell to the case, police said.

Russell's southwest Bakersfield neighbors were surprised by the arrest. Ulises Rosas, who lives across the street from Russell, repeatedly described his neighbor as "the nicest guy in the world," a kind and polite man.

"Any time you needed help, he would jump right on it," Rosas said, adding that Russell would lend him any yard tools he needed.

Just a few days ago, Russell called Rosas over to show him his new truck. Rosas said as far as he knew Russell did yard work for a living. He said Russell and his wife had been living on the street for two or three years and have three children. Russell told Rosas his kids were his life and Rosas said his neighbor was a kind parent.

"I can't imagine him doing that kind of stuff," Rosas said of Russell's arrest.

The arrival of a fleet of law enforcement vehicles did not go unnoticed on the well-kept street. Rosas' next-door neighbor, L. H. Collier, said three BPD cars and 10 or 11 unmarked cars showed up at about 8:30 a.m. Thursday. A Ventura County detective interviewed Collier at his house but wouldn't divulge to him what the inquiry was regarding.

"(The detective) wouldn't say what it was all about. He said it was a cold case that they were working on," Collier said.

The case dates back to March 11, 1979 when 23-year-old Zuniga's body was found buried in an agricultural field on the northeast edge of Oxnard in El Rio, according to a Bakersfield Police Department news release. An autopsy showed Zuniga died of gunshot and stab wounds, but the Ventura County Sheriff's Department didn't find any suspects as they collected evidence and interviewed people in connection with the case.

The case went cold but then in 2005, detectives re-examined the evidence, police said. DNA evidence, by then more than almost 30 years old, was tested and a match pointed to Russell as a suspect in Zuniga's murder.

In 2011, the case was assigned to the county's "Cold Case Homicide Task Force" and more DNA work was done and witnesses were found for more detailed interviews, the news release said.

Members of the Ventura County task force, which includes investigators from the sheriff's Major Crimes Bureau and Ventura County District Attorney's Office, arrested Russell on Thursday with help from the BPD's robbery/homicide unit, police said. He was booked into a Ventura County jail on suspicion of murder and is scheduled to appear in Ventura County Superior Court Friday morning.

Police asked anyone with information about the case to call Detective Sgt. Rhods at 805-384-4724 or Ventura County Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS (8477).

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