For the past 32 years, Nellie Mesa has been the number one advocate for justice in finding the person responsible for the kidnapping and murder of her 4-year-old daughter, Jessica Martinez. During that time, Mesa has not idly stood by, content with letting police handle the investigation. No, far from that.
Mesa has been a thorn in the side of Bakersfield police investigators, demanding to know what police have or haven't done in her daughter's case and speaking publicly as a crime victim.
"She's gone, so I'm her voice," Mesa said in a recent interview.
But after 32 years, police have not arrested anyone and Jessica's case remains unsolved. But the fact that it's been an unresolved case for so long caught the attention of the Governor's Office. Just last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom put up a $50,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in Jessica's murder, according to a statement from Newsom's office. This is in addition to a $10,000 reward offered by the Kern County Secret Witness Program.
The statement goes on to say that, "Under California law, law enforcement agencies may ask the governor to issue rewards in certain unsolved cases where they have exhausted all investigative leads, to encourage individuals with information about the crimes to come forward. Public assistance is vital to law enforcement, and rewards may encourage the public cooperation needed to apprehend those who have committed serious offenses."
The key phrase here is "may encourage" someone to come forward and tell police what they know about Jessica's murder and who did it. To refresh your memory, Jessica was playing with other children right in front of her family's apartment on the 5000 block of Belle Terrace on May 10, 1990 when she suddenly vanished.
Her mother was at work and other adults were in charge of supervising her. Eleven days later, a farmworker drove a tractor over a shallow grave in a cotton field and found Jessica's body off Bear Mountain Boulevard near Highway 99. Her case stunned Bakersfield as some parents kept their kids from playing outdoors for awhile, fearful the same might happen to them.
But can a sizeable reward help to overcome fear and apathy in a criminal case? Given that police have not been able to solve this case, Mesa is optimistic it will help. She was the one who first suggested to BPD some two years ago that it look into submitting Jessica's case to the Governor's Office for help. Her efforts paid off.
"I could not believe it when I got the news that the governor had awarded $50,000 for witnesses coming forward," she said.
Since news of the $50,000 reward was made public, it's gotten the attention of some people.
"We've already received calls about the reward," Bakersfield police detective Lance O'Nesky said in a recent interview with KGET. The original detectives assigned to Jessica's case are long gone and numerous others have been assigned the case, and O'Nesky is the latest detective assigned to Jessica's case. O'Nesky said the investigation has "looked into quite a few people" as suspects but none have panned out so far.
The number one person of interest in this case is Christopher Lightsey, a convicted sex offender who lived in the very same apartment complex and at the same time as did Jessica's family. DNA found on Jessica's shoe did not match Lightsey and he was never arrested in connection with her death. Lightsey remains on death row on an unrelated case for the murder of his elderly neighbor.
So where does this leave Jessica's case?
"We have a lot of information already. We're hoping to build upon that," O'Nesky said without going into detail. Nellie Mesa has been waging a battle for 32 years advocating for her daughter, keeping the pressure on police not to give up on finding Jessica's killer. Sadly however, another family member who also kept tabs on Jessica's case will never know about the governor's reward offer. Loreto Cantu Franco, Jessica's grandfather and Mesa's father, died last month in Fresno. He was 86 years old.
"He would constantly be asking me about Jessica's case, and wanted to know what was going on," recalled Mesa. "He would be so happy and so grateful that someone is doing something to help Jessica, his granddaughter's case."
Mesa and her family have somehow managed to endure 32 plus years of not knowing who would take Jessica away from them. And why? So what would it mean if someone now comes forward to provide information that would help find Jessica's killer?
"We don't talk about what happened to her. She lives in my heart," Mesa said as her eyes started to well with tears. "I think about her all the time and my family has never forgotten her, my dad never forgot her.
"So it would mean my job's done."
Anyone with information about Jessica's case can call Bakersfield police at 661-327-7111 or to report an anonymous tip, call the Kern County Secret Witness Program at 661- 322-4040.
Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a news anchor/reporter for Telemundo Bakersfield and KGET. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed here are his own.