One suspect awaiting trial, police believe several more at-large after 2011 murder
Jan 09, 2013 (Kilgore News Herald - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Detective Trae Portwood knows there were others involved in the murder of Renee Garrett in early 2011. He knows their names, has interviewed them in the course of the ongoing investigation.
Building the case against them, however, takes time.
"It's frustrating. It's frustrating to believe you know what happened but not have enough to bring the people responsible for it to justice yet. It's frustrating. But that's why you keep working on it," he said. For months, the case dominated his time, but many more incidents have come along in the past two years. "Now I'm back to working a regular case load, but I'm always working that case. At least once a week I do something on that case... whether it's started by a phone call from someone or we get information from the lab, which still has pieces of evidence that they're still working on.
"It's still the biggest case on the desk and it's still the one I look at the most."
Samantha Gonzales Lara, 21, was the first suspect arrested in the death of the 25- year-old clerk, shot to death during an apparent robbery at the Adult Video and DVD store on Industrial Avenue shortly after midnight Jan. 10. Lara remains in the Gregg County Jail on $500,000 bond, facing a first degree felony murder charge since her arrest on Feb. 24, 2012.
"She's awaiting trial, which we anticipate to be sometime in February," Portwood said. In the meantime, "We are still investigating other possible suspects, we just don't have enough to get 'em yet, so to speak -- we believe we know the people who were involved, as we have, we just don't have the physical evidence to tie them to it yet."
According to Portwood, nothing has changed in the basic make-up of the case -- the victim intended to close the store early that snowy night. She called the store's manager, reporting a problem with a customer, and the manager in turn called the police.
By the time officers arrived, the suspects involved had fled the scene with a cash box containing an unspecified amount of money. Garrett was dead from an apparent gunshot wound to the torso.
Investigators were on Lara's trail within hours of the murder, Kilgore Police Chief Todd Hunter said.
"I think the Criminal Investigation Division unit did a great job in doing what they did," he added. "They talked with her that evening and continued to work that angle, and it finally paid off."
In the days and weeks following the shooting, multiple agencies assisted KPD in the investigation including the Texas Rangers, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Smith County Sheriff 's Of f ice Cr ime Scene Unit and the Gregg County District Attorney's office.
In addition to the DNA evidence collected at the store, the Rangers used digital mapping equipment to create a 360-degree re-creation of the crime scene. The joint-team also recovered video surveillance footage of the suspects as well as images of their vehicle.
Just shy of one year later, KPD announced the forensics lab involved in the investigation had matched the DNA to one of the handful of suspects -- Lara -- and Portwood joined other KPD officers to make the first arrest at her residence the next month for Felony Murder and Aggravated Robbery.
"We've looked at numerous people throughout the course of this thing, based on tips," he said. "I still get tips on the case regularly. We still follow them up. Still shaking the trees, seeing if we can get the magic piece to make it fall together for us."
According to Gregg County judicial records, Lara is listed on the criminal status docket Feb. 8 -- reset most recently on Dec. 7 -- in Judge Alfonso Charles' 124th District Court.
Lara has retained Tyler attorney Joshua Wintters for her defense. Gregg County Assistant District Attorney Stacey Brownlee is representing the state as prosecutor.
Wintters did not return a request for an interview on the case. Brownlee was also reserved in her statements, noting only that no trial date has officially been set.
"Lara is obviously one of the keys to this investigation," Hunter said. "We still continue to work it, and we still continue to hope there will be more information that comes into the office that we can utilize.
"It's disappointing that we haven't been able to make any additional arrests at this time, but it's not for lack of trying on our end. We've uncovered every stone."
According to Hunter, who was hired for the department's top post about a month after the murder, he's been concerned both with misinformation that's been offered in the investigation and a lack of information as well.
"We know that there are other people out there that know about this investigation but aren't coming forward," he insisted. At this point, too, Lara is tight-lipped, Hunter added. "We believe we received some disinformation from her, but at this point she's not cooperating with us to assist us in this investigation."
He, like Portwood, remains convinced the case will be fully solved and all the suspects will eventually be arrested. But it is disappointment to be two years out with only one suspect in jail.
"It's important for us to fully-solve this not only for the family but also for the citizens of Kilgore because we don't want anyone who was involved in a heinous crime like this to still be on the streets," Hunter said.
There are two rewards available for any information which leads to the arrest and conviction of the remaining individuals involved in the crime: Gregg County Video Corporation, which owns the local store, has increased its offer from $10,000 to $15,000, Portwood noted.
"There's also a $1,000 reward through Crime Stoppers that's still available for anybody who provides information that leads to an arrest and indictment that was not used on Ms. Lara's arrest."
Leads in the case can be reported to Portwood at 903- 983-1559 or provided anonymously to the Crime Stoppers at 903-236- STOP (7867).
"It helped making the initial arrest, but I'd like to get everybody, obviously," Portwood said. "It's coming up on two years. I wish we could have got it done for the family and victim in two days, but it doesn't always work that way. But we've been working on it diligently. I can tell you that."
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