A case that started seven years ago with a 911 call regarding a man found bludgeoned and stabbed to death in his bed in Westminster came to conclusion on Friday, July 23, in a California courtroom.
A jury took only hours to decide a case seven years in the making.
Olga Vasquez-Collazos, 44, who was convicted in June of first-degree murder and conspiracy in the death of her husband, Adrian Zapata, 58, was sentenced to 25 years to life for her role in the gruesome murder.
She was not found guilty of a charge of murder for financial gain, which could have led to a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.
Robert Rafael Saavedra Gallardo, her alleged co-conspirator and accused of carrying out the killing, is scheduled to go to trial in September.
It was Vasquez-Collazos who ran screaming from her home on the morning of May 22, 2014, to have a neighbor make the 911 call about the grisly discovery.
Former Westminster Homicide Detective James Wilson, now with the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department as a senior investigator for the District Attorney, pulled together the myriad the disparate pieces that eventually, “painted a picture,” he said, of the crime.
What started off as a seemingly straightforward albeit difficult to prove case of murder turned into a sordid tale of sex, infidelity, red herrings, greed, and, eventually, murder — followed by international flight to avoid prosecution and extradition.
In that scenario, Vasquez-Collazos, 20 years younger than her husband, conspired with Gallardo to kill her husband and inherit his condominium in Peru, life insurance, and retirement money.
The defense told a different tale of an admittedly unfaithful wife, trapped in the United States by a cheating husband, but nonetheless attempting to reconcile at the time of the crime. She also had an unbreakable alibi for the time of the killing.
“It was a tough case to put together,” Wilson said.
Within six months the police had landed on Vasquez-Collazos as their prime suspect, yet it would take years of painstaking research and data collection to unpack and build a presentable case.
Initially, there was no apparent motive, no forensic evidence, no witness testimony, and a suspect who couldn’t have committed the act.
“There was nothing in this one,” Homicide Detective Norma Vasquez-Phan, who also worked the case, told Behind the Badge in 2019.
Love, infidelity, and intrigue
Although a spouse is usually the first suspect, Wilson said Vasquez-Collazos effectively “played the part of the grieving widow” at first.
As no valuables were taken, except for the victim’s cell phone, the police easily dispelled the apparently staged ransacking of the apartment to make robbery look like a motive.
Police were also sent on a “goose chase,” according to Wilson, by a nightie and condoms in Zapata’s trunk.
Those items, Wilson said, were placed to suggest infidelity by Zapata. Eventually, a low-grade DNA match was found on the nightie that allegedly connected to Gallardo, but not until after the crime was solved.
Through interviews with the victim’s co-workers, investigators learned that Zapata suspected his wife of cheating, Wilson said.
Vasquez-Collazos was arrested in late 2014. However, the District Attorney decided not to charge her at the time.
Although Gallardo was not identified early, the prosecution surmised that shortly after Zapata and Vasquez-Collazos settled together in Westminster, the wife rekindled a “very intense” relationship with Gallardo that had begun when the two lived in Peru. Gallardo, by then, was living in Van Nuys.
When detectives discovered a “secret phone” the couple used to communicate, law enforcement was finally able to piece together deleted texts, phone records, and locators and make the case.
The accused made a few missteps in their phone use (such as Gallardo allegedly using the secret number on registering for a class) that helped bust the case open.
Zapata had also been doing some sleuthing before his death and called Gallardo in Peru trying to prove his wife’s infidelity.
“The imbecile called here,” Gallardo reportedly told Vasquez-Collazos during one of their conversations.
After Zapata’s death, the widow committed suspicious acts, according to Wilson, such as forging documents to inherit the condominium, rather than the victim’s son, and continuously converting his life insurance.
When police were able to piece together that Gallardo and Vasquez-Collazos met on the morning of the killing to exchange the “secret” phone, that was the final piece, according to Wilson.
“We knew she would have a hard time explaining that,” Wilson said.
The detective said in a final interrogation that Vasquez-Collazos for the first time admitted to the existence of the “secret” phone.
When presenting the case for the District Attorney in 2019, Wilson said he put together an hour-long computer presentation to prosecutors.
They had her.
Zapata, a tech at Fountain Valley Medical Center, was a Peruvian-born United States citizen who enjoyed returning to his native country to vacation at his condo in Chicolayo in the northwestern corner of the country. During one of those trips he met Vasquez-Collazos, a single mother of two from a small village in Peru.
Despite the age difference, the couple had a whirlwind courtship and were married in 2011. In 2013, Vasquez-Collazos and her children were able to join Zapata in Westminster.
During the trial, the Orange County Register reported that Deputy District Attorney Janine Madera told jurors, “She never loved him. It was about coming to the U.S. It was about money.”
Joel Garston, defense attorney, countered that Zapata had preyed on Vasquez-Collazos’ naiveté to seduce her.
It wasn’t until 2017 that Westminster Police Department detectives obtained a warrant for Gallardo’s arrest, only to discover he had fled to Canada and had requested asylum. Canada denied the request and returned him to Peru where he was arrested by Interpol. Eventually, Westminster detectives took him into custody March 15, 2019.
That same day, by pure circumstance, Vasquez-Collazos returned from Peru and was arrested by Westminster detectives at Los Angeles International Airport.
The Orange County Register reported that several members of Zapata’s family spoke at the sentencing:
“My brother was not perfect, none of us are, but he was important to so many of us and our lives will never be the same without him,” Kathy Diersing wrote in a statement.
Renzo Zapata, the victim’s son, said that his “blood boiled and my heart broke.”
“It means a lot to the family,” Wilson said of the guilty verdict. “That’s why we do this.”