As you finish this story, you may be surprised to find out that you will know an interesting fact about Tustin Police Services Officer Denise Avila that even her mother doesn’t know.
Avila, 35, has kept quiet about the thing that has recently consumed her life. She doesn’t know when, if ever, she will tell her mother what she does when she’s not working Crime Scene Investigations for the Tustin Police Department.
It’s that she’s devoted her life to such levels of physical fitness that she doesn’t believe her mother will understand.
So when she’s at family birthday parties, she doesn’t eat the cake. And she just doesn’t bring it up one particular facet of her life.
In her free time, Denise Avila is a competitive fitness contestant.
“There are two sides to people in uniform,” Avila said. “Everybody has their own story.”
Whether that uniform says Tustin PD or is a swimsuit, Avila is right. Her story is not what you might think. Her venture into the world of competitive fitness, where she will be competing for the National Championship in Miami in November, is not a frivolous divergence.
Her background is painful. When she tells her story, she starts with the investigation of a serial killer and eventually gets to a fatal car accident – two life changing events that led her to where she is today.
Denise Avila grew up in Wilmington, where she was a cheerleader and joined the police explorer program at Banning High School.
Ask her about the moment she decided she wanted to get involved in law enforcement, and she’ll give you specifics. She was 9 years old when serial killer Richard Ramirez (known as “The Night Stalker”) was on trial for murders across California.
She remembers seeing a news report that Ramirez left a shoe print – Avia Aerobic sneakers – in the flower bed of a victim’s home in Whittier. That print, thanks to good work by the CSI team, was linked to shoe prints found at the home of five other victims.
That shoe print helped convict The Night Stalker and enticed a young girl to a career path.
Avila graduated from Cal State Fullerton in 2005 with a degree in Criminal Justice. She was hired as a Police Services Officer by the Tustin PD in 2006.
She said CSI is as important a job as it is stressful.
“You only get one shot at a crime scene,” she said.
In 2011, she was living with her boyfriend Jerry Ruiz, who she had met just after high school. Ruiz worked as an IT technician at the City of Hope.
Avila was driving home from work when she saw a car marked “Coroner” in front of the home she shared with Ruiz.
He had been killed in a car accident on the 210 Freeway.
She was devastated, she said through her tears. Suddenly, everything she did on the job reminded her of her lost boyfriend.
In Tustin, she had to investigate car accidents and suicides and other horrible situations as part of her job.
That’s when she met Albert Rincon, a personal trainer and fitness competitor.
Rincon suggested that she try fitness competitions.
Avila thought he was crazy. In the fitness world, she was what is called “skinny fat,” meaning that she wasn’t overweight, but she also wasn’t in shape.
Also, she couldn’t imagine herself posing in front of judges in a swimsuit.
“That is just not me,” she said.
She was having trouble sleeping at night, and she needed something to take her mind off Ruiz’s death.
So she decided to start working out – with no intention of competing in organized events.
She began lifting weights and doing cardiovascular workouts for 90 minutes, six days per week. She began eating seven meals a day, small portions of lean meat, egg whites, rice and greens that equaled 2,000 calories.
After a couple of weeks, she began to see changes in her body, her energy level and her mood – all for the better.
Then she decided to go all the way.
“The diet was so hard, so intense, that I decided I was going to sign up for one of those shows to document my transformation,” Avila said.
In October of 2012, she competed in an organized event for the first time. She finished in the top 10.
And she was hooked.
In December, she finished first in the 35-and-older division (which qualified her for Nationals).
“The competitions changed me,” she said. “I’m a lot stronger mentally. I have more confidence. Fitness modeling got me away from staying at home and dwelling on what happened.”
Today, her trainer, Rincon, is her boyfriend. She spends hours and hours shopping for and preparing food. She carries plastic containers with her with meals. She very rarely veers from her diet plan.
After she competes, she has a special meal – an In-n-Out double cheeseburger with animal style fries AND two donuts.
When her co-workers found out – it wasn’t difficult because she works out almost every evening in the Tustin PD fitness room – they were very supportive.
She regularly gets asked for diet and fitness tips in the office.
But the most common thing she hears when people see her competition pictures – “Is that really you?”
Some people see only the swimsuit.
“I see dedication and hard work,” Avila said.
Her mother would be proud.