BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — When Desiree Thompson went missing from a city in eastern Kern County, a number of possibilities were bandied about as weeks then months passed.
Did she leave town? Had she been kidnapped? Murdered? If so, where was the body? Buried somewhere in the vast desert surrounding California City, small in population but comprising an enormous 200 square miles?
And if a victim of foul play, who killed her? Suspicion fell on her estranged husband, whom she reported had threatened her with a gun on the day she went missing.
As it happens, Thompson, 30, never left town.
A decade after her disappearance, her body was located in March buried in a backyard, and a 61-year-old man — a stranger to Thompson — charged with first-degree murder.
Authorities allege in court documents that Thompson got in the pickup of Jose William Lara and paid with her life, according to redacted reports filed in Kern County Superior Court.
“It’s mind-boggling, it’s the hardest thing to accept,” said Sheri Smith, Thompson’s mother, when interviewed after Lara’s arrest. “I never in a million years would’ve thought that I’d be standing here with that person being a suspect.”
Lara is scheduled to stand trial later this month but the case could get postponed.
Gone without a trace
When Thompson disappeared in January 2012 her husband, Edward Gibson III, became a person of interest based on alleged violent encounters she had with him. He left town.
Court documents released in April say authorities for years couldn’t locate and question him.
Even if they had, California City police had limited information with which to work. There was no body or other evidence confirming Thompson’s death. Although it would have been out of character, she could have set off for a new life without telling anyone.
Also hampering the investigation were the small department’s lack of resources, and frequent turnover in personnel, police said.
Thompson’s name was entered into a missing persons database and buccal swabs collected from family to create a DNA profile. Years passed without a break.
A disturbing story
It took a social media post on the tenth anniversary of Thompson’s death for someone to come forward.
A man, his name redacted from the reports, told police he burst into tears and became overwhelmed with guilt when he read the post asking for information on Thompson’s disappearance. He was pretty sure he knew what had happened to her. He decided he could not longer remain silent.
The man and his father spoke separately with investigators about an acquaintance named Jose William Lara.
They met Lara through church and became friends. On weekends they played soccer or pool and knocked back drinks.
One Sunday, the man said, a visibly drunk Lara shared a disturbing story.
Lara related how years ago he attended a “Diablo party” in California City where everyone wore black. Some had costumes with horns and sported Mohawk haircuts.
A couple men “disrespected” him at the party, the man said Lara told him. They pushed him down and threw him out.
Furious, Lara went home but returned to an area near the party in his pickup seeking revenge, according to the man’s account of what Lara told him.
Lara saw two people he thought he recognized from the party walking down the street. They split up and Lara approached one of them.
Lara saw he had misidentified the person, a woman he didn’t know. But he didn’t care, according to the man’s account. The man said Lara told him he was so angry he would take his anger out on anyone.
He invited the woman home for a drink and she agreed.
When they arrived, Lara told her to grab a beer from a small refrigerator in his bedroom, the man said. When she reached inside, Lara slammed her head into the corner of the fridge then repeatedly stabbed her, the man said.
He told police Lara said he buried the woman in his backyard and covered the area with a tarp and piece of plywood. Lara showed no remorse, the man said. He appeared to be boasting.
“When Lara drinks he talks a lot,” the man said, adding that he and his father stopped hanging out with Lara.
A missing tip
The man’s father was also interviewed and said Lara told him about the murder, too.
The father said he wished he had come forward earlier but was afraid of getting deported.
He gave investigators an envelope containing a typed letter summarizing what Lara told him and a diagram of Lara’s former home on 86th Street, according to the documents.
The man said he delivered the letter to the California City Police Department in 2012 but investigators found no documentation or evidence they received it.
The letter contained the same story the son shared. The father also confirmed Lara arrived at his home with a bad cut and claimed he got it fighting with men at the Diablo party.
They took him to a hospital where Lara gave an alias to staff and said he didn’t know who cut him, the father said.
A couple weeks later, Lara told him about killing the woman, the father said according to the documents. He said Lara pointed to the area of the bedroom where he stabbed her and said he used a machete.
Lara said he burned his and the woman’s clothes in a barrel in the backyard, according to the father’s account.
Police served a search warrant March 25 at Lara’s former home on 86th Street. Lara had since moved and the current residents cooperated.
Human remains were found buried in the backyard, the documents say. Bones, teeth, hair, clothing and a shoe were among the items recovered.
The coroner’s office identified the remains as Thompson’s.
Portions of laminated flooring in the master bedroom were removed and areas on the concrete floor and drywall tested positive for blood, the reports say. Swab samples and a section of drywall were collected and booked into evidence.
Meanwhile, FBI agents conducted surveillance at Lara’s current residence in the 8000 block of California City Boulevard. Agents watched him leave with a small dog and, fearing he might flee, detained him at a gas station.
In Lara’s apartment investigators found a 24-inch machete, according to the documents.
Interviewed by authorities, Lara said he moved out of the house on 86th Street within a year of his wife dying in January 2011. He told police friends from church often came over, and he mentioned one of the informants.
Asked about injuries to his hands around that time, Lara told investigators about the Diablo party and how a man attacked him with a knife. Lara said he was angry afterward and spent the night at a friend’s home. He said he didn’t know the friend’s last name.
When he gets mad, Lara said, he takes a walk to cool down. He said his anger is why he no longer has many friends.
The detectives told Lara they believed he killed someone. He denied it.
They asked what was in his backyard. He told them he had plants
“Investigators told Lara they knew he cut his hand when he stabbed the woman and that we found her remains in the backyard,” the reports say. “Lara continued to deny everything and said he knows nothing.”
In May, a judge ruled there was enough evidence for the case against Lara to proceed. He’s due back in court Friday to confirm if trial will begin later this month.