A woman was convicted Tuesday of conspiring with her boyfriend to kill her husband in Westminster.
Olga Vasquez-Collazos, 44, was convicted of first-degree murder and conspiracy, but jurors, who deliberated for just a few hours, rejected a special circumstances allegation of murder for financial gain that would have mandated a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Co-defendant Roberto Rafael Saavedra Gallardo, 44, is charged with murder with a special circumstance allegation of murder for financial gain and will go on trial separately at a later date.
In her opening statement at Vasquez-Collazos’ trial, Senior Deputy District Attorney Janine Madera alleged the pair killed 58-year-old Adrian Zapata, whose body was found in his apartment in the 15100 block of Brookhurst Street about 10:35 a.m. on May 22, 2014, “so they can be together like they want to and so they can get Zapata’s penthouse in Peru, life insurance and 401k.”
In her closing argument, Madera speculated that an “additional motive” could have been to end a threat to Vasquez-Collazos’ immigration status. She said the victim called Saavedra to confront him about the affair, which he suspected from a Facebook photo of the two.
The life insurance wasn’t worth a substantial amount of money, but it was “a good chunk of change” that anyone “would love to have show up in our bank account tomorrow,” Madera told the jury.
Zapata “was a working man who had a nice piece of property where he was from (in Peru), a 401k and a little life insurance,” Madera said. “The plan was to take that as an added bonus to get him out of the way.”
There is no direct evidence tying the defendants to the murder of Zapata, who was bludgeoned and stabbed repeatedly in his bed, Madera said. The evidence is focused on text messages between the two, including a “secret phone,” and cell phone records that show the two near the crime scene at the time of the killing, the prosecutor said.
Madera argued the defendant was a “convincing, confident liar” during repeated interviews with investigators over the years.
She said that Vasquez-Collazos gave Gallardo a house key, adding there was no sign of forced entry. Zapata was home from his job at a hospital, sleeping in on his day off, when he was attacked, Madera said.
The killer dumped over some items in the bedroom to stage a robbery, but nothing of value was taken except the victim’s phone, which the prosecutor indicated was taken to hide evidence.
When police checked the trunk of the victim’s car, they found a box of condoms with a “nightie” in it, leading them to suspect Zapata was having an affair at the time, Madera said.
Vasquez-Collazos took her 16- and 8-year-old sons to school the morning of the murder and stopped at UC Irvine Medical Center to get a doctor’s note to explain to her bosses at her restaurant job why she needed sick leave, Madera said.
When she got home and found her husband’s body, she acted “freaked out” and summoned a neighbor, who called 911, the prosecutor said.
Vasquez-Collazos’ “alibi checked out” initially, and she “made sure every step of the way where she was was documented,” Madera said, adding that the defendant met up with her co-defendant to hand over the “secret phone” before she returned home to the crime scene.
Vasquez-Collazos lied often to police in the ensuing years of the investigation, leading up to her arrest in March 2019, the prosecutor said, telling the jury that the defendant was “cooperative with a purpose” with investigators as she pumped police for information.
The defendant’s attorney, Joel Garson, said everyone involved in the case has a track record of lying.
“I’m going to be honest with you. Ms. Vasquez lied to the police, but you’re also going to hear the deceased Adrian Zapata was a liar,” Garson said in his opening statement. “This is a big web of lies.”
Garson said the text messages exchanged between the two were in Spanish and included the usual abbreviations that will prove to be difficult to interpret.
Vasquez-Collazos was born in a small town in Peru and “was a single mom raising two kids” and working as a secretary at a university when she met Saavedra-Gallardo in 2009, Garson said. The two dated for a couple of months and broke up, he said.
“A year later, she meets her future husband, Adrian,” Garson said.
Zapata had emigrated to the United States and gained citizenship, but had the condo in Peru and would visit often, Garson said.
Zapata was “showering her with attention, appearing to have money because U.S. money is worth more than Peruvian money, and he sweeps her off her feet basically,” Garson said. “He tells her about a better life in the United States.”
The two kept up a long-distance dating relationship through 2011, but he was dishonest about the reasons for his divorce and estrangement from his teenage son, Garson said. The marriage fell apart due to his infidelity, but he said it was because his wife got pregnant and wanted an abortion and he opposed it, the attorney said.
Zapata also “swindled” two business partners out of about $30,000 in a failed restaurant, Garson alleged.
“He’s leaving a trail of people upset at him, betrayed by him,” the defense attorney said.
Zapata and the defendant got married in 2011 and attempted to manage a long-distance marriage before he finally talked her into moving to Westminster by saying he was near retirement and they could then move back to Peru where his retirement income would go farther, Garson said.
But after relocating to Westminster, she found text messages on the victim’s phone that indicated he was having an affair, Garson said.
“Things are just not working out as planned with her husband here in the United States,” he said.
Meanwhile, Vasquez-Collazos rekindled her relationship with Saavedra, who came to the U.S. on a tourist visa in March 2014, Garson said. Then, Vasquez-Collazos was diagnosed with cancer and had to undergo a hysterectomy in the spring of 2014, he said.
Another wrinkle in the case is that Zapata helped his mother in Anaheim engage in “structuring” to inherit about $60,000 from her husband without losing her welfare assistance and having to pay taxes on it, Garson said.
Zapata put the money in his bank account and took out just enough to avoid tipping off the IRS and gave it to his mother in cash, but she later found it stolen and pointed a finger at Zapata or his sister, who were the only ones who knew about the scheme, Garson said.
There’s no evidence that Vasquez-Collazos was aware of her husband’s benefits or how to cash in on them, he said. In fact, it was Westminster police Detective James Wilson, the chief investigator of the murder, who told her about Zapata’s life insurance through his job and attempted to help her inquire about the beneficiary, Garson said.
It turned out Zapata’s estranged son was the beneficiary of the $78,000 in life insurance, he said. But Zapata had changed the beneficiary of his 401k to Vasquez-Collazos and there is no record she ever logged into the account, Garson said. Wilson also helped her access that money and get passports to return to Peru so she could clear up some issues with Zapata’s condo, he said.
“She was in Peru four times and returned four times” through the years since her husband’s killing, Garson said.
Police wiretapped her phone, put her under surveillance and attempted ruses to get her to admit to her involvement in the killing, all of which failed to produce any evidence linking her to the crime, Garson said.
The defendant admitted to lying about her relationship with the co-defendant because she was “ashamed” of it and didn’t want her sons to know, he said.
Vasquez-Collazos grew closer to Zapata after the cancer scare and the two were planning trips to Cancun and Peru together, Garson said. She met with Saavedra-Gallardo the morning of the killing to hand him back the secret phone and to break things off with him, according to the attorney.