This article originally appeared in the Dec. 10, 2016 issue of The Sun. View clip online.
Pamela Limon’s 40th birthday on Dec. 2, 2015, was off to a frightening start.
Limon and about a dozen colleagues were on lockdown in a San Bernardino County fleet management office as the terror attack unfolded at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino.
They got little work done. Watching online news reports, they sat tense and waiting, wondering if the attackers might come for them.
About 1 p.m., Limon’s 22-year-old son Michael called from their Highland home. Two San Bernardino County sheriff’s detectives were there, he said, and wanted to speak with her.
Limon hoped her son’s message could be a ruse to mask a birthday surprise, but it rattled her too much to drive herself home. A co-worker drove her instead.
When she got to her house, two detectives were inside. They asked about her 24-year-old daughter, Regina “Gina” Varela. When was the last time Limon had seen her? What was she wearing? Whom did she hang out with?
She told the detectives everything she could.
Eventually the detectives revealed why they were there: Varela was found shot to death that morning in Muscoy.
Limon fell to her knees and screamed.
One year later, as many marked the anniversary of the San Bernardino terror attack and remember its 14 dead and 22 wounded, Pamela Limon and her husband, Albert Limon, languish as Varela’s death remains not only unsolved, but mostly unpublicized.
The Limons understand the attention paid to the attack and its aftermath, but they feel their daughter’s death and family’s suffering have been overshadowed.
“The world was focused on the mass shooting,” Pamela Limon said. “I’m not trying to take anything away (from the victims of the attack), but what about my daughter?”
At first, the investigation into Varela’s death seemed to bustle.
The Limons said one investigator — Detective Dan Hanke — would call up to three or four times a day, and in mid-December last year they were told an arrest would happen by Christmas.
Yet Christmas passed with no one in custody, and in January, Hanke was promoted and taken off the case.
Since then, the Limons said they have heard from investigators only occasionally.
The Varela death investigation hasn’t let up since it began early Dec. 2, 2015, sheriff’s spokeswoman Cindy Bachman wrote in an email.
“The team assigned to this case includes one sergeant and four detectives,” she wrote. “The detectives are gathering information and following up on each new lead they receive. They are not prepared to discuss any details at this time and assured me this is an active case.”
When the terror attack occurred about four hours after Varela’s body was found, Bachman wrote, the Sheriff’s Department sent other homicide teams to assist San Bernardino police investigators so that no attention was diverted from the Varela case.
Bachman also wrote that investigators stay in touch with the Limons.
Sheriff’s Detective Justin Long emailed Pamela Limon on Oct. 7 to tell her this news organization had asked about the case. She said it was the first time he had initiated contact with her.
Long also indicated that investigators were following up on new information pertaining to the case.
According to the Limons, in the early days of the investigation detectives gave them little information, other than their daughter’s body was found in Muscoy.
“They said they couldn’t give any detail because of the specificity of the crime scene,” Albert Limon said. “They didn’t want any (information) to leak out.”
When Pamela Limon asked if detectives could take her to the crime scene to see her daughter, they declined.
“That’s not the last image you want of her,” Pamela Limon recalled them saying.
Detectives did not require the Limons to see the body to confirm it was their daughter.
“We use fingerprints, dental records, photos and DNA to identify a victim,” Bachman wrote.
The Limons were pointed toward where Varela was found after a friend came upon a post to an online forum about Muscoy. On Dec. 4, 2015, under the heading “Woman’s body found off grey st and 3rd ave,” user “Mantislew” wrote: “Why has there been no news on the girl. She is just as important as every person shot on the same day, this young lady died alone left like a piece of trash. I hope they catch the person responsible.”
On Dec. 5, after a detective confirmed the post referred to their daughter, the Limons went to Gray Street and West Third Avenue in Muscoy.
A nearby homeowner showed them where he saw authorities standing on Dec. 2, 2015. Pamela Limon said they had to climb a dirt embankment and over white barricades along a dry channel.
“We really don’t know where she was found,” she said. “But we think we know.”
Later that night, Pamela Limon responded to Mantislew’s post, identifying her daughter by name and introducing herself as her mother. “The cowards that did this may God have mercy on your soul,” she wrote.
The forum appears to be one of few places to note Varela’s death. Another was Highland Community News, which simply republished a news release distributed by the Sheriff’s Department on its website and Facebook page and via email on Feb. 16, 2016 — two and a half months after Varela’s body was found. The news release sought the public’s help in identifying a suspect or suspects in her death.
“The delay in posting releases will occur occasionally when the PIO is extremely busy,” Bachman wrote.
Gina Varela left behind a son, Steven Ramos Jr., 8, and a daughter, Alyssa Rodriguez, 4. The boy lives with his father, Steven Ramos Sr.; the little girl whom Pamela Limon said is “everything her mom was” — smart, loving, someone who talks with her hands — will be adopted by Albert Limon’s sister Yvette Limon.
“Alyssa hasn’t struggled like Steven,” who can be distant and prone to crying, Albert Limon said. “She’s young enough to believe she’s turned into an angel.”
“‘Don’t cry, she’s our angel. She’s OK,’” Pamela Limon recounted Alyssa once saying.
In the Limons’ living room is a framed poster of their daughter. Tall as Alyssa, it stood near Varela’s casket at her funeral. Alyssa often kisses her mother’s likeness on the cheeks or lips.
The funeral was held at Montecito Memorial Park and Mortuary in Loma Linda about three weeks after Varela’s body was found. It was the first time the Limons saw their daughter since she visited for a week during Thanksgiving. They chose the site because members of Albert Limon’s family are buried there.
Because Varela was shot in the head, the family couldn’t touch her hair and thus had to forego a family ritual.
“My aunts have always cut the hair to keep as a keepsake,” Pamela Limon said.
On Jan. 12, Pamela Limon responded to an earlier post to the Muscoy forum. In it a user named “Carlos” identified himself as a bus driver for Paakuma’ K-8 School — and the person who called authorities after students found Varela’s body while walking to the bus stop at Gray Street and West Second Avenue.
The students were so worried about the girl, he wrote. “For some days I was looking in the news about something of this girl, until this morning I checked again. Rest in Peace, Regina.”
Pamela Limon wrote to Carlos: “When I read stuff like this it breaks my heart. That my baby was left by herself. I think about her every day. I think about the kids that found her.”
Bachman and Linda Bardere, spokeswoman for San Bernardino City Unified School District, confirmed that students from Paakuma’ K-8 School discovered Varela’s body. Bachman and Molly Hart, spokeswoman for Durham School Services, which provides bus services to the district under contract, declined to comment on Carlos’ identity or the veracity of his post.
Pamela and Albert Limon continue to struggle, mourning the loss of their daughter and wanting to know who killed her and why.
“Unless you go through it, you don’t know how easy it is to give up on everything,” Pamela Limon said.
She didn’t want to get out of bed. Her husband didn’t want to go to work. Both took as much time off as they could.
“Life is numb,” Albert Limon said. “Things that we would do to make us extremely happy don’t work anymore. Things we never argued about, we started arguing about.”
“You have to be mad at somebody and it happens to be the one closest to you,” Pamela Limon said.
Albert Limon said they try to keep one another active and motivated. They got tattoos saying “Still I Rise” as reminders to “get up, get on with life and keep moving as hard as it is.”
“It’s gotten better,” he said. “It hasn’t gotten easier.”
Sometimes Pamela Limon believes the doorbell could ring at any time, and she’d open the door to find standing there her 5-foot-2-inch daughter with bright red hair who thought everyone was a friend and introduced her parents to music they’d never heard.
“Hi mom, it’s me!” Gina Varela would say and bounce right in.
Instead Pamela Limon visits with her daughter at the cemetery, where she’s buried “under a nice willow tree on a hill.”
“That’s my sanctuary,” she said.