Working at a bookstore in Eastchester, New York, meant that every day Valerie Reyes was surrounded by her favourite things – books.
The 24-year-old loved to read in coffee shops and would go hiking on local nature trails to escape the noise of the city.
But she also liked to spend Sundays with her family, catching up with her siblings and her mum.
Valerie dreamt of becoming a tattoo artist and drew portraits for friends in the hope of one day opening her own parlour. Being creative also helped her as she struggled with depression. But despite her own problems, she always put other people first.
In January 2018 she met Javier Da Silva Rojas online. Rojas, an immigrant with joint Venezuelan and Portuguese citizenship, lived in Queens.
He claimed to have fled political and economic turmoil the previous year, heading to the United States in search of a better life.
Compassionate Valerie would no doubt have had sympathy for him.
She was noted for being hard-working and strove to make a good life for herself. Rojas worked in a restaurant but, unknown to most of the people around him, he was in the country illegally as his visa had expired.
The couple started dating, but it was a short-lived association. Valerie’s family said “stubborn” Rojas was more interested in the relationship than she was, which led to tensions.
Valerie ended the affair after three months and stopped all communication with him. He tried to keep talking to her but she refused.
It was a chapter she wanted to put behind her.
On 30 January 2019, Valerie was reported missing after failing to turn up for work. She hadn’t been seen for two days and concern was growing.
Her mother, Norma Sanchez, claimed that when she had last spoken to her daughter on the phone, she’d said she feared somebody was going to kill her.
Valerie wouldn’t say why she believed this, but she was clearly frightened and was suffering anxiety attacks. Norma tried to push for details. Had someone been to her place? Had she been threatened? But Valerie wouldn’t reveal any more.
Norma intended to follow it up during a shopping trip with her daughter. But when Valerie didn’t show, Norma assumed she’d changed her mind about meeting her.
Then on 5 February, Valerie’s dead body was discovered by a group of highway workers in Greenwich, Connecticut, about 10 miles from her home. In a wooded area, about 20ft from the road, they spotted a red suitcase. The body was inside it.
Valerie’s legs and arms had been bound with duct tape and twine before she was stuffed into the suitcase. Several layers of tape had been placed over her mouth and there was evidence of a head wound and bruising to her face.
It was a devastating discovery for Valerie’s family. A coroner determined that she had died from asphyxiation.
A week later, it was revealed that someone had been using her bank card to withdraw money from her account.
Surveillance footage showed a man wearing a black hoodie. He was in a rental vehicle that was traced to the man who hired it – Javier Da Silva Rojas.
After he was arrested, police found that his DNA matched that on the suitcase handle and under Valerie’s fingernails. When questioned, Rojas admitted he’d visited her on the night of 28 January.
Despite the fact they hadn’t been together for nine months, he claimed they’d had “rough sex”, during which Valerie had fallen and hit her head. He’d panicked and bound her in duct tape before shoving her in the suitcase and dumping it.
Investigators didn’t believe his story. If it was an accident, why hadn’t he simply called an ambulance? Valerie didn’t die from the head wound – she’d died from being suffocated.
A consequence of his actions.
Rojas had gone to Valerie’s apartment in a hire car. Before entering, he’d turned his mobile phone to aeroplane mode and switched off the location setting, suggesting he was covering his tracks from the start.
Inside, the pair had a violent altercation that resulted in Valerie suffering a blow to the head. She was still alive when he bound and gagged her with duct tape and put her in the suitcase.
He then put the case in the car and drove it to the dumping ground in Greenwich, where he tossed it into the wooded area not knowing whether Valerie was dead or alive.
He also threw her phone away before starting to steal her money. In the hours after her death, Rojas began to withdrew cash from her account.
A total of $5,350 was eventually taken. He also sold her iPad. These weren’t the acts of someone trying to cover up an accident – he was concealing a crime.
Rojas, 25, was charged with kidnapping resulting in death and in February 2020 pleaded guilty at a court in White Plains, New York.
Under a plea deal, which meant he avoided a life term or the death penalty, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison followed by two years supervised release. He will probably be deported afterwards.
The court heard of the call Valerie made to her mother the day before her death, when she said she feared she would be killed. Although she hadn’t given any more details, she had clearly been scared.
What had Rojas done to make her so sure she was going to die?
During his sentencing in September this year, members of her family wore badges bearing her picture.
While the prosecution contended that Rojas committed a “horrific kidnapping” that resulted in Valerie’s death, his lawyer maintained he felt remorse for his crime.
But it was pointed out that while Valerie’s family were desperately trying to find her, he had been stealing her money and trying to cover up evidence of his deed.
In a statement in court, her mother said, “You, Javier, deserve nothing but pain and rejection. I want you to hear the words of a mother who you devastated by taking away my baby girl.”
She wept as she described the joy Valerie had brought to others and described her daughter’s killer as a “worthless soul”.
In tears, Rojas responded, “No words can express how repulsed I am by the acts I committed. I will never forgive myself for that. I cannot ask [her family] to forgive me because I don’t deserve it. I would like them to know I’m very sorry.”
The judge told Rojas, “What you did to this woman was sickening. Anyone who could do such a thing is not a good person, by definition. Anyone who can do a thing like that is an evil person. Justice requires an evil deed be punished
by a lengthy prison sentence.”
It remains unclear why Rojas killed Valerie, but her final moments were unthinkable.