LAS CRUCES – He promised to be back by noon. But hours later, he was found dead.
Nearly 24 years later, the death remains a mystery for authorities and family members who have made it their life’s mission to answer the seemingly unanswerable question: Who killed Robert Rocha?
It’s a question that has haunted Rocha’s mother since June 28, 1994, when her son’s lifeless body was found with two gunshot wounds next to his Ford pickup in an area known as Shady Grove near the Mesilla Dam.
“To this day, I don’t have a closure. I don’t know who did it,” Emilia Rocha, now 86, told the Sun-News, “and every day I pray for everybody — I pray for the people that did it.”
The investigation into Rocha’s death has spanned almost a quarter century. It is one of more than 20 cold cases under investigation by the Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Office.
Detectives have conducted more than 200 interviews and built an expansive file of records that are contained in a staggering 25 binders — but no suspect or motive has ever emerged. The lack of progress has left family members disheartened.
“There’s times that I get upset It’s been this long. Why can’t we solve it? Why can’t you get somebody? There are a lot of whys,” Becky Garibay, one of Rocha’s sisters, said.
Indeed, the Rocha case appears to have more questions than answers.
Rocha, a Vietnam veteran with no criminal history, was born on Dec. 16, 1950, in Las Cruces. He graduated from Mayfield High School in 1969. At age 18, he enlisted in the Navy.
Garibay described Rocha as a family man and outdoor enthusiast who enjoyed camping and hunting. “He kept the family together,” she said, adding, “We were all close.” He had six younger siblings.
Later in life, Rocha married and had three daughters. In 1975, he started working for White Sands Missile Range as a planner/estimator, a job he held for almost 20 years.
He was 43 years old when he was found dead on the night of Friday, June 28, 1994.
His mother said she spoke with Rocha for the last time hours before his death.
“He was going to come at noon,” she recalled, “and him and his dad were going to go to Canutillo or someplace because he was remodeling his mobile home.”
But her son never showed up.
“My husband came home and he asked me, ‘Where’s Bobby?’ I said, well, he hasn’t come home,” she said. “We never heard from him again. He never showed up, and my husband went all over looking for him — but nothing.”
However, Rocha had visited Shady Groves, then a popular spot for gatherings near the Mesilla Dam.
“Mr. Rocha’s family had said he had gone to the river, south of Mesilla, to scout an area (for a party) for his niece who was getting ready to go to college that fall,” Kelly Jameson, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, said. “He was alone, and sometime around the time the sun was setting, another female who was with a different party was in a vehicle that had gotten stuck. She went to go look for help and made the discovery of (Rocha’s) body.”
His body was found next to his pickup with two fatal gunshot wounds.
Jameson said that when deputies arrived on scene, they estimated Rocha had only been dead for about an hour. “He was discovered without any clothes on and we knew he had been shot. We didn’t know much else,” she said.
There was no evidence “indicating any other motive or any other information that could lead us to anybody else,” Jameson said.
Deputies were able to collect various DNA samples at the scene. Detectives are hopeful that a federal law requiring DNA to be collected in all felony arrests will lead to a break in the Rocha case.
“We’re hopeful that with creation of Katie’s Law … that perhaps whoever did this to Robert Rocha if he’s still out there — he or she — or if there’s an arrest in the future that maybe that DNA evidence will link the suspect to this investigation,” Jameson said.
But with no firm leads or suspects to pursue, the Rocha family is left with little solace, especially Emilia Rocha, who can still recall the night she learned of her son’s death.
“That night, I heard people talking in the living room,” she said. Her husband had been speaking to authorities around 2 a.m. “I went to the room and I saw the deacon … when I asked my husband what they were doing there, and the deacon held my hand and said, ‘Mrs. Rocha, sit down, something terrible happened.'”
She immediately thought it had something to do with one of granddaughters.
“No,” the deacon told her, “it’s your son.” She knew it was her oldest son, her first-born child whom she affectionately called Bobby. What happened to him, she asked.
“He was found murdered at Mesilla Dam, by his truck,” the deacon told her.
“I couldn’t talk — I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I just couldn’t believe it.”
Rocha was laid to rest about a week later.
“We had the detectives there,” at the funeral services, Garibay said, “and all you’re doing is just looking back — like, who’s around? We still feel that way. Like that person is sitting there looking at us to see what we’re doing,” she said.
Detectives have since been tight-lipped with details and will not divulge any theories or name anyone who has been interviewed in the case.
It is the family’s belief that somebody was with Rocha on the day he was killed.
In a 2014 interview with the Sun-News, Rocha’s brother-in-law, Chuy Garibay, said he was convinced that someone fired a gun from the inside of Rocha’s truck.
The family also said that a cooler containing a brand of beer that Rocha was not known to drink was found on the scene.
Becky Garibay said it was immensely difficult for the family to carry on after Rocha’s death.
“My brother is the oldest one; he’s the one that kept us together — and we were lost,” she said.
Her brother’s death was especially hard on her father, who died without knowing who killed his son, she said.
After Rocha’s death, the family received threatening phone calls from people claiming to know who was behind the murder. Garibay believes the calls were attempts to stop the family from further investigating Rocha’s death.
But neither those calls nor anything else has stopped the family.
“I’m not going to stop,” Garibay said. “We’re not going to stop. My sisters are going to help — we’re all going to be together and we’re going to (push for answers) until, I guess, we’re not longer here.”
If you have information about Rocha’s murder, contact Detective William McNeil at 575-525-1911. Crime Stoppers of Las Cruces is offering $1,000 for information that leads to an arrest in the Rocha case. Call Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477.
Carlos Andres López can be reached 575-541-5453, firstname.lastname@example.org or @carlopez_los on Twitter. Joshua Bachman can be reached at 575-541-5449, email@example.com or @JBachmanphoto on Twitter.
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