Episode 066: Cecilia Cabrera

January 23, 2023

When highway patrol officers discover a vehicle engulfed in flames, it ignites a search for a missing mother and uncovers a web of lies and deceit. What happened to Cecilia?

Episode Media
Cecilia Bravo Cabrera (Visalia Times)
Cecilia is believed to have been wearing this outfit or similar the night she disappeared (TCSO)
Francisco Valdivia and Rosalina Lopez (TCSO)
Map of important locations in Cecilia’s case (some locations are approximate)
Cecilia’s family at Juan’s high school graduation in 2019 (TCSO)
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. This week I’m bringing you a missing persons case from central California, one that takes some unexpected turns in the hunt for justice. This episode discusses sensitive topics, so listener discretion is advised.

In the early morning hours of June 9, 2016, a call came in to the California State Highway Patrol. A vehicle was on fire in an orchard near the small town of Traver. Officers reporting to the scene found a gray Chevy Malibu engulfed in flames. After firefighters extinguished the blaze, officers were able to determine that the car had been abandoned – the driver was nowhere in sight. Despite the vehicle’s condition, they were able to run the plates and learned that the car was registered to Cecilia Bravo Cabrera of Farmersville, a town just 25 miles away on the other side of Visalia.

CHP officers drove to the Cabrera home to inform Cecilia that her car had been found, but they were surprised to learn that Cecilia wasn’t there – in fact, her family members had no idea where she was. She and her husband had gone to the casino the night before and hadn’t returned. Realizing that something was very wrong, Cecilia’s family immediately filed a missing persons report, which launched a state-wide search for the young mother and would eventually uncover a web of secrets and lies.

In the summer of 2016, Cecilia – known as “Cece” to her friends and family – had been looking forward to her 31st birthday. She and her friends were planning to take a girls trip to a local water park where they could sunbathe and relax in the lazy river. Cecilia’s life had been complicated for the last few years, and she really needed something fun and lighthearted to look forward to.

Cecilia had four children that she adored. Her oldest was in high school, her youngest in elementary. Cecilia and her first husband – the father of her three oldest children – had been divorced for a long time. In 2008, Cecilia had married Francisco Valdivia, a Mexican citizen who ran a pallet business in Visalia. At first, things between Cecilia and Francisco were good, but the relationship eventually soured. Eight years into their marriage, Cecilia took the kids and moved out. The separation was contentious, and Cecilia had confided in friends that she had just had enough.

Which is why her family found it strange that Cecilia and Francisco decided to go out together on the night of June 8th.

According to her family, Cecilia planned to pick up Francisco at his house in Goshen around 10pm. They were then going to make the 40-minute drive to the Tachi Palace Casino in Lemoore.

Cecilia and Francisco were both seen on security cameras at the casino that night. At 12:39am, they were spotted leaving the casino together, but investigators could only speculate about what happened next. There were no cameras in the casino parking lot, but we can assume that Cecilia and Francisco left together in her gray Chevy Malibu.

A few hours later, the car was on fire, and Cecilia had vanished.

In the early stages of the investigation, detectives looked into the possibility that Cecilia had left on her own. But they quickly ruled it out. Cecilia was close to her parents and siblings, and she was absolutely devoted to her kids. She was in constant contact with her family; it was completely out of character for her to leave without so much as a text or phone call. Plus, Cecilia was very active on social media, and her posts had abruptly ended the night she vanished. She didn’t have any travel plans, and there was no activity on her passport. It was looking more and more like Cecilia had run into trouble.

On June 13th, four days after Cecilia was last seen, her family and friends gathered to celebrate her 31st birthday. But instead of the extravagant, joyful parties that Cecilia loved to throw for herself, it was a somber occasion filled with tears and prayers for her safe return. Her sister-in-law Ramona told the Visalia Times that the family still had so much hope. “We know she’s coming home… Cecilia is a fighter.”

Meanwhile, Cecilia’s case had been taken over by the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office Violent Crimes Unit. They began digging into Cecilia’s life, especially her relationship with Francisco Valdivia. As the last person to see Cecilia, Francisco was an immediate person of interest. In mid-June, investigators went to Francisco’s workplace to question him. There, they discovered a marijuana grow site, which was illegal in California at the time. That discovery led investigators to several more sites in the valley. Apparently, Francisco was running a lucrative marijuana business at multiple locations in Visalia and as far north as Fresno. He was arrested on suspicion of cultivation of marijuana and held on $1 million bond, which was much higher than the usual amount for drug charges, but was very much in line with murder charges. It was clear that investigators were hoping to hold Francisco Valdivia as long as possible so they could uncover his connection to Cecilia’s disappearance.

Sheriff’s Captain Tom Sigley told reporters, “We are following up on all leads and actively investigating this case.”

While Francisco sat in jail awaiting his next court date, Cecilia’s family and friends were continuing the search. Through Facebook, they organized community searches near the casino and in the Visalia area, looking for any sign that Cecilia had been there. Groups of volunteers walked along riverbanks and canals and searched open fields and orchards – anywhere Cecilia might have been. But the months passed, and Cecilia was still missing.

Even though it seemed as though her case had stalled, Cecilia’s family was determined to keep her story in the public eye. They posted new fliers around Visalia and started raising money for a billboard with Cecilia’s picture and information. Ramona told ABC30, “We’re not going to give up on her, we’re going to make sure she comes home… One way or another, she’s coming home.”

In November of 2016, Cecilia’s story was featured on Dateline’s Missing in America. Her family and friends expressed their hope that Cecilia would be found alive. Her friend Ariana told Dateline, “In my head, there are all these questions. What happened that night? Where is she? She needs to be home.”

In her absence, Cecilia’s children were being cared for by family members. Two of the children were living with their father, and two were living with Cecilia’s brother Rigo. Ariana spoke with Dateline about the difficulties the children were facing without their mother. “I think they are still in shock. These poor children just want their mom back… We all want her back. She is greatly missed.”

Reporters for Dateline also spoke with Tulare County Sergeant Joe Torres, asking if the department believed Francisco Valdivia was responsible for Cecilia’s disappearance. Sergeant Torres replied, “I can say that he has not been eliminated in the case.”

In fact, Francisco was still in jail, serving out his 90-day sentence for cultivating marijuana. But his sentence was almost up, and authorities were concerned that he might disappear after he was released. Time was running out for them to gather evidence and build their case.

On December 13, 2016, the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department announced that they had arrested Francisco Valdivia on suspicion of murder. They had also arrested his wife, Rosalina Lopez.

The announcement was a shock, but Sheriff Mike Boudreaux had more surprises in store. During the press conference, Boudreaux revealed that investigators had uncovered a complicated plot going back nearly a decade.

In 2007, while living in Mexico, Francisco Valdivia had married Rosalina Lopez. Shortly after that, the couple moved to the United States without the proper documentation. In 2008, Francisco met Cecilia and started a relationship with her, all the while still married to Rosalina. Sheriff Boudreaux told reporters that investigators believed Francisco married Cecilia in order to obtain legal residency in the United States.

He also stated that there was an abundance of evidence that Francisco and Rosalina had worked together to make Cecilia disappear. In the weeks leading up to her disappearance, Cecilia had received threatening phone calls, and she had confided in friends that she was afraid of Francisco – she wanted to leave him for good, but he wouldn’t let her go. It seems possible that he feared losing his legal status in the US if Cecilia divorced him.

Sheriff Boudreaux expressed confidence in the arrests, saying that he believed Francisco and Rosalina were the ones responsible for Cecilia’s death. However, he also admitted that their case was largely circumstantial. “We have a great deal of information… This is a circumstantial case, and we must protect the evidence that we will present to the District Attorney’s office for a successful prosecution… We have done everything we can to show that the two people responsible are the people in custody.”

The sheriff was clear that the biggest hurdle for their case was the fact that Cecilia’s body had not been found. Although getting a conviction without a body is possible and does happen, it can prove to be an uphill battle for prosecutors. Sheriff Boudreaux reminded the public that they still needed information that could lead to Cecilia’s recovery. “It can be the turning point in this case to help locate the body. We have no doubt that the people responsible are in custody but… we would dearly like to have the body brought back to the family, so that they can provide proper services.”

Francisco Valdivia and Rosalina Lopez were sent to the Tulare County Jail and held without bond. In their arraignment, Francisco was charged with two felony counts of murder and arson, and Rosalina was charged with one felony count of being an accessory to murder after the fact. They both pleaded not guilty to the charges.

In early 2017, Rosalina Lopez was released on probation, and the report revealed new information about the case. According to the documents, on the morning Cecilia disappeared, Francisco Valdivia called Rosalina around 3am and asked her to pick him up by a bridge in Traver, saying that some friends had dropped him off and he needed a ride home. At 4:13am, his phone’s GPS placed him less than a mile away from where Cecilia’s car was found a short while later. This information would be invaluable at trial.

In August of 2017, eight months after their arrests, Francisco and Rosalina were in court for a preliminary hearing in which Tulare County Sheriff’s officers testified that although they were following new leads, there was still no trace of Cecilia’s remains. Sergeant Hector Rodriguez testified that he had questioned Francisco early on in the investigation, and Francisco had admitted to being involved in Cecilia’s disappearance, but later changed his story. Sergeant Rodriguez also testified that multiple people close to Cecilia had confirmed that she was planning to divorce Francisco and that he had threatened to kill her.

At the hearing, Cecilia’s mother Raquel sat in the courtroom wearing a shirt with her daughter’s picture. She told ABC30 that she had given up on being angry and was just sad. She was desperate to know where her daughter was. “I’ll forgive you guys but just tell me what you did with my daughter. Give her back, if she’s in God’s hands, we can put her to rest, have a place for her.”

Unfortunately, after that the case moved through the court system at a snail’s pace. For months, pre-trial hearings were postponed again and again. The trial date was changed multiple times, reportedly due to the District Attorney’s office trying to subpoena a witness from out of state, a complicated, drawn-out process. Both sides agreed to each continuance, but as 2017 rolled into 2018, then 2019, the trial kept getting pushed back. It was finally set for March of 2020, but suddenly, the COVID-19 pandemic caused the courts to grind to a halt.

In December of 2020, Rosalina Lopez finally appeared in court. She pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact and agreed to testify against Francisco Valdivia in exchange for probation.

As of this recording, Francisco’s trial date has been set for February 15, 2023. But with dozens of postponements over the last six years, it’s unclear whether the trial will actually begin on that date.

In the years since Cecilia disappeared, her family continues to mourn her loss, but they have also managed to thrive. In 2019, Cecilia’s oldest son Juan graduated from high school, where he participated in the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office Explorer Program. Sheriff Mike Boudreaux attended Juan’s graduation and cheered for him as he walked across the stage to receive his diploma. Juan’s goal of becoming a sheriff’s deputy was largely influenced by his mother’s disappearance and the work of the sheriff’s office in seeking justice. Juan told the Visalia Times that he knew what his mom would say about it. “She would say, ‘Son, you made the best decision.’ I know she would be proud of me.”

While her family is waiting for justice, they are also still waiting for Cecilia to come home. At the time of her disappearance, Cecilia Bravo Cabrera was 30 years old. She is described as a hispanic female with brown eyes and brown hair dyed blonde. She has a tattoo of a horse on her back and the letter B on her left leg. She was last seen leaving the Tachi Palace Casino in Lemoore, California, on June 9, 2016.

If you have any information about Cecilia’s case, please contact the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office at 599-733-6218. You can also email your information to TCSO@tipnow.com. Let’s help bring Cecilia home.

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