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Daughter relentless in search for answers; mother murdered 39 years ago

The 24-year-old was found dead on February 20, 1983 in Red Rock Canyon, right outside of Las Vegas, Nevada

Jessica Gonzales was only 7 years old when her world was turned upside down. “My sister Monica blew the lid off of it,” Jessica told Dateline. ”And I was upset – very upset.” The people she had been calling ‘mom and dad,’ were actually not her parents. They were her grandparents.

“I never put together why me and my aunts and uncles call the same people, ‘mom and dad,’” Jessica said. “Once I found out, I felt lied to.” And shocked. Jessica learned that her mother, Norma, had died when Jessica was just 8 months old.

Once Jessica found out about her mom, she began asking questions. “I tried asking my grandmother,” Jessica remembered. “She said no. She says, ‘We don't talk about that.’ She says, ‘We're just gonna let her rest in peace.’”

Jessica grew up in Michigan where her mother had been raised. She learned that Norma was one of 10 children in the Gonzales family. After Norma died, her parents legally adopted their granddaughters, Jessica and Monica. Monica had already been living with her grandparents when their mother moved to Las Vegas.

Norma Gonzales with daughters, Monica and Jessica
Norma Gonzales with daughters, Monica and JessicaJessica Gonzales

Jessica said her grandmother, who she called ‘mom,’ wouldn’t let Norma take Monica out to Vegas, “My mom was like, ‘You don't have any idea of what's out there. You're not taking Monica out there.’” Jessica was born when Norma was living in Las Vegas.

When she was 12 years old, Jessica remembers her Uncle Roger gave her more information about her mother’s death. “He said, ‘I want to give something to you,’” Jessica said. “He was like, ‘I think it’s time that you know the truth.’”

Roger had saved the newspaper articles about Norma’s death and gave them to Jessica. Before that, all Jessica knew was that she didn’t know who her father was, and neither did Monica, and that their mother, Norma, died in Las Vegas.

“I read them and that’s when I realized, like, wow, you know? Like, it wasn’t just like somebody killed her,” Jessica said. “She didn’t get hit by a car. It was a lot more.”

Norma Gonzales hadn’t just died. The 24-year-old has been brutally murdered.

The apartment complex Norma lived in with her daughter, Jessica
The apartment complex Norma lived in with her daughter, JessicaJessica Gonzales

The last day Norma was seen by friends or neighbors was February 17, 1983.

She had asked one of the neighbors at her Las Vegas apartment complex to babysit Jessica and told them she’d be back.

She never returned.

The babysitter called the police. “The cops said you have to wait so long before you can report somebody missing,” Jessica told Dateline. “And the babysitter is like, ‘No, you don’t understand. I know she wouldn’t leave this baby with me like this.’”

Last week, Dateline spoke with Terri Miller, a homicide cold case investigator with the Las Vegas Metro Police Department. Detective Miller said Norma was officially reported as a missing person on February 17, 1983. “She was last seen during the day,” Detective Miller said. “It looks like she was out job hunting with a friend.” The friend went home, and officials don’t know where Norma went after that.

A couple of days later, Norma was found.

On February 20, her body was spotted by a family in Brownstone Canyon – a trail within the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area just outside the city.

“Park rangers responded and confirmed it was a dead body,” Det. Miller told Dateline. “And at that point, Metro Homicide was called to the scene and took control.”

Norma’s death was ruled a homicide. Detective Miller said when the autopsy was performed a few days later the “cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head and neck area.”

Jessica said Norma was unidentifiable at first. “She was nude from the waist down, she had her hands tied behind her back, she had on a green pullover sweater,” Jessica told Dateline. “She had been raped and she had been shot once in the head and twice in the back.”

Jessica told Dateline that a couple of Norma’s friends went down to the station and identified her. “They called my grandparents, which were in Michigan,” Jessica said. “My grandpa said, you know, ‘I want the baby. How do we get the baby?’”

After going through the process, Jessica’s Aunt Mary and Uncle David were allowed to pick Jessica up and take her home to Michigan. She began a new life there, not knowing anything about what happened in Vegas.

By the time Jessica was in her twenties, she said she was constantly trying to learn more about what happened to her mother. “I would call every three to six months or so to the detectives,” Jessica said. “I’ve slowly, like, been trying to get attention to -- to her story.”

Jessica told Dateline that her Aunt Hilda had been looking into the case since it first happened. “My Aunt Hilda’s a lot like me,” Jessica said. “We’re a little relentless.”

In February 2019, the pair made a trip to Las Vegas to meet with cold case detectives and do an interview for a local news story about the case. She also went to Red Rock Canyon, to see the place where her mother died.

Jessica visiting Red Rock Canyon
Jessica visiting Red Rock CanyonJessica Gonzales

Jessica told Dateline that while she would never want to live there, she understands why her mother left Michigan. “I think Norma was looking for something. Norma was looking for something more than what was-- what Croswell, in Michigan, could offer her,” Jessica said. “She was a fast-paced girl. You know, she liked that.”

Even so, Jessica said the police she spoke with told her they had learned that Norma had plans to go back to Michigan. “Everybody knew her in the apartment and that was her plan,” Jessica said. “She used to tell everybody she was going back to Michigan.”

Growing up, Jessica said, everyone would always tell her she looked just like her petite mother. “I look just like Norma,” Jessica said. “I have the dark hair, the dark eyes, the darker skin.”

Norma Gonzales
Norma GonzalesJessica Gonzales

Even with her small stature, Norma had a big presence. “She wasn’t anybody who – she wouldn’t back down. She was tiny,” Jessica said. “But she – she was a force to be reckoned with.”

Jessica feels like that’s another thing she has in common with Norma. “When I told the detective, you know, I was like, ‘My family says, you know, Norma was a fighter,’” Jessica told Dateline. “He’s like, ‘She fought for her life.’ He’s like, ‘There’s no doubt about it.’”

Jessica thinks there had to have been two assailants. “I can feel in me, like, there is no way that one person could kidnap me – I would turn into an absolute banshee,” Jessica said. “I put myself in her place and -- and that's why it makes sense that there would be two people, you know, to control her.”

Jessica told Dateline the fact that the detective confirmed to her that Norma fought back, “tells me everything I need to know about her.”

When Dateline asked Detective Miller about what was found at the scene, she confirmed there were some clothes left behind. “DNA work has been done several times throughout the years,” Det. Miller said. “DNA just keeps getting better and better. And so one of the important things that our department is trying to do is keep bringing these cases back up to a modern standard.”

The detective said authorities have submitted DNA from the scene for testing many times, going as far back as 1995 and most recently in 2020. “Unfortunately, we still haven’t been able to get anything yet on this,” Detective Miller said.

The DNA has not been able to be entered into CODIS because they have not developed an eligible CODIS profile yet, but there may be another option. “We are taking a look at it to see if we can proceed with a genealogical investigation on this,” Det. Miller said.

The detective also told Dateline that over the years several interviews have been conducted, “with her best friends that she had been living with and that she worked with, and neighbors in the area,” she said. “I believe her daughter’s father – because they weren’t together at that time – was interviewed, as well as anybody she had possibly been in a dating relationship with.”

Detective Miller said authorities did not gain enough information through the interview process to lead to an arrest in Norma’s case.

Norma Gonzales holding daughter Jessica
Norma Gonzales holding daughter JessicaJessica Gonzales

Today, February 20, 2022, is the 39th anniversary of the day Norma’s body was found out at Red Rock Canyon. It will also be the year Jessica turns 39, still searching for answers for the mother she never really knew. “This is such an old case,” Jessica said. “I might never get an answer and I'm OK with that, too… I just – I'd like to know that I did everything that I could.”

The parents Jessica did know – her grandparents – are both gone. “My dad died of cancer and my mom died with COPD,” Jessica said. Two of Norma’s siblings have died as well -- one being Jessica’s Uncle Roger. “Her death really did take an effect on, like, my Uncle Roger,” Jessica said. “All the rest of the siblings are still alive and we’re still really close.”

Jessica does have a keepsake to remember her mother by. One of the rings Norma wore was found at the scene of the murder.

“They were really hoping that something would come of the touch DNA,” Jessica told Dateline. “Nothing came of it. Just Norma’s DNA was on it.”

Jessica asked if she could have it. She said the detective conferred with supervisors, “and he talked to the people he needed to talk to and he actually sent me the ring.”

So she holds on to the ring, and on to hope that getting Norma’s story out there will help solve her case. “Maybe, you know, something can happen,” Jessica said. “Somebody remembers even the smallest thing.”

If you have any information about the murder of Norma Gonzales, please contact the Las Vegas Metro Police Homicide Unit at 702-828-3521. Information may also be provided by contacting Crime Stoppers at 702-385-5555.