Suspect in slaying of Las Vegas beauty queen arrested in Tennessee

Suspect finally captured after eluding authorities since 1994

Published Fri, Jun 12, 2009 (2:35 p.m.)

Updated Fri, Jun 12, 2009 (6:28 p.m.)

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Fernando Garcia

Police in Tennessee have arrested a suspect today in the death of a Las Vegas beauty queen after he went on the run 15 years ago.

When 25-year-old Tara Cleveland left her job as a cocktail waitress at the Imperial Palace on Dec. 17, 1994, she had a fender-bender on Las Vegas Boulevard on her way home to North Las Vegas.

Two men involved in the minor collision, Joseph Villezcas and Fernando Garcia-Valenzuela, were suspects in Cleveland's shooting. They fled to Mexico after stealing her car. It was later found on a route that led to Mexico.

Cleveland's car had been hit after someone ran a red light and she started to chase them to get a license plate number, police said. After the UNLV student and beauty queen encountered two men, Cleveland was shot to death with a double-barreled shotgun, police said.

Murder warrants were eventually issued for both Villezcas and Garcia-Valenzuela. Late Thursday, Garcia-Valenzuela was arrested in a small town in Tennessee, North Las Vegas Police Department spokesman Tim Bedwell said.

North Las Vegas Police officers had traveled to Mexico in an effort to convince officials there to turn over the two suspects, even translating the affidavits into Spanish.

Garcia-Valenzuela, 34, was arrested by Whiteville, Tenn., police officers on drug charges. He was a passenger in a vehicle stopped for a traffic violations, Bedwell said.

Whiteville police contacted the FBI regarding a felony warrant for Valenzuela's arrest in Cleveland's murder. North Las Vegas detectives and crime scene investigators worked throughout the night to confirm Valenzuela's identity by fingerprint analysis.

Once his identity was confirmed, Detective Mark Koch contacted Tara Cleveland's family in person to inform them of the arrest in Tennessee, Bedwell said. The police department is seeking an extradition to Nevada for Valenzuela's prosecution on a charge of second-degree murder.

Valenzuela was 19 years old and Villezcas was 17 years old at the time.

Meanwhile, the two men remained on the run and eventually crossed back and forth over the border into the United States, where they were arrested six times on unrelated charges between 1998 and 2002, under varying names and birth dates.

Villezcas was arrested in June 2006 and turned over to the FBI and North Las Vegas Police at the Mexican border. Villezcas tried to say he was a Mexican citizen, but he was handed over to FBI agents.

Garcia-Valenzuela, also known as Fernando Valenzuela, taking the same name as the Major League pitcher, and is a Mexican citizen. He has been returning to the United States for years, authorities said.

Garcia-Valenzuela had been arrested in 1998 in Pomona, Calif., and in Ontario, Calif., in 1999. Details of the arrests are unclear. Garcia-Valenzuela had given false names and birthdates.

But Garcia-Valenzuela had "thumbed his nose at us" until today, Bedwell said.

"You can run, but you can't hide forever," he said.

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