Family of slain Odessa woman talks domestic abuse awareness in wake of suspect’s guilty verdict

Local News

ODESSA, Texas (Nexstar) – Healing has only begun for one Odessa family, three years after the murder of their loved one.

In 2018, Rochel Zuniga was found dead in an apartment on Andrews Hwy in Odessa. In September of this year, the 28-year-old’s killer was found guilty by an Ector County court.

Rochel and the suspect were in an on-and-off relationship when she was killed. Now, her family wants to bring more awareness to domestic violence.

They also want to let others know: never lose hope.

“She was always a joy that we can count on. If I needed something, she was always there,” said Symela Haun-Ruelas, Rochel’s twin sister. “I’ve had her with me since I was in the womb. We were in the womb together and she’s my forever friend.”

Rochel was quiet, yet, she was also full of laughter. Just like the rest of her family, Rochel stood tall, and protected her loved ones no matter what.

But, Rochel would lose her life to domestic violence. She would leave behind a daughter, two sisters, a mother, and so many family members and friends.

When the Ector County court handed down the guilty verdict to the suspect, the man who was considered Rochel’s common law husband, there was a sense of justice and relief for Rochel’s family.

“Finally, justice has been found. Guilty verdict. This guy killed my sister and now… it’s for sure,” Symela said.

The suspect, Jerome Nelson, now 34-years-old, will spend the rest of his life in prison for Rochel’s murder.

It’s been a difficult three years though, with the trial delayed by the pandemic. It was a period of time that Rochel’s older sister, Melanie Ceballos, calls, ‘tormenting.’

“Through this trial, it was like she was killed all over again because of the new details,” Melanie said.

But now, there’s no more waiting.

The trial has led to something else, and something significant, for Rochel’s surviving sisters. Both Symela and Melanie would use their faith in God and their faith in family to withstand the trial.

“No matter what we go through, we always try to be there for one another,” Melanie said.

But without Rochel here, her sisters say the next step forward is keeping her name alive. By doing so, that means talking about domestic violence and recognizing abuse.

Symela says, through her own experiences as a victim of domestic violence, and through the death of her sister, she has a message to families who have loved ones in abusive relationships.

“Even if you feel like it’s falling on deaf ears, it’s so much more important to keep telling them, ‘We’re here for you. We’re here for you. We’re here for you,'” Symela said. “We rather you come back to us in a failed marriage, failed relationship, failed commitment, than in a body bag.”

Melanie says she can only hope that other families will never experience the same pain. She says, while families may have a difficult time convincing their loved ones to leave an abusive relationship, it is more important than ever to never give up on each other.

“Even though it is frustrating, we constantly have to remember to uplift them and help them remember who they are,” Melanie said. “Continue to be strong for them.”

The Crisis Center of West Texas has a Crisis Hotline that is available 24/7 to all survivors of domestic or sexual violence and their loved ones seeking information on services. The hotline can be reached toll-free at 1-866-627-4747. More information can be found here.

We are sharing an extended interview with Symela and Melanie below:

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