25 years later: Brownwood area man found dead by burning car, case remains unsolved
Juan Leon Laureles spent much of his life tending to his ailing parents. He loved his family, job and life. But, he hid something that wouldn't have been easily accepted in 1996 West Texas. He was gay.
Some people speculate this may be why the Bangs resident was found dead by his burning 1988 Ford Thunderbird on a lonely rural road outside of Brownwood on May 10, 1996. Others, including law enforcement, believe he saw something he shouldn't have.
Speculation aside, one thing remains true. His death was no accident.
As the 25th anniversary passes, his family continues to push his story out with the hopes his killer will be found and charged.
Who was Juan Leon Laureles? A caring uncle, best friend and Madonna fan
The youngest of nine children, Laureles ended up taking care of his parents from a young age at their home in Brady. By 14, he had a driver's permit and drove them to appointments, picked up their medication and ran the household.
"He never complained," said Arlene Harbison, his niece, who was nearly 3 years younger than him. "It was just something he took on. He felt like it was his responsibility."
Harbison and Laureles grew up together like siblings, as they were closer in age than they were to their own siblings. They played in the high school band and would dance the night away at the local dance hall.
"He liked pop music, and his favorite was Madonna," Harbison said. "At the time of his death, his favorite song was 'Because You Loved Me' by Celine Dion. We played it at his funeral."
Laureles also moved to San Angelo to help Harbison with her firstborn, then to Brownwood to continue helping her family. He looked after her sons in the day, then worked at the Kroger grocery store in Brownwood at night.
That love and kindness reached to his coworkers, who would always receive a birthday present from Laureles, she said..
"He stepped in whenever someone needed help," Harbison said. "He was such a big, gentle giant."
He also was Harbison's best friend. The day she received the news of his death remains the worst day of her life.
About 2:30 a.m. May 10, 1996, Harbison's cousin called her.
"She was crying, she said someone killed Leon," Harbison said. "I think I dropped the phone, I was crying."
As that day continued, the weather matched her mood. It was a gray, rainy day to start Mother's Day weekend. She recalled saying the rain was "God's tears, because Leon was such a good person."
Even 25 years later, Harbison and those who knew Leon continue the fight for answers.
"I know somebody knows something," Harbison said. "Maybe they are willing to come forward."
What we know about the moments before his death
Leon, as he was known, lived a fairly quiet life. His death was anything but quiet.
Two days before his death, Leon told his sister he was afraid people wanted to hurt him, but wasn't sure why, according to family interviews with The Fall Line podcast.
On May 10, 1996, Leon left his brother's home and drove 15 minutes away to his midnight shift at Kroger. Coworkers reported seeing his 1988 Ford Thunderbird in the parking lot about 11:45 p.m., but it was gone by midnight, the start of Leon's shift.
Another vehicle, which had parked beside him, also left at the same time.
About 30 minutes later, first responders arrived to a vehicle on fire near a dirt road on Farm to Market Road 2126 near a gun range. They found him shot "execution-style" beside his burning car.
"He was on his knees, and they shot him in the back of the head," Harbison said. "There had to be someone driving and another (person) who forced him to drive out to the gun range. There had to be more than one person."
In 2008, the case appeared to heat up when law enforcement said they had persons of interest, but no arrests were made, and the case went cold again.
Harbison reached out to multiple organizations with her uncle's story and caught the attention of The Fall Line, a Georgia-based podcast that investigates cold cases. Brook Gently and Laurah Norton, from the podcast, agree that the case appears to be solvable.
"I think (the family) could use support with their efforts to publicize the case, particularly support in their efforts to raise community awareness," said Norton. "I’m very hopeful that with the heightened interest in cold cases, someone’s going to review the file again."
Alana Edgin is a journalist covering Crime and Courts in West Texas. Send her a news tip at firstname.lastname@example.org.