SAN ANTONIO – It’s a 2001 case dealing with lies, abuse, and a missing 5-year-old boy in San Antonio.
Nicholas Plaza’s tragic story is one many in the community have never forgotten.
A mother and her boyfriend were at the center of the investigation but it would take years for them to go to trial, as prosecutors were forced to try the case with no body.
This episode contains details that may disturb some viewers. Listen to the podcast below, or on your favorite platforms including Spotify and Apple Podcasts.
In the summer of 2001, Nicholas Plaza lived a rather normal life in San Antonio with his mother Priscilla Ann Plaza.
Everything changed for Nicholas when his mother started dating Ruben Zavala Jr.
Eventually, Priscilla would move in with Zavala at his parent’s home.
That same year at some point during the beginning of the school year, Priscilla and Zavala stopped taking Nicholas to school.
Priscilla’s family, especially her mother, started to get concerned about Nicholas because they could never track him down, even going as far as calling police and child protective services to do welfare checks on him.
Priscilla’s mother was eventually told that he was with his mother and there was no evidence he was in any danger.
CPS eventually opened an investigation and a worker went to visit the home, Zavala lied to the workers and they were never able to make contact with Priscilla or Nicholas.
It wasn’t until November that CPS was finally able to make contact with Priscilla, but Nicholas was nowhere to be found.
Priscilla said she was told by Zavala and his mother that CPS had picked him up and she hadn’t seen him since October.
In fact, October 23, 2001, was the last day anybody saw Nicholas alive.
Horrific details surface
A missing person’s report was then filed and a police investigation began and tragic details started to come out.
According to court documents, it was revealed that Nicholas was severely sick from being tortured and sexually abused for months.
Priscilla and Zavala both provided different stories of what happened to Nicholas.
Priscilla said Zavala would abuse her and Nicholas and wouldn’t let her take him to the doctor.
Zavala told police that he and Priscilla were both to blame for Nicholas’ death and that he placed the boy’s body in a garbage bin.
A search of the area around the garbage bin and the landfill found nothing.
With no body and only circumstantial evidence charges were still filed against Priscilla and Zavala, both were charged with injury to a child by omission.
3rd trial in Texas history without a body
At this time, this case would only be the third case in state history where there was no body.
Priscilla would end up taking a plea deal in exchange for 20 years and testifying against Zavala.
Zavala’s trial took place in 2007, six years after Nicholas disappeared.
During the trial, more disturbing details were revealed. Priscilla said during testimony that Nicholas’ injuries were so bad that he couldn’t walk.
As for the defense, they put the blame on Priscilla saying that she was with him when Nicholas died and Zavala was only helping her.
The jury would find Zavala guilty but during the punishment phase, it was revealed that Ruben was on the run and accused of kidnapping.
A pattern emerges
The prosecution would reveal the similarities between both cases, in the kidnapping case Zavala was dating a woman with a baby. They also moved in with him and eventually she would break up with him.
When he asked to meet up with her to discuss some issues, he took off with her son.
A voicemail was played in court of Zavala threatening to kill himself and the baby if she didn’t move back in with him. The boy was returned but Zavala was on the run on that charge.
While the state was seeking 99 year for Zavala they came back with a 67-year sentence, Nicholas finally had justice.
Forensic psychologist weighs in
Erica spoke with Dr. John Delatorre, a forensic and disaster psychologist, about sex offenders and why oftentimes we see cases where boyfriends and stepparents are the ones committing abuse.
“As a part of my work, I’ve assessed and treated sex offenders. I currently evaluate individuals who may be designated as a sexually violent person,” Dr. Delatorre said. “Now, when it comes to the likelihood that someone is going to be abused and who that abuser is going to be. What we see is that more often than not, the abuser is known to the person, whether they’re an acquaintance or a family member.”
“And it’s a lot easier when you can separate yourself relationship-wise when that if you think of yourself as being somehow just a tad bit distant from the person. It’s a much easier justification to then engage in that behavior,” Dr. Delatorre added. “So that’s why we probably see that it’s more likely to be someone just, you know, a boyfriend or a stepfather or something like that, that just that separation, it can in the in the offender’s mind, it can justify that the behavior is okay in their mind.”
Erica also asked for Dr. Delatorre to weigh in on prosecuting cases where there is no body.
“You know, we often hear the true-crime idiom of no body, no crime. But the truth is, is that if there’s enough circumstantial evidence and I think I think the population itself is so used to direct evidence, right, from television shows like CSI and Criminal Minds and other things like that. Audiences believe that that all trials are built on direct evidence and evidence that directly links the perpetrator or the defendant to engaging in the offending behavior. But that’s not true. Most often you’re more likely to see circumstantial evidence,” Dr. Delatorre said.
“It seems as though that the prosecutor’s office was able to get enough of emotional testimony. They were able to get enough sort of circumstantial scientific testimony from the doctors and from family members to say that, look, Nicholas was one way before Zavala came into his life and Nicholas was completely different and now is missing after Zavala came into his life. So it’s one of those things where if you put enough circumstantial evidence out there, it can lead a jury to say, no, the defendant committed this crime beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said.
Where are they now?
Zavala has been eligible for parole since 2015, he was recently denied parole this March due to the nature of his offense. His next parole date is March 2024.
As for Priscilla, she’s been eligible for parole since 2009. During her last parole review in August 2021, she was granted parole with completion of a program prior to release.
As of the last check, she is still in that program and hasn’t been released.
Priscilla denied KSAT 12′s request for an interview.