FBI agents have arrested a suspect in the 2002 murder of 39-year-old Sharon Van Gilder and three violent rapes more than a decade after Pierce County cold-case investigators identified the man and asked federal agents to bring him back from outside the country to face local charges.
Miguel Angel Urbano-Vazquez, 46, reportedly fled to Mexico shortly after the killing of Van Gilder in spring 2002, according to the Pierce County Sheriff's Department. His escape left investigators with no DNA profile to compare until detectives assigned to the cold case unit created in 2012 learned he was a suspect in two rapes from the same time period.
A Pierce County judge issued a warrant to arrest Urbano-Vazquez for aggravated murder and two rape charges in June 2012 but his whereabouts in Mexico remained unknown until federal agents located him in 2019, according to The News Tribune archives and Sheriff's Department. They arrested him March 14.
Van Gilder, a mother of two who grew up with several siblings in Enumclaw, was found dead on the 15600 block of 74th Avenue East in Spanaway shortly after midnight on March 21, according to prior news coverage and the Sheriff's Department. The Tacoma woman had been strangled but had no marks on her body. Detectives believed she'd been killed elsewhere.
Detectives identified Van Gilder from her fingerprints and learned she was last seen leaving Tacoma's El Gallo de Oro tavern with Urbano-Vazquez and another man between 10 and 11:30 p.m., according to prior news coverage and court documents. Investigators submitted DNA from the murder to the Washington State Patrol crime lab but didn't have samples from Urbano-Vazquez to compare.
A fresh look at the case by now-retired detective Sgt. Tim Kobel in 2012 showed Urbano-Vazquez was a suspect in two rapes after Van Gilder's killing, according to prior news coverage and the Sheriff's Department. A woman reported in June that she was hit over the head with a wrench and raped in a Lincoln District garage. About two months later a second woman reported she was violently raped in the same garage and then escaped down an alley.
Urbano-Vazquez was identified as a suspect, and the owner of the garage, whom Urbano-Vazquez lived with, confirmed the man had access, according to The News Tribune archives and court documents. Tacoma detectives interviewed Urbano-Vazquez about the first rape in July 2003 and he told them he heard someone had been killed in the garage. He admitted to paying a woman for sex in the garage once before.
Court documents indicate Tacoma investigators were unaware of Urbano-Vazquez's connection to Van Gilder's killing at the time and did not submit DNA from the two rape exams to the state crime lab for comparison to its database. It's unclear when he fled to Mexico.
In late April 2012, DNA from each of the three crime scenes came back as matches, The News Tribune reported. Another male's DNA was recovered from the second of the two rapes.
Several months after that, detectives connected Urbano-Vazquez to a fourth rape committed from October 2002, according to court documents. The victim told Tacoma police she got into a car with two people who offered her drugs but then raped her at knifepoint after she declined to have sex with them for money. DNA samples matched the two earlier rapes and murder of Van Gilder.
"Our Cold Case Detective Sergeant, Lynelle Anderson, has spent years waiting for Urbano-Vazquez to be located," the Sheriff's Department wrote in a news release.
In 2019, the FBI told Anderson that Urbano-Vazquez had been found in Mexico, and she began the process of filing to extradite him to the United States, according to the Sheriff's Department. Spokesperson Sgt. Darren Moss told The News Tribune the paperwork had to be resubmitted multiple times for Mexican authorities and the FBI to arrest him.
The News Tribune was not immediately able to contact a member of Van Gilder's family.
"This was a long process and there is still more time before he is brought back to Pierce County," the Sheriff's Department wrote in a statement. "We have taken a big step in a direction towards getting justice for Sharon and her family."