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Debra (Debbie) Ann Barajas was last seen on Thursday afternoon, May 25, 2006, heading to the Omaha vicinity of Park Avenue and Leavenworth in Omaha, Neb. When she didn’t arrive, she was reported missing to the Nebraska Missing Persons Information Clearinghouse.
Nearly six months later on Tuesday, November 14, 2006, Barajas’ remains were discovered in a Pacific Junction ravine northwest of Glenwood, Iowa, near the 54300 block of 195th Street in Mills County, Iowa. The rural community’s population barely topped 500 people.
The Iowa State Medical Examiner’s office — with the assistance of a forensic anthropologist — used computerized tomography scans from Barajas’ medical history to verify her identify.
Barajas’ body was discovered just a few miles away from where the body of 25-year-old Brianne Smith — also of Omaha — was found five months earlier.
Both women were alleged to be prostitutes with crack cocaine addictions.
The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and the Mills County Sheriff’s Office are investigating Barajas’ death.
In November, 2006, authorities announced they were investigating whether several Nebraska women who also worked as prostitutes were slain by the same man — a man who killed himself amidst an investigation into his ex-wife’s death.
Thomas Tomich, 50, who officials said stuffed his ex-wife’s body into a barrel 23 years ago, came under investigation after links were discovered connecting him to Barajas. Tomich had bailed Barajas out of jail just nine days before she went missing.
According to the Omaha World-Herald, law enforcement records showed that on May 16, 2006, Tomich had spent $250 to bail Barajas out of the Sarpy County Jail, where she’d been incarcerated for a month on a misdemeanor drug possession charge.
The two also had another connection.
Any time Barajas wanted time to herself, she’d spend the night in an empty apartment at the Rorick apartments and condos near 22nd Street and St. Mary’s Avenue in Omaha; Tomich worked as a maintenance man at Rorick.
Tomich was just about to be arrested for the 1983 slaying of his ex-wife, Lois Tomich, when he killed himself by jumping out of the 11-story building.
In an Omaha World-Herald article dated November 17, 2006, Barajas’ family said Debra hadn’t signed a lease and didn’t pay rent at the Rorick apartments, and they didn’t know how she got into the rooms. They began to understand once they learned of her relationship with Tomich.
Chief Deputy Marty Bilek of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in Nebraska confirmed what many already had begun to suspect.
“Tom Tomich associated with prostitutes,” said Bilek in a Nov. 18, 2006 interview published by the Associated Press. “He’s a killer, who was also active in the 1980s, and we know now he might have killed again.”
A Nov. 19, 2006 KCCI story reported police were also looking at Tomich as a person of interest in the deaths of two Omaha prostitutes, Michelle Lamere and Stephanie Caldwall.
Barajas’ sister Dena Gutierrez told the media the family saw Debra about a week after she’d been bonded out, but then she had left.
“She would call and say, ‘Mom, I’m okay. I’m going to stop by,” Barajas’ mother, Mabel Gutierrez told WOWT-TV. “But that day, we never heard back from her.”
By January 2007, investigators in both Iowa and Nebraska said they believed it was unlikely Tomich killed Smith or Barajas, though they did feel the two women may have been killed by the same person.
“We are still calling Tom Tomich ‘a person of interest’ in Debbie’s death, but we are looking at others,” Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation Special Agent Dave Dales told the World-Herald. “There are still other people we have to rule in or rule out.”
In March 2012, Todd A. Mills, a 46-year-old father of five from Shelby, Iowa, accused of sexually assaulting at least three women in Council Bluffs, gave up his right to a trial and pleased to three counts of second-degree sexual abuse.
Mills, a volunteer fireman, was arrested in Omaha August 2010 after raping two prostitutes at gunpoint.
According to a Council Bluffs Nonpareil article dated March 22, 2012, investigators believed Mills was also tied to a string of sexual assaults in Council Bluffs between 2008 and 2010. In four sexual assault cases reported to the Pottawattamie County Sheriff’s Office, the women said they were abducted in Omaha and then driven north of Council Bluffs to a remote area.
The Nonpareil’s Chad Nation wrote in the story:
All four were left on River Road, near Interstate 29 north of the city, after being sexually assaulted. The May 14, 2010, assault appears to have been the most violent, officials said. Mills raped the woman twice – once with a gun barrel – and bit her several times.
Nothing concrete has positively connected Barajas’ death to Mills.
Debra Ann Gutierrez was born April 5, 1962.
If you have any information about Debra Barajas’ unsolved murder, please contact the Mills County Sheriff’s Office at (712) 527-4337 or the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation at (712) 322-1585, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.