DES PLAINES, Ill. — A Mexican fugitive tied by his son’s DNA to the 1999 stabbing death of an Illinois flight attendant sits in an American jail cell after authorities extradited him back to the U.S. last week.
Luis Rodriguez-Mena, 46, is charged with three counts of first-degree murder in the Nov. 30, 1999, killing of Young Kavila, 30, of Des Plaines. Rodriguez-Mena, a factory worker, lived with his pregnant girlfriend in the same apartment complex as Kavila when the homicide took place.
He fled to Mexico the day after the homicide, authorities said.
Des Plaines police officials and FBI agents announced Thursday that they had finally been able to file charges against Rodriguez-Mena, who was apprehended in Mexico several months ago but fought extradition.
Mexico’s Fiscalía General de la República, or Attorney General’s Office, reported last week that officials had surrendered Rodriguez-Mena to U.S. federal agents at the Mexico City International Airport.
“Luis ‘R’ is likely responsible for taking the life of a woman in his (city) in Illinois, United States of America, in 1999,” a translated news release said. “The Government of Mexico granted the extradition of the accused to the United States Government.”
Des Plaines cold case detectives were waiting for him when his plane landed Dec. 8 at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.
“We hate to leave anything unfinished. I’m ecstatic that it’s being put to bed, so to speak,” Des Plaines police Chief William Kushner said Thursday at a news conference. “The case is closed. We have the offender in custody, and I’m certain that the justice system here in Cook County will handle the case appropriately and do the right thing.”
The Chicago Tribune reported that Kavila, a United Airlines flight attendant, had arrived at her apartment at the Colonial Park Apartments around 10 p.m. the night of the killing. Though Kavila, a native of Seoul, Korea, lived mainly on the West Coast, she had recently begun maintaining a spot in the small apartment with a fellow flight attendant, the newspaper reported in 2011.
Kavila had just gotten into town on a flight at the nearby O’Hare, and she stopped to get some groceries and takeout sushi before heading home, authorities said.
Investigators believe Rodriguez-Mena was waiting for her, according to the Tribune.
They allege that Rodriguez-Mena sexually assaulted Kavila, who fought back. She slashed at her attacker with a razor.
“She fought valiantly,” said retired Des Plaines Detective Cmdr. Randy Akin, who was one of the first investigators at the crime scene the night Kavila died.
Rodriguez-Mena had a boot knife, which he used to repeatedly slash her throat before fleeing, detectives said. According to the Tribune, Kavila’s wounds were so severe she was nearly beheaded.
No motive for the killing has been determined, though the newspaper reported that Kavila’s wallet, a diamond ring and some necklaces were taken from the home.
Kavila’s roommate, a fellow flight attendant, came home minutes later to find Kavila’s meal uneaten on the kitchen table and the lights on. She called out to Kavila but got no answer.
Rodriguez-Mena fled to Mexico with his girlfriend the day after Kavila was killed. Kushner said the fugitive’s relatives stitched up “significant wounds to his upper torso” that Rodriguez-Mena told them Kavila inflicted on him, the chief said.
His family kept his girlfriend in the dark about the killing, the chief said. The woman later told authorities that Rodriguez-Mena got her to Mexico by claiming there was a family emergency, the Tribune reported.
Rodriguez-Mena spent years eluding authorities, moving from one place to another in Mexico.
The case went cold until 2007, when relatives of Rodriguez-Mena living in the U.S. called police and told them they believed Rodriguez-Mena was responsible for Kavila’s unsolved homicide. The relatives told authorities Rodriguez-Mena had bragged about the killing and threatened to kill any family member who turned him in.
They said they fled Mexico after Rodriguez-Mena threatened one of them with a screwdriver and told a second that he’d kill her and her family, the Tribune reported.
In 2008, cold case investigators located Rodriguez-Mena’s former girlfriend, who had given birth to his son in 2001. According to the Daily Herald in Arlington Heights, the woman told investigators she was abused and held hostage by Rodriguez-Mena and his family until she eventually escaped.
She returned to the Chicago area, where Rodriguez-Mena’s son was born.
A DNA swab was taken from the boy and compared to crime scene evidence. The Tribune reported that Kavila’s killer had wiped his hands on Kavila’s bedding, where he also briefly dropped his bloody knife.
“This DNA profile was compared through the Illinois State Police forensics laboratory to blood evidence recovered at the scene and came up as a 99.98% match,” Kushner said Thursday.
Watch Des Plaines police officials talk about the stabbing death of Young Kavila below, courtesy of the Daily Herald and Fox 32 in Chicago.
Prints found at the scene also tied Rodriguez-Mena to the crime, the Tribune reported. He had left visible fingerprints and palm prints on a doorknob and on the kitchen counter.
Arrest warrants were issued for Rodriguez-Mena in 2008, the chief said.
Rodriguez-Mena returned at least once to the U.S. while hiding from authorities. According to the Herald, he was spotted in Chicago in March 2011, spying on his son. The boy is now 18 years old.
Akin said detectives never gave up hope that they would find the suspected killer.
“We were always optimistic we would (solve it),” Akin said. “A lot of these cases go cold for many periods of time but usually there’s always multiple people, or at least somebody, out there that has a piece of the puzzle.
“In this case, it took the courage of a family member to come forward and not only give a piece, but what would turn out to be a very substantial piece.”
The FBI, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs, Interpol and the Mexican government spent years trying to take him into custody. The Associated Press reported that Rodriguez-Mena was arrested in June in Cuernavaca, where he was then living.
“This case is a tremendous example of tireless determination on the part of our detectives, as well as the outstanding cooperative efforts between our department and the FBI, Homeland Security, Illinois State Police, Interpol and the Mexican authorities,” Kushner said.
Akin, who retired in 2015, said the arrest “closes a circle” for him.
“When I was there that evening, I never would have believed that this would have taken 21 years to resolve itself,” the former detective said.
Rodriguez-Mena lived openly at his parents’ Jiutepec home until 2007, when he was able to obtain a driver’s license in his own name, according to records from the Mexican government obtained by the Tribune. His family kept helping him in the years after that, as well.
“His family was most uncooperative. His family was moving him around to different locations in Mexico,” Kushner said. “They were aware of this right from the beginning when he fled to Mexico.
“In 1999, shortly after the murder, he admitted to his family members that he had killed a flight attendant in Des Plaines. They hid it from everyone. They kept hiding him and kept moving him around.”
It was ultimately a family member who came forward with Rodriguez-Mena’s whereabouts, leading to his capture over the summer.
He was interviewed for about 30 minutes after he was in Des Plaines police custody, but made no statements of any substance, the chief said.
Rodriguez-Mena is being held without bond in the Cook County Jail.
Cox Media Group