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Meet North Carolina's first illegal alien child killer

Bernardino Zuniga
Bernardino ZunigaNorth Carolina Dept. of Corrections

On July 13, 1982, the body of 7-year-old April Lee Sweet was found several hours after she had gone missing from her grandparent's Alexander County home. The little girl had been stabbed in the neck and left naked from the waist down, her shorts and underwear lying next to her.

An autopsy confirmed that the rising second-grader had been raped. April had become the first North Carolinian to be hunted down, violated and murdered by an illegal alien...Of course, over the next three decades, there would be more than a hundred to follow.

This is April's story...

In the mid-morning, April's grandfather, Calvin Johnson, spoke to her for what would be the last time as he walked out of his home and joined the rest of his family to work their tobacco fields. While driving his pickup truck in the fields, he noticed a taxi coming down the road and the man riding in the backseat was a man he knew as "Richard Lopez," a migrant farm worker.

Lopez had actually worked for Johnson in the past, and Johnson even invited the man who spoke very little English into his home on a few occasions. This man, who took Johnson's granddaughter from him, would later be identified as Bernadino Zuniga.

Around noon, Johnson returned to the house, to find April missing. Panicked, he phoned the Alexander County Sheriff's Department, while his wife and the girl's parents continued searching for her.

Johnson told Sheriff Thomas E. Bebber that he had seen "Lopez" in a cab, headed towards his property a few hours earlier. The sheriff issued a BOLO alert for a Mexican male "approximately 5 foot, 9, 155 pounds, wearing blue jeans, a blue or gray shirt."

As it turned out, the illegal alien took another cab to the bus station, after murdering April, and headed to Pine Bluff, Arkansas. He was taken into custody in Knoxville, Tennessee.

The arrest affidavit states:

At the police station in Knoxville, officers took hair and fingernail scrapings from the defendant. As defendant took down his trousers for a pubic hair sample, Detective Moyer noticed that defendant pulled both trousers and underpants down simultaneously. Later, having become suspicious, Detective Moyer asked to see defendant's undershorts. The shorts had blood on the front. This blood was later found to be consistent with that of the victim. Among the personal effects seized from defendant was a small photograph of April Sweet.

Through an interpreter, Zuniga waived any objections to extradition and was immediately transported back to North Carolina. Upon arrival in Alexander County, he was charged with first-degree murder and rape.

In February 1985, Zuniga was tried and convicted of both charges, and received the death penalty for the murder, as well as a sentence of life imprisonment for the rape. However, the death sentence was later vacated, after his attorneys successfully argued that the Mexican national suffered from "mild to moderate mental retardation, with an intellectual age of seven," and was not capable of understanding his gruesome deeds.

During the lengthy appeals process (over 15 years), psychologist, Dr. Antonio Puente, testified for the defense that Zuniga was in possession of 56 IQ. Another psychologist later testified that Zuniga scored a 64 on an IQ test he administered.

View the summation of Zuniga's appeals...

In short, Zuniga will not be put to death for his savage act, but will spend the rest of his life behind bars, being financially supported by the taxpayers of North Carolina.

Today, the child killer resides among the general population in North Carolina's Central Prison in Raleigh. Since entering prison on Feb. 19, 1985, Zuniga has committed several infractions, including "theft" and "self injury."

In two weeks, Zuniga will turn 58-years-old...Apparently, prisoner #0458590 is being treated quite well at Central Prison, which has a fully functioning hospital facility, complete with operating room and x-ray labs.