Too Close to Home: The Samantha Zaldivar Case Review

5-star rating

It’s hard to say I “enjoyed” this book. After all, how can one “enjoy” a book about the real murder of an eight year old girl by her mother’s boyfriend? Indeed, at times there were tears in my eyes.

That said, there’s a lot to like—or maybe “appreciate” is a better word—about Too Close to Home. Let me set the scene first.

Too Close to Home book cover
Cover design and photo by Jesaro Photography. Used with permission.

Samantha’s home life was anything but easy. Her mother, Rachel Stra, had been divorced by Samantha’s biological father. Samantha and Rachel had moved with Rachel’s boyfriend from Florida to western New York to “get a fresh start.”

Angel Colon, the boyfriend, was no angel. He’d been involved in drugs and crime in Florida and Georgia, and was abusive with Rachel and Samantha. Despite that, he and Rachel had had two more daughters together, but Samantha became the odd girl out in the family. To top it off, Rachel was not the best of mothers: inattentive almost to the point of neglect.

Then one day in February of 1997, Samantha didn’t show up for school, although Angel claimed he’d put her on the bus that morning. She didn’t come home that night, and her classmates reported they hadn’t seen her.

The search began. By the time a week had passed, suspicion began to focus on Angel and the possibility that Samantha was no longer alive.

Stephen Tarbell was a “technical sergeant” in the Wyoming County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO), and was involved in the case from Day 1. His co-author, Laurinda Wallace, is a native of the area who writes cozy mysteries. Tarbell and Wallace had been acquainted for years, and when Tarbell decided that he needed to write the story of the investigation, he turned to Wallace for help.

Together they turned what could have been a dry, Sergeant Joe Friday-like “just the facts, ma’am” report into a gripping and often heart-breaking story. The authors do not just detail the myriad of tasks and procedures the WCSO, the FBI, the New York State Police, and many other law enforcement agencies and laboratories had to undertake, they tell the very human story of men and women committed, to the point of endangering their own health, to finding Samantha and then her killer.

There are, of course, plenty of details. When Samantha’s body is found, almost exactly three months after she disappeared and only 300 yards from her home, Tarbell and Wallace explain why it took hours to exhume the body from its shallow grave, how the dirt above and around her was painstakingly sifted for any potential pieces of evidence, and how bags were placed around her hands to preserve any evidence that might be there. But at the same time, they show how the discovery just added further motivation to the heart-broken officers to find her killer and bring him to justice.

For me, one of the more interesting elements of the story was not just how the various law enforcement agencies worked together, but how, as prosecutors and defense teams came into the picture, a professional and respectful relationship developed between all of them. It’s easy to assume that police officers would view defense attorneys with suspicion, yet that did not happen here.

The respect was mutual. Indeed, at the very end of the book, after Colon pleads guilty to second-degree murder and is sentenced to 25 years to life, Tarbell and his colleagues end up at the same restaurant as the attorneys from the New York State Capital Defenders Team. When the officers go over to talk with the attorneys, it’s the attorneys who say, “Good job, guys.”

Wallace has said this was the hardest book she’s ever had to write, and it’s easy to see why. But in so doing, she and Tarbell powerfully showed how there are human beings behind their badges, real men and women who will work themselves to exhaustion or worse on a case they care about.

A very difficult read but highly recommended.

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