July 20, 2020 | By Lauren Paradis
This story is part of a collaborative project between Project: Cold Case and a University of North Florida Journalism class. The student credited above wrote this story as a class project.
Thelma Rico was a loving mother with a wonderful sense of humor. She was known to play pranks on her own children.
She was always smiling and laughing. Everyone in the community knew her as a caring person. Thelma could often be found gardening despite the brutal weather of McAllen, Texas.
That infectious smile and laugh have gone missing. On Easter morning 2012, Thelma Rico’s body was found.
Thelma Rico was born on October 13, 1965. With her birthday falling near Halloween, she grew fond of the holiday and it sparked her love for black cats. Lilia Valadez can recall how protective her mother was of her cats. The reputation of black cats being bad luck made her want to keep them safe even more.
Thelma saw the good in those cats. She saw the good in any living creature. She was an incredibly compassionate woman.
“We think that’s what happened that night,” Maggie Rico said of her mother. “We think someone took advantage of my mother’s kindness.”
On April 8, 2012, Maggie dropped her mother off at a local bar for a night out. She was planning to pick her up later when she was ready to come home.
That call never came, so Maggie called instead. When there was no answer, she didn’t worry – her mother made new friends all the time. Maggie thought that Thelma was with friends and didn’t need a ride.
The next morning was Easter Sunday. As the whole family was gathered eating lunch together, Lilia received the call that would change her family forever.
Authorities told Lilia that there had been an accident and that her mother had been involved. They asked her to identify her mother’s body. Lilia left the home and confirmed the identity of her mother. The image of her mother’s face and neck, badly scraped and bruised, was seared into her mind forever.
Thelma Rico’s body was discovered in an alley behind one of the bars in the McAllen area. She had been raped and strangled to death.
“The hardest part is wanting to talk to someone on hard days,” Lilia said. “But the person you want to talk to is not here.”
Thelma’s friends tell the sisters how much they resemble their mother and often remind them how many people adored Thelma.
She loved to celebrate many holidays throughout the year. “She would decorate the entire house every season,” Lilia recalled. Despite decorating on a budget, Thelma was able to convincingly showcase the dollar store porcelain villages in such a manner that no one would ever be able to know where she bought them. “She was so good at it,” Lilia said.
Thelma loved to dress up and always had her make-up done. Lilia says her mother loved the lavish things in life but was not rich by any means. She still has items to remind her of her mother, including a pair of blue earrings she likes to wear.
On the day of Thelma’s funeral, Lilia took it upon herself to dress her mother and to do her make-up the way she would have wanted it to be done. She didn’t think a stranger could do it the way her mother always did.
It felt like everyone who ever knew Thelma attended her funeral. The funeral home staff said they had never seen it so packed – people were standing when seating ran out. The room was full of roses.
“My mother’s favorite color was red so there were roses everywhere,” Maggie said.
Thelma wanted everything red. She also wanted many grandkids.
Lilia had two children while her mother was still alive, but she didn’t think she could have any more. Not long after their mother’s death, Lilia learned she was pregnant again. So was Maggie. As was their sister-in-law.
They have no doubt in their mind this was because of their mother looking down on them.
If you have any information on the unsolved murder of Thelma Rico, please contact the McAllen Police Department at (956) 681-2000.
Research & Impact
Often, communicating with law enforcement can be a difficult task for families as they try to understand basic information of their loved one’s case. Families share with Project: Cold Case their frustration regarding their interactions. Here are some tips to better engage with the agency on your loved one’s case and some specific questions to ask.
- Designate one family member to be the family representative and point of contact. Their job is to maintain communication with law enforcement, collect information, and funnel that information throughout the rest of the family. Understand that this position can be taxing and frustrating, however.
- When reaching out to the agency, your wording can be very important. You want to show that you know what you are talking about and demand respect and answers from the investigators. Use questions such as these to your advantage:
- “Is this case assigned to a detective?” If yes, find out who and get their direct contact information.
- “When was the last time this case was reviewed?”
- “Has this case been brought up to current investigative standards?”
- If the case was recently reviewed or updated, “Were there any findings that could advance the investigation of this case?”
- “Is this case suspended or actively being investigated?” If the case was suspended, ask when it was labeled as such.
- Check the contact information that law enforcement has on file. Ensure you have given them the indication that you certainly would like to be updated moving forward. Update any contact information if you have moved or changed phone numbers.
- Request to schedule a meeting (in-person or via video conference) to discuss your loved one’s case and address any questions you may have. If they agree to meet, spend the time before the scheduled meeting writing down questions that you would like to have answered.
While the family works to get attention for their loved one’s case, they should also work diligently at building a relationship with the agency and detective assigned to investigate the case. As always, we recommend being respectful and cordial in all interactions. You have a right to share your frustrations and anger but do so in the right way. If you feel that your loved one’s case hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, don’t give investigators a reason to prove you right.
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If you have a loved one that is the victim of an unsolved homicide, please submit their case here for consideration in a future Cold Case Spotlight post.