June 5, 2023 | By Caitlyn Becker

Caitlyn is an Emmy-Winning Journalist, DailyMail.com Senior Reporter, Frequent Contributor to Court TV, Dr. Phil and NewsNation, and a Project: Cold Case Volunteer

On a spring evening in 1996, Juan Leon Laureles (who went by Leon) was taken by persons unknown sometime before midnight and shot to death, his 1988 Ford Thunderbird then set on fire.

Nearly three decades later, the 30-year-old’s case remains unsolved but not forgotten. His niece, Arlene Harbison, remains steadfast in her fight for answers about her uncle’s murder.

“To this day, I don’t know the reason why this happened,” she told Project: Cold Case. “It could be because he was Hispanic, because he was gay … it could be because he just saw something he shouldn’t have. I don’t know.”

Arlene was just 26 when her uncle was shot to death, less than three years younger than Leon himself. While the two were technically uncle and niece, because of their close proximity in age, they were more like siblings.

“I never really looked at him as my uncle. He was more like my big brother,” she recalled. “Leon was a really shy guy, but his laugh was really sweet. [When he smiled] his whole face would light up and you couldn’t help but smile and laugh along with him.”

“Leon and I were very close, and we lived together for many years,” Arlene explained. “The times we did have, they were very meaningful. It was just him and I spending time together and, you know, listening to music, dancing. It was just little things like that that mean a lot to me.”

It was that close bond between the two that made her uncle’s death such a shocking blow to Arlene. The violent nature of the murder, the shock and the lack of answers about his final night all exacerbated the tragedy for Arlene and her family.

“It was and still is one of the hardest things that I’ve ever had to deal with. The days after and up to his funeral, they are a complete blank in my mind,” Arlene said. “When I got the phone call I just remember screaming and crying. I don’t even remember how I got to the sheriff’s department. I don’t remember what I did with my kids. I don’t remember anything but being out there.

“And then the next thing I remember is being at the graveside, holding on to this casket because I didn’t want to leave him alone,” she continued, adding that family members had to literally pull her away from the grave.”

After burying her beloved uncle, Leon’s family was left wondering what happened. A question that still doesn’t have an answer.

It’s unclear if Leon was taken from his home near Brownwood, Texas, or from outside the local Kroger where he worked. He had been due to work the overnight shift which began at midnight and typically left the house at 11:30pm. On the night of May 10, 1996, however, Leon never made it into work.

Laureles was taken by his killer or killers to a nearby gun range and shot in the head, execution style, before they set his car on fire.

Arlene’s memories in the immediate aftermath of Leon’s murder remain fuzzy to this day but one thing that is crystal clear was the lack of publicity about the murder.

Press coverage about the brutal slaying was minimal and, at least from Arlene’s perspective, so was the work being done by law enforcement to bring her uncle’s murderer to justice.

“I was never questioned. I was never spoken to. I was never told anything. My Uncle George was the only one that [law enforcement] would speak to so he would relay messages to us to let us know,” she explained.

Throughout the investigation, however, Arlene says her uncle was the only person interviewed by and in communication with police. In hindsight she finds this bizarre, to say the least, however, at the time due to her hispanic catholic upbringing, having a family patriarch taking point seemed normal.

“I was the closest one to Leon, it did upset me because I needed to know and I could have told [the sheriff] things, but nobody wanted to speak to me,” she said, adding that she trusted that law enforcement was “doing their job.”

Harbison was not only one of the closest people to Leon at the time of his death but she actually saw him the day he was murdered.

The day of her uncle’s killing, Arlene recalled seeing his car in the parking lot of Wal-Mart, which is where she worked. Leon would regularly drop by and visit Arlene at the store while he shopped, so it struck her as odd that his car was there but he didn’t seek her out like usual.

“I walked out of the building and I saw his car right there in the parking lot. I thought, ‘Maybe I should go back inside and go find him and say hi.’”

She didn’t go back inside to find Leon and headed home to her three children instead – it is a choice that continues to plague her even now.

“I have lived with that regret and hated myself for that for almost 27 years,” she said, “until I realized something had to be wrong, because there’s no way that he would have gone into the store and not said hi to me.”

One has to wonder whether or not this information – Arlene seeing Leon’s 1988 Ford Thunderbird that day – may have helped investigators piece together a clear timeline of Leon’s last day.

Unfortunately, Harbison claims that the roadblocks in solving the case appear to have been put up by the very people tasked with solving the case: law enforcement.

“To this day, I have not been able to get a copy of his autopsy,” Arlene said in frustration.  “They won’t even give me any information.”

According to Arlene, days before the murder, Leon told friends that some local men were “after him” and that he was being harassed. This was one of many possible leads that she has heard over the years but doesn’t believe that law enforcement investigated.

She’s also heard rumors that there may have been some sort of an alleged cover up of the crime due to a connection between the killing and local law enforcement. However, those rumors have never been substantiated.

Leon’s family, believing police weren’t doing a good enough job, even poured their life savings into hiring a private investigator. Sadly, the P.I. came up empty handed.

Despite the constant dead ends and disappointments, Arlene hasn’t lost any steam in trying to seek justice for Leon.

“At this point, all I want is a copy of this autopsy. And all I want is for them to just admit they screwed up back then and didn’t investigate properly. Just admit that you were wrong, okay? And let’s see what we can do with what we have now. But they won’t even give me that chance,” Arlene added with a note of pleading in her voice.

The sadness in Harbison’s voice is hard to miss and easy to understand because her uncle Leon, the shy and quiet man with an infectious smile, does deserve justice.

Several years ago Sheriff Bobby Grubbs told a local paper that police were looking into new persons of interest in the case and encouraged anyone with information about Laureles’ murder to contact local law enforcement. So far no arrests have been made and the investigation remains cold.

If you have any information regarding Laureles’ death or events leading up to it, please contact the Brown County Sheriff’s Office at 325-646-5510. To remain anonymous and possibly eligible for a reward, call Heart of Texas Crime Stoppers at (800) 222-8477.

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Newspaper Clippings

San Angelo Standard Times - May 11, 1996

Fort Worth Star Telegram - May 11, 1996

Brownwood Bulletin - May 12, 1996

Abilene Reporter - May 14, 1996

Abilene Reporter - December 4, 2002

San Angelo Standard Times - May 19, 2021

Photo Album

San Angelo Standard Times - May 11, 1996

Fort Worth Star Telegram - May 11, 1996

Brownwood Bulletin - May 12, 1996

Abilene Reporter - May 14, 1996

Abilene Reporter - December 4, 2002

San Angelo Standard Times - May 19, 2021