SANTA ANA, Calif. — It was Aug. 2019, and in the weeks before she was killed, Victoria Barrios was in a spat with her mother. Only 18 years old, Victoria was in the middle of a rebellious streak — questioning authority, arguing about friends and choices, chafing against the rules. The kind of stuff that happens when a teenager becomes an adult.
Victoria was “sassy,” Eva Barrios said. “She was physically the smallest, but she always felt the need to protect her bigger sister and her little bigger cousins, because they’re tall her than her." She also liked a good “conversation-slash-debate,” Barrios said. She was opinionated, too — argumentative and stubborn, but also kind-hearted, willing and able to find the good in people.
“I was very proud of her for that, because she saw more than what was on the outside,” Barrios said.
Victoria wanted to go to junior college to make a career for herself and even had an interest in becoming an emergency dispatch operator. She was inspired, her mother said, by “The Call,” a 2013 thriller starring Halle Berry as a 911 operator. Her great strength, her mother said, was connecting with and relating to people, guiding them.
Victoria had her struggles, too: depression and other mental health issues that she treated with medication. But in the weeks leading up to their fight, Victoria stopped taking those meds. Her behavior became erratic, culminating when she was pulled over right in front of her family home, where they lived in Santa Ana. Eva and Victoria fought that night, and Victoria left.
Barrios thought her daughter had left to stay with a friend. Days passed. Then, about a week after Victoria left home, Barrios got a call from her daughter's friend.
Victoria had been shot and an ambulance was there.
Barrios was in shock and immediately left her parents’ house, where she was living at the time. But she wasn’t panicking. “I’m not sure why, but I wasn’t as concerned because immediately, I thought if something really bad happened to her, as a mom, I would have felt it,” she said. Barrios thought that it would be a superficial wound, that she would get her daughter from the hospital, that Victoria would realize that her behavior and attitude could lead her to dangerous places. That they would talk, that Victoria would learn from what happened and that they would move forward as a family.
When she got to the intersection near where Victoria was shot, she ran into the officer who pulled Victoria over in front of their house just days earlier.
“He remembered me, and he was taken aback by it. But he just had me wait on the corner, and I’m thinking, 'OK, what hospital is she at? I don’t need to be here,'” Barrios recalled. The police refused to answer questions but kept asking questions about Victoria — what her hair looked like, if she had any tattoos or identifying marks.
According to Santa Ana police, Victoria was walking with two friends near Oak Street and Pine Street when an SUV — either red or maroon — with at least three people inside pulled up to them. The rear passenger door opened, a passenger pulled a handgun and started shooting. Victoria was hit, along with one of her friends. (The friend was taken to the hospital and eventually recovered.)
After what felt like an interminable period of waiting and answering questions from the police, Barrios was told that Victoria died at the scene.
She was floored. Police offered to connect her with victims’ advocates, and she refused. All she wanted to do was see her daughter at the hospital, to prove that there was no way that the body still on the ground a few yards away belonged to Victoria. She rushed to the privacy screen that police had erected and was pulled away by police.
“He told me that he couldn’t let me see her that way,” she said. “It wasn’t something that I wanted to see and I kept pleading with him, and he said, I can’t let you do that. You don’t want to remember her this way.”
Police believe that the killing was gang-related, but Victoria was not intended to be the target that night.
“I’m told that those responsible were not out to kill Victoria…she was an unintended victim,” Barrios said. “They were out to kill someone, you know; they were out to take a life.”
Surveillance video at the scene caught the moment that police believe Victoria Barrios was killed. But after the initial flow of information, the investigation slowed. Days stretched into weeks, and then to months, before Barrios had borrowed an idea she’d seen watching true crime television. She remembered seeing billboards for missing persons cases, asking people to share information if they knew of or saw someone who had disappeared.
“I thought that I need to do something. I need not only for people to know that this happened, but honestly, in the back of my mind, I wanted those responsible to see her face, to know that my baby is not going to be a statistic,” Barrios said.
The first billboards went up in early 2020. The design was simple: A photo of Victoria in her high school graduation gown to the left. A top, a simple question: “Who killed my daughter?”
“We want people’s attention. We want people to see this and go, what is all this about?” Barrios said.
The family spent about $10,000 to $15,000 of their own money, while other businesses helped with reduced rates and connections. The Barrios family was given suggestions as to where to place their next billboards to catch more attention — including one along the 22 freeway. At their peak, Barrios estimated her family had “six or seven” billboards up, with quite a bit of help coming from folks who have donated money to support the family in their search.
The billboards also included a call to action, asking anyone who might have any information to contact Santa Ana police, along with contact information for OC Crime Stoppers, a non-profit crime tip-line.
This was the first time in Detective Matthew McLeod’s 20-year career with Santa Ana police that a case of his has had such a public call to action attached to it — usually, he’ll see leaflets or private person-to-person calls for help. And their incredible visibility, he said, has been very effective.
“I would definitely say this is one of our stronger cases due in part to the information that we receive by way of the billboard campaign,” McLeod said. “Given the fact that we are just over the two-year anniversary of Victoria’s passing, I still categorize this as an active case — it’s in no way cold.”
Beyond strictly sharing information, McLeod has found the campaign to be hugely significant throughout the Santa Ana community. The billboards have brought families together to share empathy and support and create a network of families who have lost loved ones to violent crime, he said.
“I have personally spoken with several individuals who have told me they now know that they are not alone, that things can be done if we all pull together as one community and partner together to eradicate this scourge of violence,” McLeod said. It’s been heartwarming, he said — and he’s found that even gang members within the community have opened up and talked about the way the billboards have exposed them to the human cost of violence.
The Barrios family is carrying on, Eva said. She’s working to stay grounded with her family: her daughter Valerie, her parents and her brothers and sisters. But Victoria remains a constant presence in their lives.
“She felt she could conquer the world, she was invincible, she knew it all. But behind that toughness, she was a really caring, kind young lady,” Barrios said. “The outpouring of love and support and comments from people who I know were her friends, it just means so much to me.”
Though it all, the Barrios family is continuing on their campaign. Barrios wants to make sure that people know that the choices Victoria made in the last weeks of her life don’t define her, that she’s more than a handful of rash decisions — and that she’s still seeking the help of anyone who might know who killed her daughter.
“I truly, genuinely am asking for the public’s help in finding those responsible for my daughter’s murder,” Eva said.
If you or someone you know has any information that could help Santa Ana police catch the killers of Victoria Barrios, please call SAPD at 714-245-8390, submit a tip to OC Crime Stoppers here, or reach out to the Barrios family directly at justiceforvictoriabarrios.com.