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, in rural North Carolina. 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.
Earlier that day, 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 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, Zuniga 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 was graphic and painted a clear picture of what happened to the little girl…
“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 heinous crime.
The North Carolina State Supreme Court effectively commuted Zuniga’s sentence to life imprisonment.
During the lengthy appeals process, which lasted 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.
It should also be noted that during this process the government of Mexico assisted in Zuniga’s defense, eventually bringing pressure through their consulate office in Raleigh to commute his sentence to life imprisonment.
In short, Zuniga will not be put to death but may 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 more than a dozen infractions including “theft” and “self injury.”
On May 20, Zuniga, otherwise known as prisoner #0458590, will turn 64-years-old. He currently resides in a facility which has a fully functioning hospital, complete with operating room and x-ray labs.
On October 1, 2020, Zuniga will have an opportunity to argue for his release, as that is the date for his next “custody review” hearing.
While it is unlikely that he will be paroled, as long as he is alive, there is always a chance.
Of course, April Lee Sweet’s short life ended brutally, as she was ‘permanently separated’ from her family, nearly 38 years ago.