A new mom not answering the phone. A garden hose spilling water onto a well-manicured lawn. Ordinarily, these things might not seem like cause for alarm. But for the family of Bonnie Gamboa, they foretold a tragic fate — one that will be explored in Oxygen’s Buried in the Backyard Season 3 premiere Thursday, Sept. 3. And in an exclusive interview with SheKnows, Bonnie’s sister Barbara opened up about what life was like behind-the-scenes of a true-crime nightmare.
Bonnie was in her early 20s and the mother of a days-old-infant when her husband, Richard Gamboa, rushed home from work after failing to reach her. What he found would terrify and perplex the family and authorities: an empty house, bloodstains on the grass, and no sign of Bonnie. As the search for the missing mother and the couple’s newborn baby Richie intensifies, detectives frantically try to find the missing pieces to what seems to be an unsolvable puzzle.
Speaking with Bonnie’s sister decades later, it’s clear this unimaginable crime had more than one victim.
SheKnows: Everyone, including you, describes Bonnie so beautifully in the episode. What was your relationship with your sister like?
Barbara: Bonnie and I were really close growing up, and then we just lived around the corner from her when I did marry. So, she was at the house all the time. After our mother died, you know, she spent a lot of time with me, and she lived with my older sister who had come back to California to take care of my mom while she was sick.
Bonnie babysat my kids for me as they got a little older, and we had a Christmas party to go to or something like that. She would come over and stay a couple of nights and just kind of hang out with us. So, yeah, we were close. Once she finished high school, she came that summer and came to live with me so she could go to college in Modesto, Modesto Junior College, where she met Richard.
SK: When you watch enough crime shows, your first instinct is to suspect the husband. But your family never thought that way about Richard. What was so special about his relationship with Bonnie?
B: It was obvious from the time that they got together that there just wasn’t anybody else for either one of them. And he was so worried. I mean, he’d only been away from her for a couple of hours, and he was just frantic to find her that day… Richard and her, they were just inseparable. Of course they worked, but there weren’t any breakups or arguments or anything like that. If they got a little testy with one another, Bonnie would just laugh at him. It was them against the world, basically.
SK: Now, we’re used to hearing similar stories like the Facebook Killer and Craigslist Killer. In the ‘80s, though, you didn’t have the exposure of social media to alert you to these things. Could you ever have imagined something like this happening?
B: We were so naive back then, and you didn’t see all the violence and the dreadful things on the news that you see now. We were — that generation — so open and unsuspicious that we just never thought anything bad could happen to us.
SK: What was everyone’s initial reaction to Bonnie being missing?
B: [Richard] was just frantic that day, and I felt that it was a little overanxious. I just thought, well, he’s just exaggerating the situation. She’s just gone down the road or, one of her girlfriends came and said, ‘Hey, let’s go have a hamburger,’ or something. But of course, that wasn’t the case. And so later I felt really bad.
SK: How long was Richard at work before he realized something wasn’t right?
B: He had left at six o’clock that morning. He was at work probably 10 to 15 minutes later. He was at work all morning. So, when he called and she didn’t answer, he told them, I got to go home. When she wasn’t at home and he saw that her purse and stuff was still there, he rushed down to the hospital where Richie was born to see if maybe the ambulance had taken her there… maybe something had gone wrong. Nobody had seen her or anything, so he immediately called the police.
SK: Losing Bonnie was obviously an unspeakable tragedy, compounded by the loss experienced by Richard and baby Richie. What was your relationship with Richard like after losing your sister?
B: After the services and everything was over, Richard brought the baby to the house a couple of times. I think he wanted the consolation of still being part of our family. So, he asked me if I wanted to take the baby a couple of days a week to give his mom a break. But there were plenty of people in the house — I know he did it for us. I really, really appreciated that Richard wanted us to be involved in the baby’s life. Every Tuesday night, I would go pick him [baby Richie] and bring him to our house for two days.
SK: Your family experienced this tragedy in the ‘80s. Then, in the early 2000s, Modesto was in the news again in a major way with Laci Peterson’s abduction. Yet, the community is described as being so resilient and supportive. Did you get that sense of everyone rallying together after Bonnie’s death?
B: Bonnie was breastfeeding at that time, and when they tried to put Richie on formula, it upset his stomach. They put out the word to the news that Richie needed milk. When I would pick Richard [Jr.] up, they would send home the little formula bottle bags… they would freeze the breast milk the people donated, kept it in the freezer, and they would send the bags back home with me for two days. So, he was breastfed — he didn’t even get on milk or anything — the whole community fed him as he was growing up. It was really nice.
SK: It’s almost impossible to find more information on Bonnie’s killer, Mary Wry. Did she ever try to reach out to your family after her arrest?
B: No, we didn’t even know that she had passed until about three or four years ago — Richard’s wife at the time heard Mary had died in prison of cancer, I think. Her attorney appealed after a year or two to commute her sentence from life without the possibility of parole to life. In which case, you know, you can get out for good behavior and be paroled after seven years.
I was there at that hearing, and she never looked at us. Then she was walking with the deputies as we passed, and she just looked at us and smiled. Her basis [for the appeal] was that she really didn’t have anything to live for, and it would give her an incentive to get an education or get treatment if she had something to hope for.
SK: So, what happened with the appeal?
B: When they asked me how I felt, I told them that if she wanted something to live for, she might think about her own kids. And what she did to Bonnie and her family that she never apologized for.
It wasn’t granted. The judge said he understood the premise and that he might consider it, except that the crime was such a heinous and destructive crime — I’m not sure exactly what his words were. But he said there was so much viciousness behind the act… he said, ‘You stabbed her 57 times,’ and the coroner said any one of, I don’t know, 23 or something would have caused her death.
SK: ‘Baby’ Richie’s birthday is this month. Do you do anything to honor Bonnie around the day?
B: No, we try not to take away from his birthday. You know, you build a wall, and you wall that section of your heart off so that you protect yourself. And once in a while, you open the gate and let the emotions through. But other times, you just keep that gate shut.
See Barbara on Season 3 premiere of Buried in the Backyard on Thursday, Sept. 3 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.