RHONDA McCLAIN, SUSPICIOUS DROWNING

My daughter, Rhonda McClain, was a vibrant, 41-year-old woman who loved life, and who was making plans for her future with her 6-year-old daughter, Savannah. Those dreams would be cut short when she unexpectedly drowned in a bathtub on March 7, 2011, in Apple Valley, California. The tub was in the home of her of her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, Rafael Chavez, a physician’s assistant.

Rhonda’s year-long relationship with Rafael had been bewildering to her friends and family. She met Rafael at a doctor’s appointment at the office where he worked, (although he insists that they met at a wine tasting), and from that time on he took total control of her life. She moved in with him in March, 2010. He demanded that she “have no attachments to the past,” so she walked away from her apartment leaving everything in it including photos and memorabilia. She sent her 5-year-old daughter, Savannah, to live with her ex-husband, seeing her only on weekends. Rafael also insisted that Rhonda use her middle name, “Desha,” to make the past even less real to her. He didn't approve of any of her friends and if she wanted to talk to them she called when he wasn't around. Rafael had Rhonda totally brainwashed.

We also know, for a fact, that he used Rhonda as a guinea pig to practice his medical skills on. He removed a tattoo from her ring finger (an old boyfriend's name) and was giving her steroid shots to make her gain weight. Savannah told me, after a weekend with her mother, that Rafael had threatened her with a syringe. I also observed and photographed scratches and bruises on Savannah after one of those visits. I shared my concerns with Savannah’s father who told me he would handle the matter. In Rhonda's cell phone there is a message to her from Rafael where he states, "I don't hate both of your children, just one of them." I don’t know which one he was referring to, as he also had reason to feel threatened by Rhonda's adult daughter, Brittany. Brittany has stated that Rafael kept a closet full of samples and medications in his home, a fact that apparently was substantiated by police.

But eventually Rafael’s strangle hold on Rhonda began to lessen. According to her friends, she broke up with him several times and moved back in with her ex-husband, but Rafael always managed to persuade her to return. I don’t know what finally occurred to shove her over the line—maybe she just decided enough was enough-- but her decision to leave for good appears have been definite. She told her ex-husband and friends she was moving out on March 11, and text messages on her phone confirmed that decision. She told Rafael she was leaving and he reportedly agreed to give her $5,000 to relocate. After her death I found among her possessions a list of steps she intended to take to rebuild her life. Those included such things as “get back Savannah” and “continue my education.”

When Rhonda drowned, Rafael and Rhonda were the only two people in the house. Although Rhonda had substantial scratches and abrasions on her body, suggesting there was a struggle, the police, assuming that Rhonda was under the influence of alcohol or drugs, would consider no possibility other than an accident or suicide. They continually delayed sharing the results of the autopsy report, until six months later when family members made the trip to the coroner’s office to collect it themselves.

According to that report, Rhonda had NO drugs or alcohol in her system. The coroner was unable to uncover any underlying illness that could have contributed to her death. She just “drowned in the tub.”

In an unrelated case about a bathtub drowning, expert witness Dr. Aniesa Marie Das testified: "It would be virtually impossible for somebody, without the influence of drugs or alcohol, or something external, to fall asleep and not wake up. First the sensation of water on your face would wake you up. Two, the gag reflex, water entering your airway, just choking. And then three, if for some reason that didn't, the drop in oxygen would actually cause you to stimulate and wake up."

So how could a physically healthy, non-sedated, 41-year-old woman – a woman who loved life, loved her children, and had strong Christian values -- drown in a bathtub unless she was “assisted”?

Rafael has made numerous conflicting statements. He told our family that he and Rhonda had a fight two weeks prior to her death because his lab jacket smelled like perfume. He, then, told police that the argument took place the afternoon she died. He told us that they had spent a “perfect” weekend together and had fallen asleep holding hands the night before her death. In contrast, Rhonda phoned her ex-husband the morning of her death and told him she had moved into the second master suite. Why then was she found in Rafael's bathroom?

Rafael told family members that he found Rhonda’s body at 5:11 p.m., yet he did not call 911 until almost an hour later. He even admitted to reading a text message before placing the call. He said that the message was from Rhonda, telling him how wonderful he was. That message does exist, but there is no way to prove that Rhonda sent it, since Rafael had access to her cell phone, which police later found in the pocket of her bathrobe, which was hanging in her closet. That fact in itself seems suspicious, as Rhonda's cell phone was like an extra appendage. She never let it out of her sight. If she were going to get into a tub, she would have it next to her. The same is true of her bathrobe. Rhonda was meticulous about her appearance and her routine never varied when it came to bathing and dressing. She would get out of the tub, put on her robe, do her makeup and hair, and then get dressed. In this case, her clean clothes were found on the bathroom floor. There is no way she would have dumped them there before bathing.

When paramedics arrived, Rhonda was dry, except for her hair. She was wearing black panties, a necklace, and earrings. Rafael first told police she was wearing the panties when she drowned, but later admitted he had put them on her himself after removing her body from the tub.

The case was turned over to the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Dept. (SBCSD), Specialized Investigations Division, Homicide Detail. The newly assigned detective showed no interest in investigating. We provided contact information for persons we felt should be interviewed, but he didn’t contact a single one of them. Outside of interviewing myself and a surviving daughter, he never interviewed a single friend or family member. Instead he continued to insist Rhonda’s death was an accident or suicide. After I made numerous calls and became very vocal, a review board met to determine manner of death. They came back with a verdict of "undetermined." 

Somewhere amidst all of this I filed a complaint about the detective handling the case, and all of my future contacts were with his sergeant. I spoke to him a week before the anniversary of Rhonda's death, and he told me that he had sent some evidence in for DNA testing (one year later than he should have). When I phoned him back, I was told that he’d been transferred out of the department. Since, obviously, nothing more was going to happen, our family members and friends picketed the SBSD.

We’d been picketing 45 minutes when a public relations guy came out and spoke with us. A few moments later I was invited in to speak to the new sergeant. He promised to review Rhonda’s file and get back to me soon. He never called. I finally contacted him the following week and he assured me that they were going to take an aggressive approach to my daughter’s case. That was right after he explained to me how “busy” they were, telling me that they had been working on a current murder case. Apparently, a year old murder case does not warrant their immediate attention.

Savannah, (now 7) tells me, "I really miss my mom." It's hard enough for an adult to accept a tragic death, but how do you explain it to a child, especially when the circumstances make no sense? It’s been more than a year since Rhonda was taken from us, and we still have no answers. Every time I look into Savannah's eyes, I wonder what I am going to tell her years from now. I want to be able to tell her that justice was served.



Penny Adams (Rhonda’s mother)