In the community

A caring, hard-working Ontario man dies after troubles caught up with him

Victor Morales Zavala (right) poses with his older brother, Jose Morales Zavala. Victor Morales Zavala was shot by police March 14 after a high-speed chase through Idaho and Oregon. (Submitted photo)

ONTARIO – Silhouetted against the sunlight cracking through the closed curtains of a small room in the funeral home, Mary Zavala wept loudly before her dead son as her husband, Salvador Morales, and her two children held her tight.

For the family and their friends, Victor Morales Zavala’s life required a week of mourning. 

The magnitude of that love – communal, familial – was manifest at his viewing held recently at the Lienkaemper Funeral Home.

More than a hundred people showed up to greet the family and exchange intimate expressions of tenderness. Rawness, an intense sense of unmooring, filled the room.

For three hours, a stream of friends, family, and people who knew Morales Zavala entered the small viewing room where he laid in repose.

The visitors who lined up before Morales Zavala’s casket to behold him might have closed their eyes and imagined him hanging out and cracking a few jokes, making them laugh.

He died violently on a downtown street in Ontario on March 14. Morales Zavala, 25, had led police on a two-state highway chase, and died by gunfire after pointing a gun at his head while standing outside the pickup truck he was using. Last week, Malheur County District Attorney Dave Goldthorpe said the two Oregon State Police troopers were justified in their shooting.

Growing up poor

Born in Rincon de Paranguejo in the Guanajuato state of Mexico, Morales Zavala was the son of Salvador Morales and Mary Zavala. He is the second of their five kids.

The family grew up poor, according to his brother Jose Morales Zavala. He said his parents moved to the United States with his two youngest brothers after their father found work at a dairy farm in Idaho. Meanwhile, Jose and Victor stayed with their grandparents in Mexico.

“Some of my favorite memories of Victor are from when we were in Mexico as little kids,” said Jose. “One of them was spending time with our grandpa who was a corn farmer. We’d get the corn from the fields and dry them up on our rooftop, then we’d take the kernels off the cob and bring them to the corner store to get candies and snacks.”

He said the store would give them credit based on the weight of kernels they’d bring in.

“We grew up really poor,” said Jose. “Growing up in Mexico was kind of rough. We didn’t have a lot of things.” 

Jose was 7 and Victor was 5 when they left Mexico in 1999 to join the rest of their family in Fruitland. The family moved again in 2003 to settle in Ontario.

Family and friends remembered Victor for his caring, protective nature.

“Growing up, he always had to be the tough guy. He was always looking after his younger siblings,” said Jose. “While I was the goofball, Victor was more serious. He was especially protective of our younger sister.”

‘Hardest working kid’

In high school, Victor participated in soccer and wrestling. When he wasn’t at school or practice, he was out working on the fields or helping his dad at the dairy farm.

“He’s probably one of the hardest working kid I’ve ever met,” said Hector Martinez, one of Victor’s closest friends. “As a kid, he would help his parents out at the dairy farms. He’d go to school, then work, go to wrestling, then to the gym and then go back to work.”

Martinez remembers where he was when he first met Morales Zavala at The Gym in Ontario. Victor was 16 at the time, but Martinez thought he was much older. 

“He wouldn’t think or act like most teenagers I knew. He always had a purpose and was serious,” said Martinez. “He was also very blunt, very unapologetic.”

Martinez said he became good friends with Victor over their love of working out and weight lifting. Their friendship even continued after Victor graduated from Ontario High School in 2012. After finishing his studies in welding at Treasure Valley Community College, Victor moved in with Martinez in Caldwell.

Martinez said Victor was often reluctant “to go out and have fun.” 

“I remember it was always a constant battle to get him to go out. He was always busy,” Martinez said. 

At the same time, Martinez remembers his friend as one who wouldn’t share his personal thoughts and emotions.

“He kept his personal stuff to himself. In a way, he was very reclusive,” Martinez said. “He was just strong person, and I think he always felt like he had to be there for his family.”

When his uncle in Iowa needed help with work at a dairy farm, Victor moved to the Midwest to provide his welding skills. 

Trying something new

Change marked Victor Morales Zavala’s early 20s. He moved often for work opportunities, and he enjoyed traveling.

“He was a very outgoing person,” Martinez said. “I remember he once had plans to move to North Dakota to work. He loved to see new places.”

That itch to leave and start again hit Victor again in March.

On the morning of March 18, he called Martinez to bid him farewell. 

“He said he was taking off and leaving to go to Nevada,” Martinez said. “He said ‘I’m tired of being here… I just wanna try something new.’”

Martinez told Victor to wait and think about his plan. 

“I told him to just relax and wait for me until I got off from work so we could meet up,” Martinez said.

Martinez said Victor had been “having problems again over the last couple months.”

“Everything just changed last summer,” Martinez said. “Last year, he was drinking more. He started hanging out with other people… I would tell him to stay out of trouble.”

Martinez said Victor began using drugs last year but kicked the habit a few months ago. 

“He started getting involved in church. He was trying to find a way to better himself,” Martinez said. 

Jose Morales Zavala, agrees that his brother Victor “started to find peace” after going to church more. He said his brother quit drugs last December.

Jose said his mother and father were “very supportive” of Victor. “When Victor started to change, it was hard on them. My mom and dad had to balance work and supporting him.” 

Jose said his brother was “doing a lot better” after the family started going to church regularly.

The last time he saw his brother was the Sunday before the shooting.Jose said his brother “was just talking and having fun.”

Four days later, Victor Morales Zavala was dead. 

Reporter Kristine de Leon: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.

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