On the day Isabel Zuluaga was brutally stabbed to death last summer, her 13-year-old son told classmates he was “going to kill people” and wouldn’t attend school the next morning.
Deputies uncovered the warning during an investigation that from the outset pointed them toward the teen.
He posted numerous messages on social media about his premeditation to commit murder and boasted about being a serial killer, according to documents recently obtained by The Greenville News. Investigative reports, 911 calls, court documents, interviews and social media postings offer new details into the homicide and the lives of Zuluaga and her son.
The sparkling reputation the teen had among Zuluaga’s family and her friends belies the ghastly violence investigators say he perpetrated.
The teen, who will be 14 this month, is in the custody of the state Department of Juvenile Justice. A Family Court hearing at an undetermined date will determine whether he will be tried as an adult. His name has not been released.
Zuluaga, 44, and a native of Colombia, was known for her uplifting spirit and infectious smile. She was the lone daughter of a Colombian comedian, and her death made international news.
“She was a lovely person,” her attorney, David J. Rutledge, said.
The teen's family declined to comment.
Zuluaga’s son was a good student and attended Bryson Middle School. He liked soccer and played at a local YMCA.
Family members described the teen to investigators as quiet, well-behaved and extremely intelligent. The Sheriff's Office said it had no previous issues with him or at the Zuluaga household.
But the teen’s classmates provided a different picture.
One student said Zuluaga’s son seemed to like violence and games like “Call of Duty.” Another student directed authorities to Skype. The teen’s account had a picture of a llama with the phrase, "Hello, I am a serial killer now."
Today, I am going to be a serial killer.
Statement attributed to Isabel Zuluaga’s 13-year-old son by classmates
On the morning of Aug. 31, he told two classmates in his third period social studies class that he “was going to kill people.” He also told several students: “Today, I am going to be a serial killer.”
They thought he was joking.
Teen’s parents divorced
Zuluaga was married for 19 years until she finalized a divorce in February 2015. As part of the divorce agreement, Zuluaga was granted primary custody of her son and ownership of the home.
They lived on Hipps Avenue in the Mayfield Estates subdivision, just outside of Simpsonville city limits. Neighbors say they were quiet and kept to themselves in a home purchased for $54,000 in 2013.
Late last summer, Zuluaga enlisted the help of a contractor to perform upgrades to the house.
The contractor knew Zuluaga for about a year but not well enough to know her son’s name. Still, she trusted him enough to give him a key so he could work on a bathroom while she was at work.
Zuluaga was known to get ready for bed and turn in for the night about 9 p.m. She was scheduled to arrive at work before 6 a.m.
On the morning of Sept. 1, the contractor arrived about 8 a.m. to work on the one-story brick house. His arrival surprised the teen, who went to hide, the Sheriff's Office said.
The contractor thought it was weird the woman’s SUV was parked at the home. He even called her to make sure she was aware he was about to start working. No one answered the phone.
The contractor headed to the crawl space as part of his project. He was startled when he encountered the teen underneath the home. The man told him to get out of there.
Two Hillcrest High students saw the teen leave the home in a rush and offered him a ride. He declined and kept walking.
The contractor also noticed blood dripping from the house when he was in the crawl space. When he went inside, still wondering if Zuluaga was there, he found her naked body in her son’s bedroom. She was on her back surrounded by pools of blood. Paper towels were on the floor near her.
The contractor called 911.
When a deputy entered the home, he saw a large kitchen knife in the bathroom, lying in front of the shower near blue shorts. In Zuluaga’s bedroom, clothing was laid out on the foot of her bed.
The deputy notified his supervisor of a homicide when he saw the body.
Zuluaga died of stab wounds to the torso. She also had wounds from where she tried to protect herself.
Deputies immediately began looking for the son, because during the 911 call, the contractor mentioned seeing him.
The search expanded when a deputy noticed a report card from Bryson Middle School on the refrigerator. The deputy called dispatch at 9:39 a.m. to alert school resource officers.
Deputies were told Zuluaga’s son was absent and his whereabouts unknown. The Sheriff’s Office called emergency contacts and asked them to come to the home.
The school was placed on a modified lockdown. Meanwhile, media reports about the homicide investigation started to spread through the school. Multiple students would tell officers what they heard in social studies class the previous day.
Tracking down the teen
The search to find the teen took about three hours after the initial 911 call.
With K-9s already searching, deputies called in a bloodhound to assist. A deputy and the bloodhound began the hunt at 10:53 a.m., starting with clothing found in the teen's room. The Sheriff's Office, a short time later, notified media that the teen was missing and the information was distributed to the public.
Several motorists flagged down the deputy with the bloodhound to let him know they saw the teen on Woodruff Road near the Greenville County line. The teen’s relatives also saw him and tried to give him a ride back home. He refused, and the relatives contacted investigators.
A deputy in a helicopter spotted the teen as he was walking down the two-lane highway near the intersection with Ben’s Creek Road in Spartanburg County, more than 8 miles from his home.
When deputies surrounded him on the rural road, he was covered in sweat. He stared at the helicopter as a sergeant approached and took him into custody.
Deputies seized two cellphones in the teen’s possession — one was his and the other his mother's. Investigators believed the devices contained information crucial to the investigation.
Sheriff Steve Loftis said in September that during interviews the teen implicated himself in his mother’s death and showed no remorse.
After the stabbing, the teen went to sleep, Loftis said.
Images of love
Weeks after her death, an investigator interviewed one of Zuluaga’s close acquaintances.
He said Zuluaga’s relationship her son was healthy and normal. She was very engaged in his life and at times doting.
In the months leading up to her death, Zuluaga posted several pictures of her son on Facebook. A cheery image of the mother and son remains her Facebook cover photo to this day.
"I love him with all my heart," she said in a post last year.
Staff writer Romando Dixson covers crime for The Greenville News. Follow this case and others through his Facebook page, Romando The Reporter.