Rachel Castillo was a straight-A student.
Her father, Chris Castillo, said the 25-year-old Simi Valley native and the youngest of his three daughters, was a “go-getter, hard worker and over-achiever.”
Rachel was the first in the trio of siblings to learn to ride a bike, Chris said. Raised in a Catholic family, she attended St. Rose of Lima School in Simi Valley and La Reina High School in Thousand Oaks before receiving a full scholarship to UC Santa Cruz to study psychology and taking a job at a social services nonprofit.
“She finished high school with a 4.28 GPA. I didn’t even know you could get above a 4.0,” Chris said.
But her most important accomplishment was being a mother to her young sons, her father said.
A week ago, Rachel’s estranged husband Zarbab “Bobby” Ali was arrested for her murder following an intense four-day, multi-agency search. Castillo went missing Nov. 10 from her Simi Valley apartment where a “significant” amount of blood was discovered. Authorities found her body in a remote area of the Antelope Valley on Sunday.
Chris Castillo, a retired FBI agent and Marine veteran, said his family is “devastated” and doing everything they can to rally around Rachel’s sons.
“There’s no way I could even begin to describe how hard we’re hurting as a family,” he said.
Ali has been charged with murder and the special allegations of lying in wait and use of a knife, according to the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office.
Castillo, who assisted in the investigation, said that now his daughter’s alleged killer is in custody, his family is turning their attention to her two sons, ages 2 and 5. Her youngest son turned 2 the day after her body was found, according to documents court.
“They don’t have a mother anymore and they essentially don’t have a father and that is a horrific situation,” he said.
Loved ones mourn
Robyn Castillo said her daughter loved to take her sons to museums, the beach and hiking.
Rachel particularly enjoyed working with Spanish speakers and the homeless community, Robyn said, to connect them to services they might not otherwise access.
“She wanted to help others,” Robyn said.
At the time of her death, Rachel was studying in Pepperdine University’s graduate program to become a marriage and family therapist, just like Robyn, who is currently completing her apprenticeship to become a licensed therapist.
“We talked a lot about that since she was following in my footsteps, going to the same universities that I did for undergrad and master’s program,” Robyn said.
Friends and family have set up two fundraising sites to pay for Rachel’s funeral expenses and to care for her sons.
Arielle Williams, a longtime friend of Rachel’s older sister Emily, was with the Castillo family when they learned of Ali’s arrest. After the announcement, Williams created a GoFundMe with the family to cover final expenses.
When Williams worked as a nanny, she would schedule play dates with Castillo and her two sons.
Williams said Castillo spent her days baking with her children and taking them to the zoo and the park.
“She was incredibly patient, incredibly kind. She would always take the boys to all sorts of activities and enrichment and really, really loved them and wanted them so much. She was a great mother,” Williams said.
Williams and Castillo both attended La Reina. Wallace said the private girls school in Thousand Oaks held a prayer vigil in Castillo’s honor last week.
Karen Starleaf, La Reina’s communications director, said that faculty and staff are “in shock” over the “tragic” death of the Class of 2015 alumna and said they are praying for all those impacted by the loss.
“We remember Rachel as a compassionate, quiet and creative young woman with a fun sense of humor. She loved life and adored her two young sons,” the school said in a statement.
Rachel should be remembered for how loving and caring she was as a mother, a daughter and a friend, Williams said.
“She radiated love and joy. She was just so bubbly,” the friend said. “I know she’s going to be watching over her boys as much as she can as they grow up.”
Marriage and split
Ali and Castillo met as freshman at UC Santa Cruz. They had their first child in college in 2017, and the couple married in November 2018. They would welcome their second child in 2020.
Chris Castillo said when he first met Bobby, he found him “strange” but grew to love him.
The couple was together for six years, her father said.
Court documents show the pair separated in June 2021, and Castillo filed for divorce in March, citing irreconcilable differences. She was awarded primary physical custody of the children. In June, the county’s child support agency recommended Ali pay around $2,000 in monthly child support.
Nov. 2 would have been the couple’s fourth wedding anniversary. Castillo went missing on Nov. 10. The children were not home at the time of the attack, authorities have said.
The boys are currently being cared for by one of Rachel’s sisters but Chris Castillo said Ali’s parents are also seeking custody. Chris has started a fundraiser to cover legal fees and care for the boys.
“One of the important things we can do to honor my daughter’s legacy is to ensure my family raises these kids,” he said.
The young mother’s death still weighed heavily on the minds of neighbors Tuesday in the Wood Ranch apartment complex where she lived.
A small makeshift memorial sat outside Rachel Castillo’s apartment. Votive candles were arranged in the shape of a heart beneath a missing person poster bearing Castillo’s photos. Four flower arrangements sat along the walkway under the pictures of her smiling face.
Sylvia Riggs lives a few buildings over from the apartment Castillo shared with her sons and sister. The 86-year-old said the neighborhood is friendly and quiet. She learned of the crime scene’s proximity after recognizing her complex on broadcast news.
“We were shocked,” Riggs said. “Those poor babies.”
Simi Valley police spearheaded the investigation, which was joined by the FBI, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the Los Angeles Police Department, the Ventura County DA and the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-Coroner.
The investigation also included a team of retired FBI agents Castillo described as the “rock stars” of the law enforcement world who jumped into action after they heard a fellow agent’s daughter was missing.
He became emotional when he recounted that it only took a single phone call to summon his former colleagues. After Simi police cleared the crime scene, they allowed Castillo and his team to conduct their own parallel investigation.
“No father should have to see what I’ve seen,” he said.
Simi police performed “world-class police work,” Castillo said, and he credited the department’s collaboration with other law enforcement agencies. He said the investigation was also helped by “units that help with technology” but declined to give further details.
Castillo said he recognized how Rachel’s murder intersected with their respective careers.
As a law enforcement officer, Castillo said he never pictured finding himself on the victim’s side of an investigation. He also noted that Rachel worked at Interface, a nonprofit that assists victims of domestic violence.
“That was her job. And here it is she winds up getting murdered by her ex-husband,” Chris Castillo said. “When she announced she was getting divorced, we stood by her. Maybe I should have stood by her a little better. I can even remember telling her to work through her problems. In hindsight, it saddens me that I said that.”
Dawn Megli is an investigative and watchdog reporter for the Ventura County Star. Reach her at [email protected] or @ReporterDawn. This story was made possible by a grant from the Ventura County Community Foundation’s Fund to Support Local Journalism.