By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
For most of the last 17 years, Fonda Vera has lived like many other single mothers--balancing a full-time job with the needs of her two sons, now aged 17 and 13. With the exception of her brief marriage to a man who is not the boys' father, Vera has been on her own, paying for a mortgage, her kids' music lessons, and even tuition to the exclusive private Greenhill School for her oldest son.
But last December, with expenses climbing ever higher, Vera says, she decided she needed help. Like thousands of other custodial parents, she sought court intervention for child support. And three months ago, a court-ordered blood test proved with 99.88 percent certainty what Vera says she already knew--the father of her children was Roberto Medrano, the 54-year-old son of aged Democratic activist Pancho Medrano.
As a member of the once-powerful Medrano clan, which all but ran Love Field- and Little Mexico-area politics for several decades, Roberto Medrano served as a Dallas Independent School District trustee for 13 years before a widely publicized drunken driving conviction contributed to his loss to Rene Castilla in 1986.
Since then, Medrano has remained low-profile, with the exception of another failed bid against Castilla for a school board slot in 1990. That is in stark contrast to his political heyday of the '70s and '80s, when his brother Ricardo, a former Dallas city council member, described him as "the wedge, the groundbreaker who got things started" for the second generation of Medranos.
Medrano's arrest for drunken driving while on his way home from a victory party for a city bond election was just the beginning of his troubles. Two months after his 1986 loss to Castilla, an investigation revealed that rental assistance checks from the Dallas County Community Action Committee, where Medrano was director, ended up in the personal bank account of his sister, Pauline. In the wake of the scandal, Medrano lost his job as center director.
It was during the heady days of Hispanic coalition-building that Fonda Vera first met Medrano. Vera, now 45, says she was "young and stupid" when she met Medrano in 1976. "Back then I felt he was a good person with very good intentions," says Vera, who works as the director of institutional research for Richland Community College.
When their two sons were born, in 1980 and 1983 respectively, Vera says she told Medrano she would not make paternity an issue. The two never married (though Medrano is the father of four daughters from previous marriages), and Vera believed she could raise her sons on her own.
She did so until last December, when she says her sons' needs changed dramatically. "My youngest son has been in private violin lessons for years and is showing a lot of promise. But the lessons don't come cheap," Vera says. "The oldest goes to Greenhill. He has some scholarship money, but I do have to do my part."
Fonda's original petition to establish paternity and subsequent child support seeks payments retroactive to January 31, 1980, her oldest son's birthday. She is seeking approximately $600 a month, part of which would be earmarked for medical and dental insurance for both boys.
Medrano did not return telephone calls from the Dallas Observer for this story. Nor did he answer the door of the home listed in court papers as his residence. Medrano's lawyer, Donna Smiedt, also did not return telephone calls.
Vera's lawyer, Robert Wightman, says state law allows a custodial parent to make child support an issue any time before the child in question turns 18. "A lot of people might be critical of Fonda for bringing this up after all these years," Wightman says. "But as long as she can establish paternity, which she did, the law is on her side."
But getting money from Medrano has not been easy. Wightman made several fruitless attempts last December to serve court papers on Medrano. An affidavit filed in 302nd state district court in Dallas by process server David Kelley cites two visits to Medrano's home in the 2300 block of Knight Street in Dallas on December 12. Medrano was not home. Next, Kelley went to the nearby home of Francisco (Pancho) Medrano, who confirmed his son's address. Four more attempts to serve Medrano over the next five days were unsuccessful.
Finally, Wightman filed a motion in court for permission to serve the papers on a family member who would reasonably have contact with the defendant. Wightman served Patricia Medrano--an assistant Dallas city attorney and the daughter of Roberto Medrano.
"It was very awkward, and I didn't want to do it that way. But we had no choice," Wightman says.
Even though Medrano denied his parentage of the Vera boys, a court-mandated blood test determined otherwise. Still, Vera says, he continued to fight her.
"He has claimed he hasn't worked for three years and has no income," she says. Yet Medrano's financial statements filed with the court show he owes an accountant $2,300, pays $348 a month on a car loan, and has a $268.50 monthly mortgage payment.
"If he isn't working like he claims, why does he owe money to an accountant?" Vera asks. "How is he making his car and mortgage payments?"
In his own investigation, Wightman says, he has learned that Medrano does indeed draw a salary--$480 a week from Dallas Can Academy, an alternative education program for high school dropouts and other "at-risk" teens. The director of Dallas Can, Roosevelt Speed, did not return calls from the Observer.
On May 16, Medrano was ordered by state District Associate Judge Christine Collie to pay Vera temporary child support retroactive to the filing of her original petition December 12. Wightman says his client has since received three money orders from Medrano, totaling $203.67.
The parties are scheduled to meet in court on June 16, where Wightman says he will try to "hammer out some of these issues. Robert Medrano is trying to hide his employment and his income, and we want to prove it."
Meanwhile, Vera says, her two sons--who have never met their father--are wondering why Medrano can't do better at leading by example.
"We think it's ironic that he served all those years on the DISD school board and now teaches kids at Dallas Can about taking responsibility for their actions. He ought to come forward and do the right thing.