Last dance

In Dallas' cantinas, where the company of pretty young meseras is doled out by the drink, a killer lurks

The mesera killings, which received scant attention in the daily newspaper, no coverage on English-language news broadcasts, and some coverage on Spanish-language TV, sent swells of fear through the mesera bars.

"I was scared. Everybody that is here was scared," says Laura, a mesera at the Tapatio Club and one of Maria Perales' best friends. Security guards at the clubs, who pat down customers for guns and keep them from pawing their new-found dates, have been more vigilant about whom the women leave with at closing time, the dancers say.

A few meseras quit the bars for good after the second murder, says 22-year-old Laura, who asked that her last name not be used for fear of becoming a target herself. Most, like her, kept at it out of sheer necessity.

Laura, who lives with her 4-year-old daughter in a single room in an East Dallas boarding house, says she can't give up the $100 to $200 a night she makes on weekends as a mesera. That's very good money for someone with a limited education, little English, and in many cases, no legal status in the United States. A minimum-wage job, after all, would yield less than $40 a day after taxes.

The stories of Maria Perales and Olivia Hernandez, who were both undocumented and in the United States for only a few years, are as much about the difficult circumstances and harsh choices faced by poor Mexican immigrant women as they are about two victims of a possible serial killer.

At the time of their deaths, they had no safety nets, no protectors, no way to connect to the mainstream. They were both struggling to make it on their own, and their neediness made them vulnerable to a potential killer.

No doubt women who dance at bars with strangers take their chances. But the setbacks and difficulties both women encountered struck a nerve in even the hard-shelled Dallas homicide detectives who are investigating their cases.

"They had everything to gain and nothing to lose," Trevino says. "They came here with nothing." Detective John Palmer, who's assigned to the Hernandez investigation, adds, "Her life from start to finish was one hurdle after another. Not that she didn't contribute with some poor decisions. But she really did struggle."

Friends say the two women were sad, perhaps even depressed, about their fortunes in Dallas when they disappeared. Given their lack of education and legal status, they were doomed to work in the underground economy. Both talked about dancing for a while more, saving money, and returning home to Mexico. It didn't happen. Who could know which turn to an old ranchera song, which dance would be their last?

Seated at a dining table that takes up almost the whole front room of her little frame house in Oak Cliff, Carolina Perales sifts through a stack of snapshots of her dead daughter.

In one, taken last Christmas, the then-19-year-old looks very young, timid. With a hand to her fresh face, she is stifling an embarrassed laugh. In another, taken at a bar, she looks like a different person altogether: mature, in control, almost harsh in full makeup and a black lace dress.

"My husband and I talked to her about going out at night," Carolina Perales says. On the wall over her right shoulder are two crucifixes and a bas-relief Last Supper, all three finished in bright gold. "We said there could be people out there who have done bad things. We would tell her to be careful. She would say, no, nothing would happen to her. She was grown-up."

Brash and naive, Maria Perales was just the kind of person who could end up at the wrong place at the wrong time. But it was hardly her fault that she grew up thinking she could handle herself in a room full of half-drunk strangers.

The oldest of five children, Maria was born in Guanajuato, a picturesque town in Mexico's central mountains where her family ran a shop selling household goods. She only made it through fifth grade, according to her mother, and while the reasons aren't altogether clear, she left home at 12.

Maria told several friends in Dallas she left because she was being sexually molested by a member of her family. But her mother says she never heard that. "I don't know anything about that. She never mentioned it to me."

Instead, she offers that her daughter left home so young because she was "very independent-minded."

According to Laura, Maria's close friend in Dallas, she traveled to Acapulco, the Pacific Coast resort, and lived for a time on the streets. "She had little scars on her back where she was cut with broken glass when she was raped again," Laura says. Maria eventually was taken in by a woman who gave her a room in return for cleaning and caring for the woman's children.

Maria's mother, who three years ago moved with the family from Guanajuato to Oak Cliff, says her daughter sold jewelry in Acapulco and would occasionally return home to visit.

In February 1996, when she had just turned 18, Maria was running a restaurant in Acapulco, a little corner bar and grill with a pool table, when she met Eddie Bork, a stocky 39-year-old asphalt salesman from Chicago. His boss owned a villa near the beach.

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