Last dance

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

Bork, who was introduced to Maria and her little restaurant by a Mexican friend, took a liking to her, and when he visited again in early 1997, he saw her once more. "She was out of the restaurant, and she really wanted to come to the United States," Bork recalls. Her mother, step-father, brother, and sisters had moved to Dallas in March 1995. The father works as a fork-lift operator.

Bork says he met Maria on the U.S. side of the border, but declines to say exactly how her crossing was arranged. He then drove her to Dallas, where she took a room in the family's apartment in a complex off Pentagon Parkway in South Oak Cliff and began paying $300 a month in rent. The Perales family has since moved to a tidy frame house off Westmoreland Road.

"We were close, but it wasn't a sexual thing," Bork says. "Quite frankly, she had a hang-up about sex."

Laura, who met Maria through her family in Dallas, says Carolina Perales was the one who suggested her daughter might take a job in the bars. "When she came from Mexico, her mom asked if I could take Maria to my work," says Laura, who was already a mesera. "I said, 'No, this job can't be good for her. She's too young.'"

Maria found her way to the club life anyway. She began working at Capricornio on Northwest Highway, then the Tapatio Club, then several other bars, then back to Tapatio. "She didn't like the work she did, but she didn't want to work in a factory, either," her mother says. "Once a friend offered her a job answering phone calls, and she said she didn't want to be cooped in all day."

Maria's smooth skin, ebony eyes, and trim figure, together with her full rouged lips, painted nails, and long, sexy dresses, made her an understandable hit at the bars. "Everybody wanted to drink with her," her friend Laura recalls. At work, Maria took on the stage name Marla, or sometimes Mariana. "She complained that some people were envious of her because she dressed really well," her mother recalls. "She was always well taken care of."

Bork, who visited Dallas several times and dated Maria until about four months before her death, says he didn't know she worked in clubs, though he suspected as much when she'd call late at night. "I told her to be careful, because she was working such late hours. I thought she was very naive. I told her, 'This isn't Mexico.' She said, 'Don't worry about me. I can take care of myself. You watch too many movies.'"

Fearlessness was very much in her character, he says. "She was very dynamic. Very open with her opinions. She wasn't bashful with people. She could be very bold, and she had a very big temper. She threw a glass at me once...she could go ballistic over the smallest things."

Mostly, she was hooked on shopping, "going to stores to look for shoes, clothing, and she'd watch soap operas on TV," her mother recalls.

Says Bork: "She was into glamour. If she had five dollars, she'd use it for makeup before she'd put gas in her car.

"She would change her appearance daily. Sometimes she'd wear her hair straight back. One time she put a big reddish streak down the middle, then dyed it back the very next day. She was crazy that way."

And she could play her looks to the hilt.
"When Maria and her sister came to visit me in Chicago, we went to this little Mexican restaurant," Bork remembers. "It was in a Hispanic part of town. Just a few days earlier, there was a gang shooting at a convenience store; a guy put a gun right to the head of another guy...Anyway, we were in a little Mexican restaurant right across from where this happened, and right after us a bunch of gang-looking guys came in and sat down.

"They took one look at Maria, and they couldn't get their eyes off her. She knew it. So what does she do? She gets up and goes to the jukebox, and she's standing there knowing they're looking at her. And she lifts her leather skirt and flashes them. I mean...she was fucking with their heads."

Bork may have been bothered the most. He recalls being furious. "She could be so bold, so in-your-face. When her sister said somebody murdered her, I'm thinking, I'm not so surprised."

According to Laura, around the time Maria was killed, she was thinking about moving on to the bigger money of Dallas' topless clubs. As Laura, speaking in Spanish, puts it, "She didn't have very good thoughts sometimes."

Taken together, the accounts of Maria's family and friends paint a picture of someone who was deeply unhappy in the last few months of her life.

After a bitter argument with a manager at Capricornio, one of the clubs where she worked, Maria went home, locked herself in the bathroom, and superficially cut her wrists with a knife, her mother relates.

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