Last dance

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

While they'll only go so far, Trevino and company have become more forthcoming about the cases in recent months because they've run down their leads and have no suspects in sight. "When you hit the wall, it helps to get people out there to be your eyes and ears," Trevino says. "We're limited in manpower. It's a matter of motivating people to come forward. It's not until people realize that something like this is so major that they come forward and get involved."

As he tugs on the cuffs of his violet shirt, which peeks out from a natty gray jacket, Trevino explains that witness accounts at the bars suggest the man was an acquaintance of the two women. Most likely he met them on several occasions at the bars, but was not a regular boyfriend.

"On Hernandez, we get the impression he had gone in there [Mike's El Socio] numerous times to talk with her. We think he worked her for a while and developed enough rapport to get her to go willingly." Hernandez's 1984 Chevy Camaro was found near where she was murdered, but it's unknown whether she and "Flaco" drove together or in separate cars, the detectives say.

"I think he's the type of guy who is smart enough, good-looking enough, to catch a girl's eye, to sweet-talk her," Trevino says. In other words, he could be a Ted Bundy sort of killer, a most effective serial murderer, a man who in one moment acts nice enough to take home to the family, and at the next has his hands around a woman's throat.

His colleague Palmer dispels one possibility rather decisively. "I would not characterize these girls as prostitutes," he says. Adds Trevino: "Whatever they do outside of the bar, nobody has control of. If one of these girls gets behind on her rent, maybe she takes a chance, but it's hard to say these girls would do that." They had no history of it.

There are a number of reasons the two cases have been difficult, the detectives say. They've received only limited help from owners and managers at the bars. "They don't want to talk to us," Palmer says.

"They're protecting their investment. What good can come of it?" Trevino adds. Indeed, the clubs cater to and loosely employ illegals, some of whom clearly aren't old enough to be serving drinks.

"They can see no good coming from it," Trevino says. "In their eyes, once the girls are off work, they're on their own. Inside, it's polite. The bouncers make sure it's polite."

Another problem is the transient nature of men like "Flaco." "He could be in Houston, San Antonio, Austin, anywhere in the Valley. There's even a large population of illegals working the tobacco fields in the Carolinas," Palmer says.

"My sense is, he's still around," Trevino chimes in. "This thing is gonna solve out...or he's gonna do it again and make some kind of mistake."

For the women still working at it, the mesera life has changed little since the murders.

"Ever since this happened, security pays a lot of attention to who we talk to, who we leave with," says Maria Perales' friend, Laura, who has been working as a mesera since she was 18. She began one year after she came to Dallas from San Luis Potosi, a major city in central Mexico.

Around Laura's boarding-house room are a studio portrait of her and her smiling little daughter, a poster of the Tejano band Los Tigres Del Norte, and a pawn-shop ticket tacked up next to the light switch. On the mantel are thick bunches of ribbons for selling Mary Kay cosmetics and a construction-paper poster titled "Metas," or "Goals."

Hers are to lose weight--illustrated by a photo of a model cut from a magazine--to spend more time with her family, and to win a Mary Kay car. "This way I am always thinking of my goals," she says.

Laura shows off her Mary Kay blazer and offers a sample dab of hand lotion, explaining how she sells her cosmetics during the week and works the bars on the weekends. "My daughter thinks I sell Mary Kay at night too."

As she talks about the night work, it becomes clear that a mesera's difficulties come in two distinct and unavoidable forms: crooked bar owners and customers who've had too much to drink.

"What I do at night isn't good for everyone," Laura says, sitting on the bed because her visitors have taken up her two chairs. "You're dealing with drunken men who might try to grab you, and you may not be able to defend yourself.

"I don't like them to touch me. If they do, I leave. There are other guys to talk to."

Most of the women Laura says she works with are in their 20s. Several clubs in Houston came under attack from Hispanic community leaders this fall because underage women had been found working as taxi dancers. In late October, Houston police raided one club and took into custody eight girls, ages 12 to 16. The club's owner was charged with a class-C misdemeanor: allowing minors into a nightclub after 8 p.m.

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