Last dance

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

One minute, the woman in the clingy, curvy red and black dress makes the rounds as a waitress, taking drink orders from the tables of men at Mike's El Socio Nightclub. The next moment, she is sitting with a customer in boots and straw hat, talking and laughing with him as if on a date. Then she is shuffling across the dance floor with the middle-aged man, moving to the unbending polka rhythms of the recorded norteno that booms through the East Dallas club.

All around them on the dance floor are other mismatched partners: Mexican cowboys or young men in T-shirts and tennis shoes dipping and swaying with women dressed to kill in little black mini-dresses and heavy mascara, or skin-tight Selena pants with silver and red high heels.

As the accordions wheeze and chirp, some of the women offer quickie dance lessons to their stumble-footed partners as the mirror ball picks up the twinkling of the Christmas lights over the dance floor, reflecting it back as a big, spinning circle on the wooden boards below. "Ninety percent of the girls in here are working," says Bibi, one of the club's women, looking on from the back hallway on a recent Friday night. "This isn't the kind of place you'd bring your girlfriend."

That's because Mike's is a home away from home for working stiffs, indocumentados looking to buy a little time, maybe a dance or two, with a woman. And for this there are meseras, translated literally as "table waitresses"--women who spend innocent moments talking, dancing, fetching beers for any man who can pony up the price of their company.

Mike's and cantinas like it exist in a hidden, secretive world, unfamiliar even to most Dallas Hispanics, let alone the city's Anglos. But they've been much on the minds of a couple of Dallas homicide detectives.

At least since the murders.
In the early morning of June 27, a pretty 24-year-old mesera named Olivia Hernandez left her job at Mike's with a man, a thin young guy in Western attire. She was found the next afternoon, nude and strangled to death, at a construction site in northwest Dallas.

Detectives revealed last month that they have conclusive proof that the man who killed Hernandez had strangled another mesera to death on February 15.

Maria Perales, a 20-year-old with dusky good looks, had left her job at the El Tapatio Club in South Dallas, then was seen at La Cabana on Industrial Boulevard, then was never seen alive again. Her nude, strangled body was found early the next morning on the edge of a dark East Dallas side street, where it was dumped from a truck or car.

Dallas police, who have no suspects, say a serial killer may be searching for his next prey tonight in Dallas' cantinas.

Detective Jesse Trevino, who is overseeing the investigation, says witnesses at the bars have provided only a general description of the man with whom Hernandez and Perales left the bars.

The search for the killer has taken Trevino and two colleagues deep into the invisible world of the illegal work force, the cantinas, and the young women whose allure fuels the bars and makes them go.

"It kind of reminds me of the Wild West," Trevino says. "These are guys who are living with six other guys with no chance of meeting a girl. On the weekends, they splash on some cheap cologne and go to town to meet a lady."

One man, though, has something far more frightful, far more ghastly in mind.

Like more than a dozen other cantinas around Dallas, Mike's El Socio is a modern-day version of the 1930s taxi-dancing club. Willing women in their teens, 20s, or early 30s fetch beers, chat, drink, and dance for a price--money doled out in the form of drink surcharges, tips for each dance, and in some taverns, dance or drink tickets sold at the bar.

The women may be called waitresses, but they have much different duties than those assigned to the Jennifers and Alisons at your corner Bennigan's. "Their job is to keep the men in the club, consuming drinks and having a good time," says Luis, a cook at an Irving restaurant who is familiar with the clubs.

If they insist on anything more, the mesera is likely to summon a bouncer. This isn't about stripping or lap dancing or sex for sale.

"They do this for money, to send back to Mexico," says Bibi, the woman at Mike's, who declined to give her last name.

A stew of beer signs and cigarette smoke, the club is done in threadbare red carpet and a crude red paint job, thick and untrimmed, like the set of a low-budget theater production. "Dancing with men in here," says Bibi, "it's like dancing with your grandfather."

The mesera business is as old as the needs of lonely men far from home--whether they're U.S. soldiers buying dancing partners and more in Saigon during the Vietnam War, or migrant Mexicans two-stepping with young women after a hard day on the construction sites of North Texas. Some remember the phenomenon in Texas as far back as the 1960s, when the women were known as peseteras, or quarter dancers.

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.

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.

At other times, Bork would get sobbing calls from her at odd hours. "She'd call me late at night, 4 a.m., drunk, and say, 'Eddie, I miss you.' She was like crying drunk. I had no idea what she'd gotten herself into, but she was very unhappy," he recalls.

Says her friend Laura, "When she got sad, she would say that at least her brother and sisters are getting everything she didn't get."

About two months before her death, Maria's car was stolen from in front of her apartment in the middle of the day. After that, either Laura or her parents drove her to work, and she caught rides home with friends.

Without transportation, without a steady boyfriend, without any prospects in her adopted country, Maria's life seemingly had shrunk to a desperate core.

On the day she died, she made one last grasp for a bit of happiness, an odd gesture from Maria to herself. Recalls Laura: "I went to pick her up, but she was in the beauty parlor. So I went by her house, and I saw a huge flower arrangement. I asked her mom who gave it to Maria, and she said Maria bought it herself. They were yellow roses. Beautiful flowers."

It was Valentine's Day. Her mother and father dropped her off at Tapatio around 10 p.m.

"She'd always come home about three or four in the morning," Carolina remembers. "That day she didn't."

Olivia Hernandez's mother still doesn't know what happened to her youngest daughter. Just that she is gone, returned to her native Mexico in a casket.

Olivia's sister wanted to preserve the secrecy. She couldn't bear to break the news about how Olivia's American dream had ended.

Her mother "has heart problems and high blood pressure. It would be too much for her to know what he did to Olivia," explains Maria Martinez, Olivia's older sister.

When Martinez--Olivia's only relative in Dallas-- finally managed to raise the almost $5,000 needed to send her body home to Chihuahua for the funeral, she dressed her in a white, long-sleeved turtleneck blouse and long white gloves, to cover her battered arms and hands.

"Olivia never needed any makeup when she was alive," her sister says. "When she died, they had to use some, to cover up the bruises so her mother couldn't see."

Maria Martinez's apartment is small and dark, carpeted in the drab brown favored by rental agencies. Colorful pictures crowd the living-room cupboard and spread to the walls.

Among them, almost blending in with the clutter of childish, smiling faces, stands a larger-than-life portrait of Olivia Hernandez. At 23, she was not much older than Martinez's own children, who are now 20, 13, and 7. Sitting at a small table across from the shelves, Martinez explains how she talks to Olivia.

"With each month that passes, it is worse," she says, trying to control her tears. "I always ask...What happened? Why? And how much did she suffer?

"I was the one who told Olivia to come to the U.S.," she adds. "She never thought she would stay more than a few months."

What started off as a vacation at her sister's home for the reticent 17-year-old became a succession of mistakes and bad luck that turned her life upside down. Relationships with unreliable men and two unplanned pregnancies burdened Olivia with responsibilities. Five years later, with two daughters depending on her, few job skills, and no knowledge of English, Olivia, then 24, took a job as a mesera at Mike's El Socio. That would be her last mistake.

Olivia had led a relatively sheltered life in Mexico. At 15, with a trade-school degree in business, she began working as a secretary, a job she still held when she left for her American vacation. As the youngest of seven siblings, she still lived under her mother's wing, sharing her apartment in a residential street of her native Chihuahua.

"We were not rich in Mexico, but we worked and led a calm life," says Martinez, who shares her East Dallas apartment with her husband and children. "It is very hard to save money in Mexico, and Olivia needed to buy a car. So I told her to come for a vacation, and work a bit to save some money."

Once in Dallas, Olivia became a bartender at the Golden Palace, an East Dallas bar that has since closed down. Soon the pretty bartender began dating one of her co-workers, Martin. That was where the bad luck began.

"Martin was not a good man," her sister says. He left Olivia soon after she found out she was pregnant, and "never came back--not even when we notified him of Olivia's death."

Seven months pregnant and alone, Olivia returned to her mother's home in Chihuahua and gave birth to her first daughter, Carla.

Only a few months passed before Olivia's best friend decided to try her luck in the United States. Going against the mother's wishes, that friend convinced Olivia to accompany her on a trip back to Dallas.

Leaving Carla behind with her mother, Olivia ventured into the United States again. This time, she took one of the most readily available and best-paying jobs an attractive undocumented girl can get: as a mesera at El Cisne Latin Club, a nightclub on Northwest Highway. Less than two months later, she met Humberto Virgen.

"He was very pleasant, very much a gentleman," says Luis, an old friend of Olivia's from the Golden Palace. At 42, tall and lean, Virgen seemed to offer the security Olivia needed. His brothers and sisters all lived near each other in homes they owned in a tree-lined middle-class neighborhood in northwest Dallas. Humberto himself was a legal resident.

"She told me they were going to build their life together," Luis says. "Humberto was jealous, so he told Olivia to stop working. She did." They moved together to a small apartment on Northaven Road, where Olivia stayed home with Carla, whom she'd sent for. "She had told me they were going to get married," Luis remembers.

Soon afterward, little Carla began calling Humberto "Daddy." Olivia became pregnant again, and seemed very contented, "smiling a lot, like when she was a little girl," says her sister. They were living as a family.

Yet one of the portraits crowding Maria Martinez's living-room cupboard stands as a silent witness that again, something went wrong: In it, Olivia--"so pretty she didn't need any makeup, just lipstick," says her sister--smiles at the camera with her youngest daughter, Juliana, in her lap. Beside her is...no one. Maria Martinez cut out Humberto's face from what was once a family portrait.

"I did it after what happened," she explains.
Little cracks had begun to appear in Olivia's picture-perfect family existence. Humberto was not the husband she expected; In fact, he was not her husband at all, never having made good on his pledge to marry her. He did, however, have two previous marriages, and two children from those past relationships.

"At first, Olivia told me they were going to get married. She wanted to get married," says Luis, who had known Olivia since her first stay in Dallas. "Then time passed; she got pregnant. I asked if they weren't going to get married, and she said Humberto had never mentioned it again."

Says Martinez: "Olivia had all the dreams of a young woman--she wanted to have a family, plan for the future. But the truth is, Humberto was not the husband she wanted. Olivia wanted someone who would come home from work and spend time with her. She was almost always alone, and that made her unhappy.

"He wasn't the type to hit a woman or say mean things to her," she continues. "He was just the type to do whatever he wanted without worrying about the person he was with."

Just what Humberto was doing with his time became clear last December 3, when he was arrested in a huge federal drug bust.

Humberto, known as "Beto" in his crime circle, and 25 other men were indicted on federal drug trafficking charges. Their ring moved 15-pound lots of homemade methamphetamine from California and much larger amounts of cocaine--as much as 115 kilos at once--over the Mexican border to Dallas.

Run by Humberto's cousin, Daniel Virgen, the ring included several of Humberto's brothers--a family that previously had been bakery workers--and was centered at several family-owned homes and rented apartments in northwest Dallas and Garland. "They moved a lot of drugs," says Jerri Sims, the assistant U.S. Attorney who prosecuted the case. "Various of them had weapons, but we didn't prove up much violence. They'd threaten each other, but we never had any evidence of anything being carried out."

The investigation--which ended up with 519 federal, state, and local cops on the witness list--included extensive wiretaps, and Sims says authorities were familiar with Olivia, who was usually referred to in Virgen family conversations as Erika, one of her mesera names. At the clubs she also went by the name Veronica.

Apparently, Olivia knew little of the family's drug business. "She was never arrested and never testified at any hearing," Sims says. After her slaying, authorities explored and quickly rejected any link between her and the drug prosecutions.

In early July, just a week after Olivia's death, Humberto pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute methamphetamines and cocaine, as well as money laundering, and was sentenced to 30 years.

"I don't think Olivia knew everything about Humberto," Martinez says. "She never told me. I found out through the TV news. Humberto dressed very simply, without any excesses, and they lived in a simple apartment, like she always had. She kept it looking nice, because she had a knack for those things. She liked sewing, and would make her own curtains, her own clothes."

After Humberto's arrest, Olivia moved in with his sister, Maria, and Marlene Virgen, whose husband, Blas Virgen, had also been arrested in the bust.

For the first few months, Olivia believed Humberto when he told her he would be out soon. She waited, pawning her jewelry and then selling the car she had in her name to maintain her children.

"She needed to buy diapers, milk, and food, and help me with the mortgage payments," says Marlene Virgen. "My husband was in jail also, and I have two sons."

As Humberto languished in the federal lockup in Seagoville awaiting trial, Olivia became convinced she was on her own again. She returned to the one job she knew she could easily get--one that would allow her to support herself and her daughters while watching them during the day. She became a mesera again, this time at Mike's El Socio.

"Olivia was always here during the day, taking care of the kids. She'd leave for work maybe 6:30, 7 in the evening, and she'd always come home on time, around 2:30 a.m.," says Marlene Virgen, who asserts she did not know what Olivia did, in spite of the strange hours she kept.

"There is a certain stigma attached to the job," Luis says. "Just working in a nightclub can give you a bad reputation. And if she were in Mexico, forget it--people call you all kinds of things."

No doubt the disreputable nature of the work, along with Olivia's reserved nature and Humberto's jealousy, explains why she did not tell her in-laws exactly what her job consisted of. Initially, she did not even tell Maria Martinez, her sister.

"When she told us, even my husband was mad," Martinez says. "I tried to give her better advice, but once you have children and you are on your own, you have to make your own decisions. If I had told her not to work there, how would she have fed her children?"

All of this was clearly taking a toll on Olivia.
"She was depressed, not having anyone to go to," remembers Luis. "Here in the U.S. it is hard, harder than in Mexico, where she would have had her family. Here there is no support, and a woman alone can have really hard times."

Olivia, described by friends and family as "very serious, very reserved" and prone to "keeping her problems to herself," eventually began to reveal her dejection and hopelessness to the few friends she had.

"She was really tense, and I would see her very sad," says her sister. "It had been months since I had seen her really smile."

Even Sandra, who stands under a blue plastic canopy outside Mike's El Socio selling the meat tacos she grills on the spot, recalls Olivia as a quiet, lonely girl who once mentioned to her that she was saving money to go back to Mexico. Sandra, who has been feeding customers and meseras outside Mike's for more than a year, also remembers that Olivia never had company: "She ate her tacos quickly, standing by herself. She wasn't one to chat. Only three times did I see her with someone. The same man came with her three times, and bought her two tacos for dinner [on the night she was killed]. They seemed to be arguing."

Sandra's description of Olivia's friend that night matches the police's suspect: dark, slender, young.

She was one of the last people to see Olivia alive.

Jesse Trevino, a no-nonsense cop who's been solving murders in Dallas for more than a decade, points his cigar toward the weedy edge of Santa Fe Street in Old East Dallas. It is a stretch of road along an abandoned rail line, bordering a patch of green space known as Randall Park.

It is where Maria Perales' body was dumped, probably in the early-morning hours after Valentine's Day.

"Reviewing the crime scene here, what we see is the girl ended up face-up, right in front of this fence," Trevino says, motioning toward a teetering cedar wall where some graffiti has been painted out. "Her legs were in the street. You can see there aren't any street lights, or corner lights...which is probably why he dumped the body here. This was a successful episode for him."

Trevino's man, or at least his chief suspect, is a young Hispanic who was seen with each of the women leaving the clubs on the nights of their deaths.

That's about all police know.
"The man leaving the clubs with both women matches a very general description," the detective explains. "He's a Hispanic male, thin, about five feet eight inches tall, wears his hair short in the front and long in the back, and possibly goes by the nickname 'Flaco,' which is quite appropriate." (Flaco means thin or lean.)

He dresses in Western attire, may have had a light moustache, and possibly could have a defective right hand--all details provided by people at the bars.

"The guy probably is in pretty good shape," Trevino adds. "He's aware he can overpower a smaller female. He's probably gonna be a skilled laborer or construction worker. He's going to be physically fit."

There are links between the two murders in the women's employment, the manner of death, the description of the suspect, and the fact that both bodies were nude and dumped in lightly traveled areas.

In the case of Olivia Hernandez, there is evidence that she was killed where she was found, at a spot between several gravel piles in the 11200 block of Harry Hines Boulevard, just south of Royal Lane. A parking lot was under construction when the slaying took place. It has been completed since. Both bodies were found within hours of their deaths.

Autopsies also reveal that both women had engaged in sex before their deaths--perhaps voluntarily, because there was no evidence of force. Trevino refuses to confirm or deny whether police have DNA evidence linking the crimes, which would be easily obtainable because of the sexual contact. "We have evidence," he rumbles after being badgered a few times with the question. "Don't twist my arm."

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.

Meseras typically pick whom they are going to entertain, but usually there is only one criterion, Laura explains. "If they have the money, we can talk all evening. They talk and dance, and they keep drinking and paying, and that way the night passes. Everyone wants to dance, so to be with us, they have to pay for our drinks. Their drinks are at regular prices. Ours aren't."

The mesera's beer might cost $5. The club in turn might kick $3 or $4 back to her.

"There are places that give you only half of what you make," Laura says. "There are places where a mesera will always make under $100 a night because they don't pay well. Sometimes the bar pays you directly, maybe $30 or $35 a night, but when they do, they want part of your tips."

Despite the obvious business relationships between the women and the bars, owners of the clubs where the two slain women worked say meseras aren't employees. In fact, they hardly acknowledge the two women were in their clubs at all.

Arturo Luna, owner of Mike's El Socio, declined twice to acknowledge he is who he is. On a third pass, he agreed to talk at the club, which is on Samuell Boulevard, behind a Centennial beer store. On this booze-soaked strip across from the Tenison public golf course, 15 liquor stores occupy a five-block stretch.

Luna, speaking hurriedly, concedes only that Olivia Hernandez "came in once in a while."

"Every three weeks or so, and she would tell lies and say she needed money and ask me for work," he says, without a trace of sympathy. "I would give her work as a waitress, and she would disappear again."

Luna's account was charitable compared to some of the things Ahmed Khan and his wife, Esther Khan, owners of the Tapatio Club on South Central Expressway, had to say about Maria Perales.

As they retreated from the purple-and-black steel barn of a tavern as a reporter approached, Ahmed said his club needs meseras to attract business. Yet his wife, talking almost simultaneously, denied even having meseras at the Tapatio Club.

"We want a family atmosphere," says Ahmed Khan, whose bar advertises "Ambiente seguro y familiar": a safe and friendly atmosphere.

Esther Khan, a heavy-set Hispanic woman, spoke a bit more the following day from behind the service window of the Tapatio taco stand, a loud blue building a block west of the club.

"I don't know her," she said of Maria Perales. "People come in my club for years, and I don't know them. Why don't you ask her mother?

"They [young women] come in and sit and maybe dance, have men buy them drinks. They leave, and I don't know what they do. I don't know. I'm not their mother."

Dallas police ask that anyone with information about these cases contact detectives at the homicide division, (214) 670-1633.

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