By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Fermin Vazquez's widow is not certain her husband's zoning fight with neighbors of his North Oak Cliff business and their City Hall allies was the ultimate reason he put a .380-caliber handgun to his chest last month and fired a bullet into his heart, but she says there are clues it was. "It made him depressed," Alma Vazquez says. "It happened in his office. That's where he went to do it."
The 29-year-old operator of Lucano Transports, a company that runs buses to the interior of Mexico, died only two days before an important deadline in a year-old battle over his business. Bowing to pressure from neighborhood activists in the gentrifying area, Vazquez had promised the city in late February he would close the little depot on West Davis Street by July 31 and move.
Vazquez had only two payments left on the $2,124-a-month mortgage, but he conceded to city officials that the business, which in five years expanded from running small vans to 52-seat coaches, had outgrown the corner lot and the 1960s gas station that served as the depot. In the five months he had available to find a new space, he had located a site, but had not completed the move, Alma Vazquez says.
In the days after her husband's death, Vazquez was consumed with making arrangements to bury him, taking over the business and finding a way to continue as the new head of her family. She was left to raise an 8-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter, make payments on the family home a few blocks from the depot and run a business with ongoing loans and insurance bills.
A few days after his death, she put her husband's body on one of his buses and shipped it to his hometown of Matehuala, Mexico, for burial. Less than a week after she returned, on August 7, a Dallas code enforcement officer wrote the business the first ticket for failing to close. The next week, there was another. "I need to make money. My babies need to eat. I can't close," Vazquez explains.
The 30-year-old, wearing a black dress, a black hair ribbon and a small gold cross, is composed and somber as she tells her story. When her husband was alive, she worked handling bills and paperwork, but he ran the small family-owned concern. A brother and other family members run Lucano depots in five other cities and one in Mexico.
Vazquez, who speaks only limited English, enlisted the help of Amanda Moreno, the owner of four small businesses on Davis Street, and Jamie Chapa, manager of Moreno's Oak Cliff Coffee House, to help her approach the city. She wanted more time to make the move. Moreno called City Manager Ted Benavides for a meeting and was told that Assistant City Manager Charles Daniels would meet with them.
When Vazquez and Chapa arrived at City Hall last Monday, they say they were hardly prepared for what they were about to confront.
In the room were City Councilwoman Laura Miller, Daniels, Code Compliance Director James Mongaras and several staff members, including an assistant city attorney.
"It seemed like we were in a room where only Laura Miller was present," Chapa says. "The rest were like those little dogs in the rear of your car. Their heads bob up and down, like they were animated. She offered her condolences, but she refused to give us any additional time. She said she fully intended to file a lawsuit to shut the business down. 'Either close it down or we'll shut you down.' Those were real close to her exact words."
Vazquez, who recalls the same words, asked as a compromise whether she could continue to sell tickets at the depot and load buses elsewhere. "Miller said, 'I don't know about that. The only thing I know is your CO [certificate of occupancy] is revoked.'"
Chapa says he asked if Vazquez could be granted six months, then 30 days, then one week. "When we got to a week, Laura and the city attorney left the conference room to have a private conversation. There was this burst of laughter from them, and they came back. The attorney said, 'I'm sorry. The answer is no.'"
Miller, commenting a week after the meeting, says, "I have a lot of compassion for this woman, but this is a situation that has been going on for three years, and this is a Texas corporation, not a small one-location business run by one widow. They made a firm legal commitment to the city in writing that they'd be out of that facility by July 31, and they really did nothing to meet their obligation as a corporation."
She says Alma Vazquez "has had 27 days as of today to get out of that facility" and in effect has been given an extension because the city hasn't padlocked the depot's doors.
Miller confirms that she called code enforcement officials--in the first few days of August--to get them to start writing tickets and applying a little heat.
Mongaras, whose officers began carrying out that enforcement within days, says, "The city is not unsympathetic to the family, but the city also has the responsibility to enforce its ordinances. There was a written agreement, signed by Mr. Vazquez, that he was going to move the business. Five months had passed, and it appears nothing was in motion to make that come about." It's city policy, not Miller's, he says. Miller did much of the talking at the meeting with Vazquez because Chapa directed his comments at her.