By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Like all the other guests invited to Mayor Laura Miller's black-tie fundraiser, Ralph Isenberg and his girlfriend left their car in a parking lot and boarded a DART bus. Though both were underdressed for the occasion, Miller had invited them at the last minute, and Isenberg wanted her to get to know the new love in his life.
Not only was Miller one of his best friends, the mayor had propelled the wealthy property manager into the public eye by appointing him to several city boards. In 2000, Miller and Isenberg had fought together, raising money to save an aging city swimming pool in Oak Cliff, where both lived. The campaign was instrumental in positioning Miller as a populist in her first race for mayor.
On the park board, Isenberg built a reputation as a maverick in Miller's mold, often on the losing side of 12-1 and 14-1 votes. Prickly, blunt and emotional, Isenberg came off as eccentric, once aggravating a homeowner in Oak Cliff by sending out his employees to paint over gang graffiti on her property without asking her permission. But his commitment to improving Dallas south of the Trinity River was unquestioned.
Isenberg's close ties with many of Dallas' wealthiest business and civic leaders like Pryor Blackwell, Trammell Crow and Norman Brinker gave him a quiet kind of clout. His associates might think Isenberg was sometimes zany--like when he pulled out a pack of tarot cards in a business meeting to "read" the outcome of Jerry Jones' quest for a new Cowboys stadium--but he had an instinct for good deals.
The couple stepped off the bus at the entrance to the palatial mansion of Fred Baron and Lisa Blue, who'd become extremely wealthy through asbestos litigation. Inside, a woman operating the check-in table sized them up: the pale, pear-shaped man with wire-rim glasses on a dumpling face and, on his arm, the beautiful Chinese woman with high cheekbones, red lips and long black hair.
"I've got blue jeans on, and Nicole's schlepping," Isenberg recalls. "The lady was horrified when we came in the door."
The greeter noted their names weren't on the list as paying guests. "Just tell the mayor Ralph's here," Isenberg insisted. Minutes later, the couple was ushered into a private area to meet with Miller, who hugged Isenberg and warmly greeted his paramour.
Miller had learned about the love affair months after Isenberg fell hard for Nicole--Chinese name Hu Yanhong. Miller had met her at a neighborhood store soon after Isenberg's wife of 30 years moved out of their Kessler Park home and Nicole moved in. But Isenberg was insistent--some would say pushy--about bringing his lover into his posh world, taking Nicole to the symphony, to the wedding of Trammell Crow Jr., to a civic event with Rudy Giuliani.
No one who saw Nicole would have ever guessed her secret. She looked like a well-groomed Dallas housewife who happened to be Chinese. A few confidants knew the truth: She had been a "masseuse" in a local bathhouse when she and Isenberg met. But even those insiders didn't know Nicole had been convicted of prostitution.
And neither Isenberg nor Nicole realized there was a document sitting in a court file ordering her deportation back to China. When that document surfaced, Isenberg's love for Nicole would lead him to wage war on the federal government, a federal magistrate with a questionable reputation and a Texas prison where illegal immigrants are held--anything to keep his beloved pretty woman by his side.
Nicole had come to the United States on Christmas Day in 1999 on a short-term visa and had been trying ever since to become a permanent resident, first by requesting asylum based on her practice of the banned Falun Gong movement, then on the basis of her marriage to a Taiwanese man who had become a U.S. citizen.
Isenberg's friends told him that Nicole was just using him, a belief reinforced in late 2003 when she was arrested and sent to a detention center for deportation. After 9/11, immigrants who overstayed their visas weren't cut much slack.
Nicole's incarceration triggered a battle royal between Isenberg and a division of Homeland Security with the James Bond-worthy acronym ICE--Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In the process, Isenberg initiated media and government investigations of the detention center. Then he took on Immigration Judge D. Anthony Rogers.
ICE general counsel Paul Hunker, inundated with letters of support for Nicole from prominent business and political leaders, including Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson and Pete Sessions and the entire Dallas City Council, has criticized Isenberg for using his wealth and influence to thwart immigration law. In a public statement, Hunker has called Nicole's "one of the most egregious cases of immigration fraud" he's seen in 12 years. Judge Rogers accused Isenberg of trying to kill him and threatened to throttle him if they were ever in the same room.
Isenberg feared that once Nicole was deported, she wouldn't be allowed back into the United States for 10 years--and perhaps never. He managed to win Nicole's release and extensions from the government, but his tactics alienated the decision-makers even as the stakes had risen: Nicole was now his wife and the mother of his adoptive daughter and newborn baby.