By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Cliff Cook stood outside the small frame house, pacing in the darkness and trying to process it all. The back bedroom was crowded with firefighters and paramedics trying to revive the girl. From where the detective stood, he could see it all through an open window.
He looked around. It was a nice enough street, lined with magnolia trees. Some of the yards were shabby, just plots of dirt, really, but there were tidy brick homes too, with well-trimmed lawns and flower gardens. A few years ago, you could walk down this street to the corner market in the middle of the night. No more. Now the store had bars on its windows.
Like the rest of Fort Worth, the neighborhood had changed. There had been 182 major crimes in the area the year before, everything from larceny to murder. This year, the area already had close to that many, and it was only August. Cook himself was carrying a caseload of 20 murders, and that was nothing. Some of the detectives would carry 40 that year.
"Mama," the little girl wrote once, "take me away from this place." But her mama never did, and now the girl was lying there, barely breathing.
Her name was Vanessa Villa. Like other girls her age, she liked to dress in pink and wear her hair in a ponytail. At school, she was part of the Courtesy Patrol, no doubt because of her friendly personality. She wasn't the best student, mostly because she had yet to master English, but she tried hard and was well-liked by teachers and the office staff alike.
That day, August 3, 1986, she had gone to a flea market in Dallas where she worked selling belts, shoes and other clothing. When she got home that night she said she wasn't hungry. It seemed like something was bothering her.
At about 9 p.m. her mother left to buy milk. Vanessa said she wanted to stay home with her baby sister and listen to music. She went into her mother's bedroom, put in a cassette of sad Spanish love songs and lay down.
The detective scanned the crime scene. This one wouldn't be easy to solve. The dresser and other furniture had been shoved aside by the paramedics trying to get to the girl. Few, if any, of the people who lived in the house spoke English. On top of that, the rooms in the house had been partitioned off for boarders who came and went. Any male who had been in the house was a suspect. Locating them all was going to be difficult.
The detective looked down and noticed an overturned 5-gallon bucket at his feet. It was a white pickle bucket, the kind used in restaurants. An imprint of the bucket was plainly visible in the dirt. The killer had probably used it to boost himself up, and it had tipped over. He had then removed a box fan from the window, climbed across the dresser and entered the room. In all likelihood, he was someone the girl knew, for she had not screamed loud enough for a neighbor to hear, and the houses on the street were only a few feet apart.
Looking at the girl through the window, there was no outward sign she was dying or that she was even hurt. There were no marks around her neck, no cuts or bruises on her face. She could have been sleeping, which is what her mother thought when she got back from the store. "What's wrong with you?" she had asked when she entered the room, because Vanessa was naked from the waist down. "Cover up." But Vanessa had not responded. Precious minutes had passed since, and now the girl was almost gone. Within an hour she would be dead.
Days later, the family held a wake at their home. The mourners came in their Sunday best and in their work clothes. They walked up the brick pathway that cut through the yard and up the worn wooden steps and into the living room, where the coffin had been placed. One of them, the police would come to believe, was Vanessa's killer. He was short, about 5-foot-4, and soft-spoken. He was unremarkable in every way except for one: He had the capacity to kill a girl and then to pass in front of her casket without arousing suspicion. He was also capable of killing repeatedly. And if Fort Worth police are right, over the next 20 years, that's exactly what he did.