By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Laura Sanchez glances at the gold watch on her wrist. She looks up and smiles stiffly. She only has an hour, she says, fidgeting with the pearl ring on her finger. And then she has to catch a flight to Monterrey, Mexico. She needs to escape; she needs to stop thinking about the men who killed her son.
She is a short woman, plump and sturdy. She is always well put together. This morning, her dark hair is pulled back in a ponytail. She is in her mid-50s, and while she is a pretty woman, there is a weathered look to her face. The last few years have not been kind to her.
She is sitting in the upstairs office of El Ranchito, the popular and beloved Oak Cliff restaurant she started with her husband more than 20 years ago. Downstairs, there are dozens of pictures crowding the walls—of Tejano singers and Mexican boxers and local news anchors who have dined here. But now, at 9 a.m., the dining area is still dark.
She points to a dry-erase board on the office wall. There, in orange and blue marker, is a list of figures and plans. They are the last words her son ever wrote, groundwork for a restaurant expansion plan that never happened. She has been meaning to place some kind of plastic covering over the board to protect it.
It has been two and a half years since her son was murdered. They kidnapped him from a street not far from here, took him to a house in Duncanville, and there, in the master bedroom, they bludgeoned him with a statue. Nineteen times they smashed it into his skull. And then they shot him in the back of the head for good measure.
It took a week to find the body. They found it off Interstate 20, in a cold and wet field, under a pile of construction debris. She could not bring herself to look at the body. Oscar Sanchez Jr. was just 30 years old.
Three days ago, one of the accused killers was convicted of capital murder. While that brought some measure of peace to the family, it is not over. There is already talk of an appeal, and a second trial for an alleged accomplice could begin as early as January.
Laura Sanchez gazes across the room at an oil painting of her son. His dark hair, his big brown eyes. That smile. "I'll never understand why he had to leave so early," she says. Then she looks down and smoothes the fabric of her pink and black suit, searching for words. How is it possible to describe what she's gone through in the past two and a half years?
As if losing her son weren't horrible enough, shortly after his death the rumors began. She tried to ignore the media and the gossip, but it was impossible. First, it was suggested that her son, who was married and had a new baby girl, was secretly involved in a homosexual love triangle that led to his death. Then, during the recent trial, the defense alleged that a member of her family—her own brother—had been involved in the kidnapping scheme. To top it all off, reporters were now asking questions about her husband. A retired higher-up in the Drug Enforcement Administration had told the Dallas Observer that not only did the Sanchez patriarch serve prison time for drug charges, but that the family's restaurants were built on cocaine and heroin profits.
None of these things are true, she insists. Why suffering a horrible tragedy has invited such scrutiny, she does not know.
Her entire life, she has worked hard to achieve her dreams. She, the daughter of a chicken farmer from Monterrey, and her husband, a dishwasher with a knack for being in the right place at the right time, had come to this country from Mexico decades ago, and in the time since, they had turned themselves into the picture of an ideal American family. They owned three popular restaurants, including El Ranchito, the symbolic center of Oak Cliff's Hispanic community. They gave to charity, sponsored Cinco de Mayo celebrations and offered up the back rooms of their restaurants for community meetings. They seemed to symbolize the kind of success that every immigrant yearns for. And yet, dark forces from their native country had somehow followed them.
First those forces had taken her husband, and now they had claimed her son.
On that cold and wet January morning, on the day it all began, Oscar Sanchez Jr. was flying high. At just 30 years old, he was already head of the family business. The family owned El Ranchito and La Calle Doce in Oak Cliff and a second Calle Doce in Lakewood. Each had become a neighborhood institution, popular with cops and lawyers and Hispanic community leaders. They were homey places, full of music and always crowded.
The most popular of the three, El Ranchito, was a ramshackle place with a hurried, unfinished look. Built of brick and white stone, with a red tile roof and a brick chimney, the building looked as if it had been plucked from the Mexican countryside and plopped down on Jefferson Avenue among the pawn shops and bazaars. The restaurant was purely Mexican, just as Oscar's father had intended it.