By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
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The family's roots were in Monterrey. Both Laura Sanchez and her husband, Oscar Sanchez Sr. had grown up there, but it wasn't until they had both moved to Dallas separately that they met and fell in love.
Oscar Guadalupe Sanchez was a fun-loving and hard-drinking man whose tall stature, trim mustache and signature cowboy hats drew comparisons to handsome Mexican actors. Laura was his perfect companion, a petite powerhouse, shrewd and commanding, given to making plans and executing them. "Oscar was the creative force, he had all these good ideas, all these recipes in his head," says Jesus Sanchez, Laura's brother. "He was the guy in the kitchen. Laura had the business sense." In 1981, they opened their first restaurant in Oak Cliff. Two years later, through a combination of luck and good planning, they opened their second restaurant, El Ranchito. The restaurant became a gathering place for the neighborhood's predominantly Hispanic population, which included its fair share of shady characters.
"Oak Cliff was a different place back then," Jesus Sanchez remembers. "Everybody was into something. At the time most of the business people in Oak Cliff...well, if you follow them, they're all in jail."
According to Phil Jordan, the former head of the Dallas division of the Drug Enforcement Administration, El Ranchito was a transit hub for the distribution of cocaine and heroin. A currently active informant claims to have been the direct link between the restaurant and the Herrera family, which specialized in the trafficking of heroin.
This informant also told the Observer that the family operated an illegal casino at the restaurant after hours, and that it was not uncommon for people to be there into the wee hours of the morning, snorting cocaine and getting high.
Laura Sanchez would not address these allegations, but her brother Jesus says they have been blown out of proportion. If Oscar Sanchez Sr. had a vice, he says, it was his affinity for a good time. "He loved to drink his tequilas, he loved to every once in a while smoke a joint, but he never dealt drugs," Jesus Sanchez says. "The problem with him is he had too many friends. It was the '80s, and cocaine was a big deal. A couple of his good friends got put in jail for doing that. The way they got him was a friend of his came over to the restaurant with somebody and said, 'Hey, this guy needs a couple kilos of coke.' And the only thing Oscar did was pick up the phone, and they got him just because of that."
The elder Sanchez spent eight months in an Oklahoma federal prison on a drug trafficking conspiracy charge. Upon his release, his green card was revoked and he was sent back to Mexico. For the next eight years until his death, his wife flew to Monterrey each weekend to visit him on the family ranch. According to Jesus Sanchez, Oscar Sr. died in 1999 of a heart attack or a brain aneurysm—the family is not sure which—while cooking eggs at his ranch. But in Oak Cliff, it is rumored that he's still alive. Some say that like the famed drug lord Amado Carrillo Fuentes, he underwent plastic surgery to evade the law, which still hunted him. Others, including Jordan, the former DEA chief, say he was executed by cartel-linked drug runners for ratting them out to the feds.
If Oscar Sanchez Jr. was aware of the rumors about his father, he did not speak of them to his friends. And if there was, as has been alleged, an ugly underbelly to the family business, the boy was completely shielded from it. His uncle Juan says Oscar Jr. was rarely at the restaurants as a boy except to eat.
To his friends, he seemed like any other kid growing up in Oak Cliff in the '80s. He liked videogames and the Dallas Cowboys and the music of the rock band KISS. He made friends easily. "He had no pretension," says Gomez, who grew up just blocks away. "He was like his dad in that he was comfortable talking to anyone."
His self-confidence probably came from the nurturing environment in which he was raised. Uncles and aunts lived just blocks away. On Sundays the large extended family often gathered at their grandmother's house for dinner. And even after Oscar's father was exiled to Mexico, the two remained close. Oscar Jr. traveled regularly to the ranch to visit, often taking his friends with him. Sometimes, they rode horseback in the desert together, pushing their horses as fast as they could go. Oscar's father, who could be an intimidating presence, entertained them with stories from his colorful life.
By the time Oscar left for college, it seemed the world was at his feet, and he couldn't get enough of it. He and his tight circle of friends, which had followed him to the University of Texas, traveled to Spain, New York, Miami—often on the spur of the moment. For road trips, Oscar burned CDs of all kinds of music, from the Wu-Tang Clan to Junior Brown. He ate up the works of Noam Chomsky, highlighting passages from Manufacturing Consent and dragging his girlfriend (and future wife) Theresa along with him to hear the philosopher speak when he visited the Austin campus.