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.
His father, a legend in Oak Cliff, had been gone for years. While Oscar shared many of the man's traits, he was also very different. Unlike his father, a self-made immigrant, Oscar had grown up with wealth and comfort. A graduate of the University of Texas, he was brainy and cultured. Friends said he regularly read The New York Times cover to cover and that his musical interests ranged from mariachi music to jazz. And while his father was a garrulous man, even rowdy, Oscar was more gentle, like his mother.
He was also fully American. While he was proud of his Mexican heritage, it did not define him, and he floated seamlessly between the Chicano world of his neighborhood and the broader Anglo world at large. His friends were white, black and Jewish, and he had remained close to all of them, from elementary school until now. In fact, he had roomed with three of his closest friends at UT, and now they were all back in Oak Cliff living just blocks apart, beginning their own families.
That January morning, he was on his way to a meeting to lay the plans for the expansion of El Ranchito. He believed the restaurant's distinctive flair would be a hit anywhere, in Arizona, in California, throughout the Southwest and beyond.
He was on the phone with his mother, whom he'd become even closer to since his father's death. They talked daily, often several times, and shared a love of the Cowboys and the Mavs. It wasn't rare to see the three of them—Oscar, his wife and his mother—sitting together at Mavs games. They were a tight-knit bunch, and now there was a fourth to add to the mix. Just six weeks before, Oscar's wife had given birth to a baby girl named Helena.
He would reach the restaurant shortly, he told his mother as he rolled through Winnetka Heights, a gentrifying section of Oak Cliff defined by handsome prairie-style homes with lush lawns and big leafy trees. Even in the dead of winter, the lawns brown and the trees naked, the neighborhood had a warm, cheery feel. He had grown up here and now lived only blocks away from the intersection he was entering, Winnetka and Canty.
Suddenly, a car slammed him from behind. Not hard, but maybe enough to do damage. He told his mother not to worry, it was just a fender-bender. And then she heard him say something that at the time seemed inconsequential but, looking back, would be one of the most important things he ever said. It would eventually lead police to his killers. "Oh, hi Richie," he said. And then the line went dead.
Those three words. And then silence.
Laura Sanchez tried to stay calm, but she knew something was wrong. The meeting at the restaurant was about to start, and Oscar was not picking up his phone. After five or 10 long minutes, she decided to drive to Winnetka and Canty—where the accident had occurred—just to make sure everything was OK.
By the time she arrived, a police officer was already on the scene. Oscar's car was there, and the driver's side door was ajar, but Oscar was nowhere in sight. She approached the officer and explained the strange sequence of events that had ended with the dropped call. Oscar had said the name Richie, she thought, and she had an employee with that name. The officer suggested she call the restaurant and get his contact information. And then her phone rang.
Oscar blurted out that he had been kidnapped. By whom, he didn't know, but he pleaded that she not call the cops. "The cops are standing right here," she said. They were words she would regret. For months, she would play the conversation over in her mind, wondering how things might have turned out had she not mentioned that the police were involved. Oscar's frantic call ended abruptly. Within minutes, her phone rang again. This time, in a voice distorted by an electronic device, the kidnapper laid out his demand.
"Three million dollars?" Laura said. She was shaking, her heart pounding. "I don't have three million dollars. I don't have that kind of money."
Over the next half-hour, while an FBI task force was brought on board, other family members began arriving on the scene. Oscar's wife Theresa had been at a baby class with her friend Paloma Gomez, who had known Oscar since the seventh grade. Gomez had taken the call, and at first she thought it was a joke. "Oscar kidnapped? Yeah, right." Later, she would struggle to find words to describe how she felt when it dawned on her that it was no joke. "It was like a weird dream," she said. In a daze, she and Theresa rushed home. Gomez stayed with the baby, while Theresa hurried to Winnetka and Canty.
It seemed like everybody was there. Jesus, Oscar's good-looking uncle who ran La Calle Doce in Lakewood; his uncle Juan, shorter and darker, known for his spot-on Elvis impersonations. Cousins, wives, friends—just as they had all been together a few weeks before at Helena's baptism.
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.
And like his father, Oscar knew how to have a good time. When he and Theresa got married, the family chartered a bus to take 100 of Oscar's closest friends down to the wedding in Mexico. The ceremony was held at an old Spanish church just off the town square in Villa de Garcia, where Oscar's father lived on the family ranch. "It was pouring down rain," remembers best man John Lendvay. "And after they were declared husband and wife, the doors of the church opened and it had stopped raining and it was the most beautiful crisp sky. The roads looked like they had been freshly washed and it left this magical mist over the city."
The wedding party traveled back to the ranch, which was surrounded by large fruit trees and bougainvillea, and there, near the swimming pool and the stately ranch house, they danced until daybreak. The open desert stretched around them for miles in every direction. The future seemed filled with limitless possibilities.
As time passed, Oscar's friends scattered—to Puerto Rico and Chile and Miami—chasing jobs and boyfriends and opportunities to study abroad. But eventually many of them would return to Oak Cliff. In the days before his death, Oscar would often say how happy he was that they had all wound up back in the old neighborhood. It was such a rare thing, to have a circle of friends that had been together since childhood. They went dancing together and barbecued at Oscar and Theresa's house, and now they were having children at the same time. They were young, financially comfortable and blissfully happy.
Now those friends could only wonder why someone would kidnap Oscar Sanchez Jr.
While members of the Sanchez family paced and stood nervously at the intersection of Winnetka and Canty, wondering where Oscar had been taken and if he was OK, the police officer told Laura and Theresa they would have to go down to DPD headquarters. In the meantime, Laura should keep her cell line open in case the kidnappers called again. The rest of the family went to La Calle Doce in Oak Cliff to wait.
Oscar's uncles Jesus and Juan, who managed two of the family restaurants, couldn't figure it out. Richie Acevedo? The young, effeminate Mexican immigrant who waited tables at El Ranchito? How could he be involved in something like this? And wasn't he in France? He had recently called a co-worker from there, saying he was looking at the Eiffel Tower.
But they had nothing else to go on. Richie's address on his employment records was on Forest Lane, but he no longer lived there, one of the mariachis at the restaurant told them. He'd been to a party at Richie's house, he said, and the former waiter now lived in Duncanville.
By that time, police had traced the ransom call to a prepaid cell phone bought with a credit card by a Jose Felix, whose listed address was 302 Royal Avenue in Duncanville. At around 3 p.m., Oscar's uncles sent someone over to the house. There was movement inside. Shouldn't they just bust the door down? But the police, who were still waiting for authorization to set up surveillance, told them to hold tight. Looking back, the family would consider it a crucial moment in time, a missed opportunity to intervene. Meanwhile, back at police headquarters, detectives were rushing to prepare a warrant to search the house.
Throughout the afternoon, there had been calls from the kidnappers. The voice on the other end was garbled and strange. At times, Laura had a hard time making it out. She didn't have $3 million, she said. The best she could do was $78,000. Without much argument, the voice on the other end agreed. She would put the money in a double plastic bag and drop it off in Arlington, off Abram Street.
By this time darkness was falling. A team of plainclothes policemen was watching the house on Royal Avenue. It was a little ranch house, brick with white shutters, in a nice, tree lined-neighborhood. The officers parked far enough away so as not to arouse suspicion and waited. But there was no movement inside. It appeared no one was home.
At the same time, a group of FBI agents and DPD officers were meeting in Arlington behind a large warehouse. Three officers would do the drop, one driving and two on the ground. The money, which was fake, and a tracking device would be placed in the plastic bags.
By 3 a.m., no one had shown up. What was worse, the kidnappers had stopped calling. The command post at Royal Avenue got word: It was time to enter the house. Detectives followed heavily armored SWAT agents as they busted down the door and swarmed into the sparsely furnished house. At the end of a hall, they reached the master bedroom. There, the furniture was in disarray and some of it was broken. The bed was rumpled and messy, with blood soaking the sheets and mattress. Blood seemed to be everywhere—smeared on the walls and windows and bedside table. Pieces of a broken black statuette lay on the bedside table and appeared to be covered in blood. The officers found a fired bullet on the bed, as well as two .25-caliber bullet casings and a black ski mask. Wherever Oscar Sanchez was, his chances of survival seemed slim.
Laura kept thinking about Richie Acevedo. She barely knew the young waiter, had maybe spoken to him three times during his years at El Ranchito. They always spoke in Spanish. Did he even speak English? The garbled and distorted kidnapper's voice spoke fluent English.
There was a point during the failed ransom negotiations when the kidnappers hung up on her, and she thought, "They've killed my son." But she pushed the thought away, forced herself not to listen. The thought grew stronger when the police described what they had found at the house on Royal Avenue. But still, she held out hope. Maybe they were keeping him somewhere; maybe he'd survived.
The kidnappers ceased to call after that first day, but the police continued to monitor the men's phone and traced calls placed throughout the Midwest. As they searched for the kidnappers and for any sign of Oscar, sketchy outlines of the suspects began to emerge. Jose Alberto Felix, 28, owned the Duncanville house, the ransom phone and the white Chevy Cavalier that was used in the kidnapping. He held a law degree from Mexico and worked as a bilingual teacher at Fannin Elementary. Strangely, he had stopped showing up for work two months earlier. His roommate, Edgar "Richie" Acevedo, was described as a "flamboyant" 24-year-old from Mexico who liked to dress in drag. He had left his job at El Ranchito around the same time Felix vanished from Fannin Elementary.
The two had been friends and roommates for several years. They'd shared a Forest Lane apartment, and later, when Felix bought the house in Duncanville and he and his boyfriend, Michael Mitchell, moved into it, Acevedo began renting the master bedroom. Mitchell grew irritated when Felix began spending more and more time with Acevedo, bar-hopping and clubbing and taking trips to Chicago and Hawaii. Tension mounted and Mitchell told Felix he wished he would stay home more often. Nothing changed, and eventually, Mitchell moved out—on January 9, 2005—nine days before Oscar Sanchez was kidnapped.
Felix's family didn't know what to make of his friendship with Acevedo. They came from such different backgrounds. Felix grew up in much the same way that Oscar Sanchez had. His family owned several homes, his mother ran a store and held public office in Sinaloa, he had attended prestigious Catholic schools and graduated with a law degree, and his siblings were stylish professionals. Acevedo, on the other hand, had grown up as one of seven living in a one-room adobe shack in the Mexican interior. Relatives in his Zacatecas village told a Dallas Morning News reporter that as a boy, Acevedo tended goats and worked in the cornfields. The town he had grown up in had only one satellite phone; there were more chickens than television sets. His brothers told the News that they had never really liked him. An aunt said the boy had always been rebellious and distant, often disappearing to tend his goats in the mountains. According to relatives and neighbors in Dallas, Acevedo felt out of place and isolated as a young gay man growing up in a traditional Mexican hamlet.
He left home looking to reinvent himself, and after working in a factory on the border and moving to Dallas in 1999, he did—as a devilish, drug-peddling drag queen.
Felix and Acevedo had widely divergent personalities. Felix, who went by the nickname "Bebo," was described by friends and co-workers as a gentle man who helped other teachers with their computers, provided friends with free legal advice and even told a pregnant friend that if she would have her baby instead of aborting it he would help her care for it. In contrast, Acevedo was known as a heavy drinker with a volatile temper who stalked former boyfriends. One night in 2002, after a boyfriend left him for another man, he showed up at his ex's new residence uninvited. "He'd been watching us for a month," Antonio Parada would later testify in Spanish. "Someone knocked on the door and I saw it was Richie...He was knocking really hard. When I opened the door, the expression on his face—it was as if he were the devil." Acevedo had threatened Parada before. He'd said that he had killed a man in Mexico and knew powerful people there who would do his bidding. Parada had dismissed those stories, but that night, as Acevedo stood in his doorway, they all seemed plausible. "It doesn't matter if you hide under the rocks, I'm going to find you," Parada said Acevedo told him. Parada said when he grabbed his phone to call the police, Acevedo ripped it from his hand. "You're not calling anyone," he told him. "Watch out." Then he left.
By the time Acevedo met Felix, their stations in life weren't all that different. Unable to find work as a lawyer in the United States, Felix had taken a job at Taco Bell before signing on as a bilingual teacher with the Dallas Independent School District. Life had not gone according to plan for either man.
Just weeks before the kidnapping, the two friends paid a visit to Acevedo's cousin at her Dallas home. Antonia Acevedo would later tell the Morning News that her cousin bragged about the money he made selling drugs and liked to date older men who treated him lavishly. He was planning to leave town, he told her, and bid her goodbye. "He told me, 'I'm having some problems. I need to get out of here,"' she said. "He said he had one last business deal pending, and that if it went well he might go to Mexico for a while."
On January 23, five days after Oscar disappeared, Felix was arrested at Midway International Airport in Chicago, about to board a plane for Mexico. News footage showed a small, frail man, his back hunched and his head down, his arms dangling by his side as officers led him to the Dallas County jail. Neither he nor Acevedo, who police had learned was already at large in Mexico, had the look of kidnappers or killers. "Never in a million years would I have thought it was these two feminine-looking people," Laura would say later. "I thought it was someone professional."
After his arrest, Felix told police that Acevedo had kidnapped him too and forced his participation. He said he was in the house that morning when Acevedo came in with two other men—one had a bag over his head and was led into the master bedroom. The other, he said, wore a ski mask and didn't reveal his identity. Felix claimed he didn't know anything about the ransom calls, although he was carrying a voice-altering device with an ear bud and a cell phone plug-in when police arrested him. Finally, he told police that Oscar was dead. They had dumped his body in remote southern Dallas, he said, off of Interstate 20.
Police began searching fields in Southeast Dallas by foot, air and horseback. On the first day, in a mess of bogs and brambles off Dowdy Ferry Road by the Trinity River, they found cardboard, a mop handle and a towel—all with blood on them. They continued to search for the next several days, fanning out over a broader swath of land south of Interstate 20. The landscape was ragged, the vegetation overgrown, as if it could pop up through the cement and overtake the highway. The search teams tromped through the thick brush and mud in the wet cold while fire-and-rescue crews set out in boats to troll the murky Trinity River. Meanwhile, detectives in Chicago had located Felix's pickup truck, which the men used to flee. Detectives in Dallas impounded the Cavalier used in the kidnapping and found a .25-caliber pistol in the glove box. They also found one of Felix's DISD business cards and an ID card that belonged to Acevedo.
Then, on the morning of January 27, nearly 10 days after Oscar was abducted, a detective spotted his body underneath a pile of plywood boards and construction debris. His hands were bound with duct tape. He had suffered an onslaught of blunt force blows to the head. There were some 19 gashes on his scalp, and his face was covered with scrapes and abrasions. His left index finger and right little finger were broken. Later, embedded in one of the lacerations, the medical examiner would find a gunshot wound and determine that Oscar had been shot through the back of the head.
While the Sanchez family planned the funeral, Jose Felix's attorney, John Read, held a news conference. He had made a career of taking headline-grabbing cases such as this one. A profane Vietnam vet with a thin white mustache and a taste for the theatrical, he stood before cameras wearing a black cowboy hat. "I'm here to tell you Jose Felix is not a murderer," he said with a thick Texas accent. "He doesn't have the heart for it. My understanding is there was a lot of coercion in this case, you'll find out later, lots of sex, money, things that motivate people in these kinds of cases." Had Felix not complied, Read asserted, Acevedo would have killed him or his relatives in Mexico. Read also suggested that Acevedo and Oscar had a social relationship and went to clubs together. The Dallas Morning News tracked down employees at the Hidden Door, a gay nightclub in Oak Lawn, who said they recalled seeing Oscar at the bar with the suspects. The claims outraged the Sanchez family. Not only were the comments baseless and absurd, family members said, they were cruel. Asked for comment on reports of Oscar being seen at gay clubs with his accused killers, a lawyer serving as a spokesman for the family said the news media were getting sucked into the defense's lies and called it "pure garbage." Laura Sanchez was disgusted. "That Read had the nerve to go on TV and say that, before my son was even buried," Laura would say later. "How dare he."
Oscar's friends couldn't believe it either. "We grew up in an environment where you were encouraged to be whoever you were. We went to a high school where it was almost encouraged [to be gay]," said his friend Jessica Koller, who knew Oscar since second grade. "We all knew homosexual people through our whole lives, and if he would've been [gay], he just would've been. He wasn't hiding anything."
No one in the family saw the body until it had been brought to the mortuary. When the body was prepared, Jesus saw it first. "I told my sister, 'Look, let me look at him first, OK? If he doesn't look good, I'll tell you no; if he looks good, I'll tell you yes.' I went in there, he looked good. They'd really made him up well. They'd hit him in the head so many times, but it didn't show. After me and my brother-in-law saw him, then my sister came in. It was tough. Seeing her holding him, kissing him.
"It's such a different feeling, holding a body like that. And it was her baby. He was her best friend. Every afternoon they would meet at Starbucks, they'd go have dinner three or four times a week."
Some 2,000 people turned out for the January 31 funeral at a downtown Dallas cathedral, clogging Central Expressway to the point that police had to shut down portions of the freeway to accommodate them. Hundreds stood outside the brick walls and stained glass windows of the century-old gothic-style cathedral. Television crews and reporters gathered outside the church. It was as if a local dignitary had died.
The Reverend Ramon Alvarez gave a eulogy alternating between English and Spanish. "As Oscar looks down from heaven toward us, he smiles," the priest said. "Now, he challenges us to go on with life." As mariachi music filled the cathedral, Oscar's sobbing widow followed the walnut casket out the door. Relatives consoled each other on the steps of the church while Oscar's uncle, Juan Sanchez, stood before the news cameras and read a written statement: "Oscar was a truly good person in every sense of the word who loved his wife Theresa deeply and was thankful to God for his daughter Helena. These people who committed this senseless, cruel and cowardly crime have taken away a husband, a father, a son and a leader in our community. Our family is strong and deeply united, and we will get through this, but we will never, ever forget."
It took nine months for police to track down Acevedo. On October 14—which would have been Oscar's 31st birthday—he was finally arrested in Cabo San Lucas. The Sanchez family got the news while they were gathered at Laura's for a birthday mass and celebration to honor Oscar. Laura didn't overlook the date of Acevedo's capture. "I took it as a sign of God and my son," she would say later.
Acevedo was extradited back to Dallas, and as he was escorted to jail, he seemed quite a different man from his accused accomplice. Instead of walking meekly as Felix had months before, attempting to make himself small and disappear, Acevedo walked tall and proud. He puffed up his chest and wore a smirk as he walked by the television crews. He was finally in the spotlight, where he'd always believed he belonged.
When Felix's trial began in late August, dozens of Oscar's friends and family members sat on the right side of the courtroom. Prosecutor Fred Burns warned them that graphic photographs of Oscar's beaten body would be shown to the court, and they steeled themselves. As the state presented its evidence—Felix's bloody palm print on a statuette found in the bedroom, testimony showing that Oscar had been kidnapped using Felix's car and held in his home, the voice alterer found in Felix's pocket—the defendant sat silently, listening to the Spanish translation of the proceedings through headphones. At 30, he looked as if he'd aged a decade since his arrest. His thinning hair was gray, and he was so skinny his shoulder blades were visible through the back of his suit. While prosecutors described him as an intelligent and calculating killer, Read's defense team argued that he had been intimidated by Acevedo and framed with the crime. The most dramatic day of testimony came when the defense called Dale "Tiger" Jameton.
A high-ranking member of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a notorious prison gang, Jameton said he had confessed to two capital murders. A tall, pale 29-year-old with a shaved head, Jameton walked into the courtroom wearing an orange and white prison jumpsuit. As he sat at the stand, the tattoos on his chest, arms and neck—the state of Texas covers his Adam's apple—were visible underneath his shirt.
"How'd you meet Richie?" Read asked him.
Jameton said that one day he was talking with other Dallas County jail inmates on a closed circuit intercom system, when a man who turned out to be Acevedo broke into the conversation. "What we happened to be talking about was how easy it is to manipulate homosexuals out of their money," Jameton said. "This particular guy, out of the blue, jumped into the conversation in a friendly manner and said he was hip to the games." Acevedo introduced himself as Edgar and told Jameton he knew of his "associates," and of the various deals they did—extortion, murder for hire, drugs, prostitution. "Edgar tells me the only thing standing in between his freedom is another individual," Jameton said. "He was soliciting me for murder for hire." Acevedo, he said, wanted Felix killed. In order to protect himself and his associates, Jameton told Acevedo to tell him exactly what happened on the day of the crime. "I need to know everything," Jameton said he told him. "I don't care if you killed the dude, but I need to know."
According to Jameton, Acevedo told him in accented English how he had a romantic relationship with Oscar Sanchez, his boss, and that at the same time, he'd begun a relationship with one of Oscar's uncles. One day, the uncle caught him "making out" with Oscar in the restaurant office and became upset. "This is where Edgar's little game kicked in, so he put it," Jameton said. The plan, Acevedo told him, was for him to convince the relative to help him kidnap Oscar and get the restaurant's money so they could run away together. Jameton then described a blow-by-blow of the crime as it was supposedly told to him: Before leaving the house, Acevedo struck Felix on the back of the head, blindfolded him and put him in another room. Then, with help from the Sanchez relative, Acevedo staged a car accident, kidnapped Oscar at gunpoint and brought him home. In the bedroom, Oscar tried to wrest a pistol from Acevedo, and after a struggle, Acevedo hit him on the head with the gun and shot him.
"It wasn't supposed to be like this," Jameton said. "It was supposed to be an easy lick. Things went wrong, he's a stupid kid. Thinks he knows it all. He put the hands up front and he suffered the consequences." After killing Oscar, Acevedo said he and the uncle loaded the body into the truck in the garage and forced Felix to drive to the dumping location. Acevedo wanted to kill Felix, Jameton said, but the uncle intervened. "They already killed the damn nephew," Jameton said. "He says, 'We're not killing anyone else.'"
At this point in the testimony, Felix began to wheeze and breathe heavily. He was having an asthma attack. As he leaned over and sucked on an inhaler, behind him his sister tightened her arm around the shoulders of their graying father. Jameton continued. He had agreed to kill Felix for $12,500 but was soon transferred to a different facility, he said. He told Acevedo to pass word through his associates, but instead, Acevedo wrote him a note, which mentioned the names of several of Jameton's Aryan Brotherhood cohorts and could have caused the admitted killer additional legal problems. According to Jameton, Acevedo gave the note to another inmate to pass to him, but somehow it wound up in the hands of his supposed target: Felix. Acevedo "put me in a fucked-up situation," Jameton said, explaining why he'd agreed to testify. "I don't give a shit about these people, man. He did exactly what I told him not to do. Eye for an eye is my fucking motto."
To prosecutors, putting Jameton on the stand was merely a cheap way to make Felix look mild and innocent in comparison with a "real" killer. For the Sanchez family, Jameton's bizarre tale was the low point of the trial. "Having to endure all those lies," Laura would say later, was the hardest part. The family was directed by prosecutors not to respond to the allegations because it could affect the trial. "The most difficult thing was the fear," Laura would say, "the fear that they succeeded in putting a seed of doubt into the minds of those 12 wonderful people."
During their rebuttal the next day, prosecutors called Theresa Sanchez to the stand. Her long blond hair spilling over her shoulders and still wearing her wedding ring, she told of the close relationship she had with her late husband. "We'd talk three, four times a day," she said. "We were very close." She said it would have been impossible for him to have had a double life. "If he wasn't with me, he was with his mom or shooting golf...I keep praying the truth will come out and I don't have to worry about this anymore." Theresa provided an alibi for the relative singled out in Jameton's testimony: Oscar's uncle, she said, was at the intersection of Winnetka and Canty with the rest of the family following the kidnapping. And when she and Laura returned from the police station late that night, he was camped out at Laura's house with everyone else.
The jury didn't buy Jameton's testimony or any other part of the defense. On September 11, they delivered a guilty verdict for capital murder, automatically sentencing Felix to life in prison. After the verdict was read, Theresa let out a wail and embraced her mother-in-law. The two women wept, surrounded by friends and family, as they walked out of the courtroom.
Read had a different reaction. Wearing a white cowboy hat, he looked into a television camera and held one finger up. "This is just Round 1," he said with a smile.
Days later, he met with the Observer and said he planned to file an appeal on procedural grounds. "This was just practice. Felix is no killer. Look at him. I've killed people," he said in reference to his Vietnam service. "He doesn't have it in him."
He promised that at the next trial there would be even more evidence to support his assertion that Oscar Sanchez Jr. was gay and that his uncle had cooked up the scheme. Already, Read claimed, his private investigators had located at least one of Oscar's former gay lovers. At the next trial, everything would be on the table, maybe even the family's long-buried alleged ties to organized crime.
"There's a lot about this family people don't know."
The trial for Richie Acevedo has not been scheduled. His attorney did not return calls from the Observer. Burns said he has not offered Acevedo a plea bargain and doesn't plan to. The family wants to go forward with the trial. He said he wasn't surprised that Read planned to appeal but said he was disappointed by his tactics.
"Some of the things that came up during the trial were so absurd to the point of being completely ridiculous," Burns said. "It is sad to me that that would be the kind of defense you would raise, to put the family through that."
Read says he apologizes for nothing and remains convinced that his client is innocent of murder.
Meanwhile, friends and family of Oscar Sanchez Jr. say they are trying to move on. None of them can make sense of what happened.
John Lendvay, who considered Oscar his best friend, said he thinks about him every day. "I miss him," he says simply. "And every day I have to think of new ways to keep him alive in my heart."
His sister Elise met Oscar in the fifth grade when her family moved from Garland to Oak Cliff. When the teacher asked for a volunteer to show Elise around, Oscar raised his hand. "I remember being sort of nervous, being the new kid, and him leading me to the gym where all the kids were and he just totally put me at ease."
Oscar's uncle Jesus, who tapped his nephew to be his ring bearer at his third wedding, says it has been hard for him to overcome the guilt he initially felt after the kidnapping. "We knew where they were holding him, and maybe if we had gone over right when we found out, not waited for the police, something would have been different," he says. "In my mind, I think Oscar tried to run, to escape. He might've seen they were going to kill him and he fought.
"But Oscar had never had a fight in his life. He was a gentle guy, good-natured."
There is no telling how he suffered in those final moments, but the medical examiner's report tells part of the story. The broken bones in two fingers suggest he held up his hands to ward off the blows.
It's a warm September morning in Oak Cliff. At El Ranchito, the news racks at the front doors are empty. But they will be filled soon enough. There are other stories to tell, papers to sell. A woman in Haltom City tried to burn her three children to death. A University of North Texas student was strangled. The verdict was just three days ago, and already, the papers are moving on. They have already forgotten Oscar Sanchez Jr.
Inside the restaurant, Laura Sanchez is getting ready to leave. She has that flight to catch to Monterrey. She needs to walk the land that has belonged to her family since her childhood and will belong to them for generations more. She needs to breathe the fresh air and clear her head of all the lies.
One of the killers has been convicted, but she wonders when the whispering and wild theories will stop. She has endured so much, so many ridiculous allegations. They are feeble and pathetic attempts to explain a crime that makes no sense. Perhaps it is comforting for people to believe the victim was in some way responsible for his death, or that the family's past came back to haunt them. What no one seems willing to accept is that the simplest explanation is also the most likely: Oscar Sanchez Jr. was kidnapped by two men who wanted the life he had and were willing to kill to get it.
It bewilders her sometimes, even after all the trips to therapists, that this happened to her family. In Mexico, crimes such as these are common, but in America she thought things were different. She thought she had left the lawlessness and wildness of her native country behind. And yet somehow, it followed her and took two of the most important people in her life.
There is no reason to any of it. There is no lesson to be learned. Sometimes you just endure. And that is life. Sooner or later, we all lose the things that are most precious to us.
One day, for her own sanity, she will have to forgive the men who did this. Her priest and therapists have told her as much. One day, she says as she rises to leave. One day. But not yet.