By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The whole sordid story began with a pile of concrete and a malfunctioning Bobcat.
On a hot, sticky Monday in mid-August 2006, crews in downtown Dallas were hard at work renovating The Merc—the distinctive World War II-era bank tower known for its clock and spire. Mid-redo, the historic building resembled a massive beehive, its 31 floors teeming with equipment, wreckage and workers. As one of the men used a Bobcat to clear debris on the 19th floor, he accidentally struck a beam. The metal gave way, pierced the wall and sent a heap of concrete fragments plunging to the ground outside.
Nineteen floors below on Commerce Street, Edgar Omar Navarro sat in the cab of an 18-wheeler waiting to haul waste from the job site. A 34-year-old from Nuevo Leon, Mexico, Navarro had come to the States in search of decent wages. As he sat in the 100-degree heat waiting to load the truck, the shower of rubble crashed down onto the cab and crushed him. He died instantly. In seconds, a woman was left without a partner, eight children were left fatherless, and the entire family was deprived not only of Navarro himself but also of his $35,000 annual salary. In the grief-blurred weeks that followed, his relatives arranged to transfer his body back to Mexico for burial and held a somber memorial service. Yet as the machinery of Navarro's life ground to a halt, the legal apparatus triggered by his death was only just awakening.
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Three years later, the job site at 1800 Commerce St. is long clean, the Merc transformed into luxury apartments and glitzy boutiques. After a lengthy and complex wrongful death lawsuit, Maria Puente, Navarro's live-in partner of 12 years and the mother of four of his children, agreed to a $5 million settlement from the companies involved in the accident and returned to Mexico. But at the Dallas County Courthouse, the legal drama dragged on through the first half of 2009. A sticky Gordian knot of a case, Maria Alicia Puente vs. Cleveland Wrecking Company rolled through the legal community picking up more and more lawyers, pitting old rivals against one another and sparking explosive claims of mob-style assaults and witness intimidation, as well as allegations of corruption and kickbacks at Dallas' Mexican Consulate.
Maria Puente hired the law offices of Pablo Alvarado following Navarro's death, then fired them two months later and retained personal injury attorney, Latino activist and former state Representative Domingo Garcia to pursue the wrongful death action. In 2008, Garcia settled the case for $5 million, $2 million of which would go to him under the terms of his contingency fee contract. Alvarado then sued Garcia and Puente, claiming he was owed part of the settlement because Garcia had interfered with his contractual relationship with Puente and Puente had breached the contract. Alvarado and Garcia, both of whom have been active in Democratic politics and once shared an office, traded barbs for months before settling their dispute on the eve of the June trial. Yet Rowlett lawyer Robert Lyon, whom Alvarado had contracted as co-counsel in the wrongful death action, refused to settle, paving the way for a two-week bench trial that dredged up fraud allegations and thorny legal issues from the settled wrongful death case and prompted Dallas County District Judge Bruce Priddy to disparagingly dub the proceedings a "rather messy case." At one point, the judge declared in court, "This case troubles me in ways you can't understand. There's all sorts of things that have gone on that trouble me."
Among those things was the fact that Puente had already been married in Mexico as a teen, which meant her standing as Navarro's wife depended on the annulment of her first marriage. The annulment was supposedly forthcoming through a lawyer in Monterrey, but it turns out that the lawyer—a babyfaced 25-year-old named Jorge Dagoberto Luna—would claim that Garcia had tricked him into signing an affidavit that falsely confirmed the annulment of Puente's prior marriage, suggesting that the basis for her $5 million settlement was fraudulent. Luna would also claim that before coming to Dallas to testify against Garcia, he had been threatened by street toughs in Monterrey who stole his wallet and warned him darkly that "this is just a taste of what can happen if you if you get into it with Domingo Garcia."
Garcia dismisses these allegations as preposterous.
The rivalry between Garcia and Alvarado seems to stem from a longstanding tug-of-war over cases, money and influence in the Latino community. At the center of it all sits the Mexican Consulate, a branch office of the Mexican Embassy that issues visas and passports and offers legal help to Mexican nationals in the area. Alvarado says he's been a consulting attorney for the consulate for some 20 years, providing translation services and advice on various aspects of Texas law, including worker's compensation and immigration issues. Since most Mexican citizens who go to the consulate for legal help are poor workers with problems involving immigration documents, minor crimes or domestic disputes, the vast majority of cases that originate there are taken by attorneys for free. The lucrative cases are the ones like Puente's that involve wrongful death and personal injury allegations, fairly common among the large pool of Mexican immigrants doing dangerous, physically intensive jobs. According to the consulate, the offices get around two work site injury complaints each month and several wrongful death cases each year. In the more complicated cases, staff lawyers at the consulate reach out to local "consulting" attorneys for help, and in some cases, refer people to them.