Victims in the shadows

"I don't want my money back," Alejandra says, closing her front door and locking it. The lock makes a metallic clank that echoes through this spare Dallas apartment adorned with framed prayers and family portraits. "I just want these people to stay away from me."

Alejandra has lived peaceably, but illegally, in Dallas since 1982, when she was 11 years old, and the one thing she wants more than anything else is to become a U.S. citizen. To this 28-year-old Mexican national, being granted legal status seems only just: Her mother lives here legally, as do her four siblings and, more important, her 6-year-old son.

"I don't feel like I can go back to Mexico and start my life over. I don't know anyone there. Everything is strange. There are poor people here, but being poor in Mexico is much worse. I cannot go back," Alejandra says. "If I don't fix my life, I will be living here like a shadow."

"Alejandra" -- who spoke on condition that her real name was not published -- has long lived with the anxiety that she might be deported, but it wasn't until she put her hopes of becoming a lawful resident into the hands of Marisa Hierro that her worry turned into wholesale fear.

Alejandra visited Hierro in December 1998, when Hierro was running an immigration consulting practice with Dallas attorney Catherine Shelton. Alejandra discovered the business in an advertisement the duo published in the Spanish-language newspaper El Extra.

During an initial consultation, Alejandra says, Hierro's confident bearing impressed her. Hierro sounded like a sharp, Spanish-speaking attorney, and Alejandra was convinced that Hierro could use her "contacts" with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to get Alejandra first a work permit, then permanent resident status within six months. Alejandra, who says she never dealt with Shelton, agreed to pay her firm $3,000, beginning with a $1,000 down payment. She thought she had bought an end to nearly two decades of uncertainty. For that, Alejandra would have paid almost anything.

At the time, Alejandra didn't realize that Hierro was not an attorney. She also didn't know that under INS rules she was not eligible for a "green card" granting her permanent residency status until three more years had passed -- a fact any competent immigration attorney could have told her after briefly reviewing her case.

As the months passed, Alejandra began to worry when the papers Hierro had promised never showed up and her repeated attempts to reach Hierro failed. Then, last April, Alejandra called Shelton's office and learned that Hierro had left to set up her own practice. Later that day, Hierro told Alejandra that Shelton had taken her money and that, if she wanted it back, she would have to file a complaint with the State Bar of Texas.

Assuming Shelton was the guilty party, Alejandra says, she drafted with Hierro's help a complaint accusing Shelton of professional misconduct. Then Alejandra signed a new contract with Hierro. As part of the deal, Alejandra says, Hierro said she would continue to process Alejandra's immigration case and use the refund from Shelton to cover the costs.

That was another lie.

"After I filed the complaint against Shelton, [Hierro] started calling and demanding payments," Alejandra says. Hierro told her, "I want to help you, but you have to bring me more money."

Alejandra gave Hierro an additional $250, but Hierro wanted more. When Alejandra couldn't pay, she says, Hierro threatened to stop processing her case. When that didn't work, Alejandra says, Hierro threatened to inform the INS of her illegal status. Thinking the INS would soon come for her, Alejandra fled.

"I spent some days at my aunt's house," Alejandra says. "The first few days I was scared. I never felt that afraid before, that someone was going to come and take us."

Alejandra didn't begin to feel safe again until December, when she read in the newspaper that Hierro and her husband, Michael, had been gunned down by two masked assailants outside their Rowlett home. The ambush left Michael dead and Hierro wounded.

Alejandra says she wasn't surprised when she later read that Shelton and her estranged husband, Clint, had been named as suspects in the attack, and that the attack may have been the result of a falling-out between the two women over their immigration practice.

"You know, in some countries they take your hand if you get caught stealing," she says. "When I read that Marisa had her hand shot off, I didn't like to see that, but I was thinking that was justice."

Reports that the Sheltons were suspects in the Hierro ambush stunned the Dallas legal community, where talk of Catherine Shelton's criminal background and speculation about her possible involvement in the attack continue to be fodder for gossip among her colleagues.