Caught Cold

By the time the detective got there, the girl was more or less dead. She had been raped, that much he figured from how they found her--lying on her mother's bed, her shorts pulled off, her shirt pushed up above her bra. She was 11 years old, and that sickened him.

Cliff Cook stood outside the small frame house, pacing in the darkness and trying to process it all. The back bedroom was crowded with firefighters and paramedics trying to revive the girl. From where the detective stood, he could see it all through an open window.

He looked around. It was a nice enough street, lined with magnolia trees. Some of the yards were shabby, just plots of dirt, really, but there were tidy brick homes too, with well-trimmed lawns and flower gardens. A few years ago, you could walk down this street to the corner market in the middle of the night. No more. Now the store had bars on its windows.


Detective Manny Reyes

Like the rest of Fort Worth, the neighborhood had changed. There had been 182 major crimes in the area the year before, everything from larceny to murder. This year, the area already had close to that many, and it was only August. Cook himself was carrying a caseload of 20 murders, and that was nothing. Some of the detectives would carry 40 that year.

"Mama," the little girl wrote once, "take me away from this place." But her mama never did, and now the girl was lying there, barely breathing.

Her name was Vanessa Villa. Like other girls her age, she liked to dress in pink and wear her hair in a ponytail. At school, she was part of the Courtesy Patrol, no doubt because of her friendly personality. She wasn't the best student, mostly because she had yet to master English, but she tried hard and was well-liked by teachers and the office staff alike.

That day, August 3, 1986, she had gone to a flea market in Dallas where she worked selling belts, shoes and other clothing. When she got home that night she said she wasn't hungry. It seemed like something was bothering her.

At about 9 p.m. her mother left to buy milk. Vanessa said she wanted to stay home with her baby sister and listen to music. She went into her mother's bedroom, put in a cassette of sad Spanish love songs and lay down.

The detective scanned the crime scene. This one wouldn't be easy to solve. The dresser and other furniture had been shoved aside by the paramedics trying to get to the girl. Few, if any, of the people who lived in the house spoke English. On top of that, the rooms in the house had been partitioned off for boarders who came and went. Any male who had been in the house was a suspect. Locating them all was going to be difficult.

The detective looked down and noticed an overturned 5-gallon bucket at his feet. It was a white pickle bucket, the kind used in restaurants. An imprint of the bucket was plainly visible in the dirt. The killer had probably used it to boost himself up, and it had tipped over. He had then removed a box fan from the window, climbed across the dresser and entered the room. In all likelihood, he was someone the girl knew, for she had not screamed loud enough for a neighbor to hear, and the houses on the street were only a few feet apart.

Looking at the girl through the window, there was no outward sign she was dying or that she was even hurt. There were no marks around her neck, no cuts or bruises on her face. She could have been sleeping, which is what her mother thought when she got back from the store. "What's wrong with you?" she had asked when she entered the room, because Vanessa was naked from the waist down. "Cover up." But Vanessa had not responded. Precious minutes had passed since, and now the girl was almost gone. Within an hour she would be dead.

Days later, the family held a wake at their home. The mourners came in their Sunday best and in their work clothes. They walked up the brick pathway that cut through the yard and up the worn wooden steps and into the living room, where the coffin had been placed. One of them, the police would come to believe, was Vanessa's killer. He was short, about 5-foot-4, and soft-spoken. He was unremarkable in every way except for one: He had the capacity to kill a girl and then to pass in front of her casket without arousing suspicion. He was also capable of killing repeatedly. And if Fort Worth police are right, over the next 20 years, that's exactly what he did.

His name is Juan Mesa Segundo, and today he sits in solitary confinement in the Tarrant County Jail. His trial for the murder of Vanessa Villa is scheduled to begin Friday. He has declined all interview requests, as have both his court-appointed lawyers. When he was arrested last year, two family members proclaimed his innocence, but they have since declined to speak publicly about him.

The man responsible for his incarceration is Manny Reyes, Fort Worth's cold case detective. Segundo is the second alleged serial murderer he has arrested in as many years. The first was Curtis Don Brown, who may be the most notorious serial killer in the city's history. Police believe he murdered as many as 18 women in Fort Worth, most of them in a two-year span between 1984 and 1986. His trial is expected to begin next year.

Reyes works three floors up from the jail where both Segundo and Brown are being held. He is friendly, as far as police detectives go, and doesn't mind taking credit for what he's accomplished in the last two years, which rubs some of the other officers the wrong way.

Reyes works in a closet-sized office that was once used for interrogations. If he were to lie down, his big red cowboy boots would probably stick out the door.

Reyes' job bears little resemblance to the cold case detectives seen on television and in the movies. He does not crawl through sewer pipes to find decades-old evidence or use lasers to map out a crime scene. For the most part, his job is tedious and monotonous. It involves sifting through old police reports and trying to figure out where potential witnesses have moved. "You got a bunch of stuff in front of you; it's already been looked at once. It's your job to do it again," he explains. And while he couldn't do his job without new technology--such as databases that index gun ballistics and the DNA of convicted criminals--he also couldn't do it without his experience as a homicide detective. Sometimes, solving a crime requires knowing how to talk to get people to talk.

When Reyes became Fort Worth's cold case detective in September 2004, he began by researching each of the city's 764 unsolved homicides dating to the mid-'60s. At the time, these cases were kept in no particular order in a room called "The Unsolvables." Reyes spent a year going through each one, ranking them according to evidence. Was there semen or blood that had not been tested for DNA? Was there other evidence that might carry traces of DNA, such as a cigarette butt found at the crime scene or duct tape used to bind a victim? He then sent the evidence to the state crime lab, which would see if it matched up with the DNA of any current or former inmates of the Texas prison system. (DNA is collected from anyone who serves time in a Texas state prison and is stored in a database called CODIS, which stands for Combined DNA Index System.)

In the Villa case, evidence included a sheet with a stain and semen taken from the girl's body. A few months after Reyes sent in the samples, he got word that there was a match. The suspect was an ex-con living in Cleburne.

At first, Reyes didn't recognize the case as being any different than any other he had sent in. Then he looked again at the name. Vanessa Villa. It was the first homicide case he ever worked.

Twenty years ago, Reyes was a general assignment detective new to the department. He was asked to help with the Villa case because he spoke Spanish. He and the lead investigator, Cliff Cook, chased leads for months. One of their better tips took them to a friend of the Villas who had a reputation for molesting young girls. Searching his house they found a suitcase full of violent porn involving children, and during interrogation the man seemed nervous, but like so many other leads, that one went nowhere.

After Cook was transferred out of homicide he would periodically check in with Reyes to see if there were any new leads. "No," Reyes would say, "but one day, we'll find him." He would say the same thing to Vanessa's mom, who also called in every couple years to check on the case.

Now, 20 years later, they had their suspect. Reyes looked again at the name. He pulled out the Villa case file. Segundo was someone they had originally looked at. His wife worked with Vanessa's mom at the time of the murder, and the couple had been to the Villa house several times to pick her up and drop her off. They had also been to the funeral. Cook had even asked about Segundo, but Vanessa's mom assured the detective it couldn't be him. He was a family friend, she said, and didn't seem like the type.

When Reyes told Segundo why he was being arrested, he didn't say anything other than that he needed to speak with a lawyer.

Months later, the crime lab called again to say they had two more hits on Segundo. Reyes thinks Segundo may be responsible for as many as six deaths. His other alleged serial killer, Curtis Don Brown, is already in prison on one murder charge. Reyes has linked him to two more, but he and others think Brown may have killed close to two dozen women.

If Segundo and Brown are in fact serial killers, they have little in common with the most celebrated serial killers of our time. They did not taunt the police with mystifying notes as Kansas' BTK Killer did or kill their victims in ritualistic fashion like Wisconsin's Jeffrey Dahmer or leave a calling card like the Green River Killer in Washington did.

There was no favored method of killing, no certain victim. Brown, for example, once used a rock to bash a woman's head in. Police say he shot another woman in the face and dumped her body in the Trinity River. A third victim was found in an Arlington storm drain with a rope around her neck. These victims were 51, 18 and 29. They had little in common in terms of looks, race or background.

The same could be said for Segundo's alleged victims. Besides Villa, DNA has linked him to the murders of two women who were both in their early 30s. One was found facedown in a drainage ditch in 1994. The other, a mother of three, was found the next year in Fort Worth's Buck Sansom Park. One victim was black, one was white and one Hispanic.

"It sort of turns on its head everything people believe about serial killers: that they have a certain way of killing or that they have a certain kind of victim," Reyes says. "Sometimes it was a rock, sometimes it was strangulation. It could be an 11-year-old girl, it could be an old woman. It could be for sex, or it could just be to rob them, or both. There was no telling."

None of this surprises Reyes. Police have known for years that there is no typology for serial killers. And while studies have shown that the majority are white males driven by some sort of sexual perversion, there are plenty of exceptions, Segundo and Brown (one is Hispanic, the other black) possibly being two of them. There are team killers, women who kill and people who kill for no other reason than that they can, says Eric Hickey, who is one of the leading experts on the subject. A professor of criminology at Fresno State University in California, Hickey has interviewed more than a dozen serial killers.

"We're in the process of rearranging the typology now. We're slowly breaking out of the mold of seeing serial killers as lust killers. I've had several cases over the years where the killer had just killed someone just because they could and the opportunity arose. They were inconvenienced, and so the killer got rid of them," Hickey says. "It would be nice to have a clean-cut package of typology--this is who they are, and this is how they operate--but it doesn't work that way. It works well for television. It works well for newspapers, but it's not reality."

There were more serial killers in the United States between 1975 and 2000 than in the previous 175 years combined. There are all sorts of theories as to why--from the urbanization of America to the glorification of serial killers by the media--but the truth is, no one knows what makes a serial killer.

"There are all these different theories," says Eliott Leyton, author of Hunting Humans, the classic text on the subject. "Maybe it's brain damage, or biological deformation, or being male, or psychological or sexual torture in childhood. I just don't think we can know at this point.

"These are people who, for one reason or another, have no feeling for human beings. They derive sexual satisfaction from profound sadism, probably come from traumatic familial backgrounds themselves and are seeking a kind of vengeance on the social order.

"But the way Hollywood has gone at these guys is just madness. They're portrayed as super intelligent, super strong, super everything, when in fact they're just pathetic, defective, limited human beings who have no idea how to relate to a love object except to kidnap, rape, mutilate and murder them."

When Segundo's trial begins Friday, jurors and spectators may get a peek into what makes the man tick. To hear Reyes describe him, they will not be impressed. Reyes calls Segundo a "pussy" who is hardly intimidating. He is so polite and soft-spoken, Reyes says, he is hard to hear.

For now, little is known about Segundo. He worked for some time as a crane operator, and according to arrest records, he has struggled with alcohol abuse. On multiple occasions, he has been arrested for felony drunk driving. He has been married and divorced a number of times and is said to have a grown son. When Reyes caught up with him, he was living on disability payments, although Reyes says he didn't notice a limp or anything else physically wrong with Segundo.

"You look at him and you think, 'My God, man, an ant could scare this guy.' He's a wuss. You know, no muscle on him at all, all weak-looking. You look at him and you think, 'This is one of the last guys you would think would be a serial killer.'"

And that's what made Segundo so dangerous, Reyes theorizes. "There wasn't anything scary about him--not his voice, not his looks. So I think a female would be real comfortable talking to him because she wouldn't think there was any danger."

Segundo did not have a history of gaining the trust of women and then attacking them, however. In the Villa case he allegedly snuck into her house through a window and then attacked her, a modus operandi eerily similar to two other incidents he would later be arrested for.

In 1987, he broke into a woman's house and began fondling her as she slept. When the woman awoke, she saw Segundo kneeling beside her bed with his pants and underwear pulled down. Segundo covered her mouth to keep her from screaming and began punching her in the face, but the victim's daughter heard the commotion and ran into the room, scaring Segundo off. But the woman recognized him as someone she had worked with. Segundo agreed to a plea bargain in that case and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was paroled a year later.

In 1991, he stripped naked and entered a woman's apartment through a broken window. The woman woke up to find Segundo choking her. She was able to break free and escape from a second-story window. She told police she recognized Segundo because he had dated several neighbors.

To Reyes, this suggests a pattern. Segundo knew the women he attacked. He waited for the right opportunity, he entered through a window, and then he attempted to sexually assault or strangle them. In the two cases for which he was arrested, he was unsuccessful in completing the crime. In Vanessa Villa's case, Reyes believes he was successful.

"I'm sure it's something you build up to. You start off with a slap; you start off with a push; you start off by stalking, peeping toms," the detective says. "And then the next time you go a little more and then a little more until you reach your peak, which is sexual assault and murder, and after that, that's all you got. You can't go any higher than that.

"Now did he go clean after 1995? Which was his last murder? I don't know. We can't prove anything yet. We don't know what he could've done."

Because Segundo has never spoken to Reyes, and because his attorneys and family are not speaking to the press before his trial, it is difficult to piece together who the man is. Perhaps the portrait of him created by his arrest record and the recent murder is unfair. It is likely his family knows an entirely different man.

More is known about Curtis Don Brown. Shortly after police announced that Brown was a suspect in 18 unsolved slayings, most of them taking place between 1984 and 1986, a relative named Betty Phenix contacted the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to speak in his behalf. According to Phenix, Brown had a troubled childhood, marked by tragedy and crime. His mother was burned in a house fire in 1972 that killed two of her children. One was 3 years old, and the other was just 5 1/2 months. Brown, who was 13 at the time, escaped unharmed.

When he was in his mid-20s he came to Texas to live with his mother, who had moved to Fort Worth from their native California. By then, he had already served time for armed robbery.

In 1984 he married, and a year later he had a daughter. He worked sporadically as a laborer and as a machinist.

In 1986, he pleaded guilty to raping and killing Jewel Woods, a 51-year-old nurse, in her Fort Worth home. Police say he beat her to death with a rock. He was found about a half-hour later, out of breath and sweating, carrying two purses wrapped in a towel. One carried Woods' identification. Her body, nude from the waist down, was found the next morning near her apartment in a patch of tall weeds.

Police believe that wasn't the first woman Brown killed. His first victim may have been Catherine Davis, an aspiring model who went missing on September 30, 1984. By December of that year, eight women were missing. Throughout the city, but especially in the neighborhoods near Texas Christian University, there was a growing fear that a serial killer was among them.

The murder that drew the most attention was that of Cindy Heller, a TCU graduate and former beauty contestant, who vanished on October 22, 1984. That night she stopped to help a stranded motorist and ended up sharing drinks with her. At about 11:30 p.m., they parted ways. Heller was never seen alive again.

On January 5, just days after police had found another body, a group of children playing near a creek on the TCU campus noticed something odd floating in the water. Tangled in the branches of a fallen tree, it appeared to be a headless corpse.

The children ran to tell their parents, who sent an older boy to check it out. When he confirmed their story, the parents called the police.

The press immediately speculated that it might be Heller's body, because she had lived a half-mile away from the creek. Identifying the body was difficult because it had been decomposing for months. Most of the upper body, including the head, the right arm and the chest had separated from the rest of the torso.

Firefighters pumped the creek and drained the three-acre Worth Hills Lake the creek fed into. Eventually, they found enough to identify the body as Heller's. Two hours later, another body was found, that of a 20-year-old waitress named Lisa Griffin.

Most cops already thought there was a serial killer on the loose. Reyes was a patrol officer at the time, and he was instructed to stop and help any stranded female motorist. Some women that he came upon were so scared they wouldn't even open their windows to talk to him until he could prove he was a cop.

Shortly after Griffin's body was discovered, Fort Worth police held a closed-door meeting and decided to form a task force to look into the serial killings. But they never caught the killer. Until now, Reyes believes.

While Brown has not been linked through DNA evidence to the murder of Davis, Heller or Griffin (or any other woman who disappeared through that four-month period between 1984 and 1985), Reyes and others think he could be responsible for those slayings and more. So far, DNA evidence has linked him to the murders of Terese Gregory, a 29-year-old waitress killed in 1985, and Sharyn Kills Black, an 18-year-old also killed that year.

"I can't pinpoint the exact number he may be responsible for," says J.D. Thornton, who heads the Fort Worth homicide division and is leading the investigation into whom Brown may have killed. "We have eliminated him as a suspect in some of the murders--we can't say which ones--but we're confident there's more. They're similar enough in the victim's background, the m.o. and everything else. The only ones I'm going to eliminate him on are the ones that occurred while he was in prison."

Until Fort Worth police finish their investigation of Brown, which has been going on for more than a year, no trial date will be set. Brown's attorney, Tim Brown (no relation), says there has been no talk of a plea bargain.

"He maintains his innocence. They've made him out to be the serial killer of the '80s, and they only have DNA evidence linking him to two murders. It's completely inaccurate."

There is, of course, the possibility that Brown and Segundo are innocent of the murders Reyes has linked them to, or the ones he suspects them of committing. After all, DNA evidence has been successfully challenged across the country, often because the methods used to test it were faulty.

But Reyes feels confident that both are guilty. "I'd say it's about a one in a trillion chance we're wrong."

The house is on Northwest 22nd Street, at the top of a slow-rising hill above the winding Jacksboro Highway. It's been painted white and is surrounded by a battered chain-link fence. Not much is left of the lawn, but the magnolia trees have grown ever taller. They cast a shadow over the backyard. It's hard to drive by it without thinking about what happened there, without imagining Detective Cook standing in the yard that night, looking through the bedroom window, trying to process it all.

Cook is the head of the city's crime lab now. During the two years he worked as a homicide detective, he cleared every case but two. One was an old man killed for $5, and the other was Vanessa Villa. Needless to say, both haunted him. He now has only one to wonder about.

Sometimes Cook thinks about what he would say to Segundo if he had a chance to talk to him.

"Why someone that he personally knew? Why this child? And why did he find it necessary to kill her? But as much as I might want to sit down and talk to him about the case, it's not my case any longer, it's Manny's case."

After Reyes arrested Segundo, he called Vanessa's family and asked them if they could come to the station; he had some information on Vanessa's case. Reyes says Vanessa's mother, Rosa Maria Clarke, knew what the call meant. "She said, 'You haven't told me in 20 years that you've got something, and now you call and tell me you've got something, so we got here as fast as we could. We knew it would be something good.'

"I sat them down and said, 'Look, DNA has come back, and we know who did this to your daughter.' And of course that made them happy, and then I showed them the picture."

Vanessa's mother couldn't believe it. She knew Segundo. All these years, she had known the man accused of killing her daughter. She broke down in tears.

Today, the family owns a mattress store on Jacksboro Highway, not five minutes from the house where Vanessa was killed. Sometimes Reyes goes there to visit Vanessa's mother and see how she's doing.

After Vanessa died, her mom went a bit crazy, and that returned in the weeks after the arrest. Reporter after reporter began calling the house. At one point, a television reporter called at 6 a.m. and demanded that she be on the front steps of the courthouse for a live shot with Reyes in an hour. For once, she said no. But all the phone calls and visits from reporters got to her. Each time, no matter how hard she tried, she relived it all. So her husband sent her to Mexico for a while to regroup.

It's still hard for her to believe Segundo may have killed her daughter. In the years after the murder, he would sometimes run into her and ask her if they had found the killer. No, she would say, not yet. "Don't worry," he would tell her. "They will."

A week before the arrest, her son Enrique Balderas started having dreams. He dreamed he saw Vanessa sitting on her casket and then walking toward him. She was trying to tell him something, Balderas believed.

The day of the arrest, he had the same dream. He called his mom to tell her about it. She said she would put flowers on Vanessa's grave for him. Then, later that day, Reyes called to say he had made an arrest in the case. To Balderas, the dream made sense at that point.

The murder affected them each in different ways, and in similar ones. Vanessa's mom never let her children out of her sight after it happened. She would sleep with her little ones, even bathe with them. When she went to work, they went with her.

Balderas is the same way now. He has a trundle bed in his room for two of his children. The youngest sleeps in his bed, between him and his wife.

They all have pictures of Vanessa, and those are the images they try to remember. Her mother carries two small photos of Vanessa in her wallet. In one, Vanessa is dressed in pink cotton shorts, her white socks pulled to the middle of her calves, her hands in the pockets of a yellow coat, her dark hair in a ponytail. She is walking along the street where they lived.

Rosa Clarke doesn't know what to think of Segundo. She doesn't know what causes a man to become a serial killer, if that's what he is. She doesn't know what causes a man to kill, period.

Her son, Enrique, knows what he wants them to do with Segundo, knows what he'd do if he had the chance. "I'd say kill him. That's what I want. Kill him."

But Vanessa's mom feels differently. She hopes they spare his life. And if he is in fact Vanessa's killer, as she's sure he is, she wants him to think about the girl, and what he did to her, for the rest of his life.

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