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.