The 30 Hispanic men local news reported were being held against their will at a rundown house in the 2400 block of Penn Street in Irving would meet for Alcoholic Anonymous meetings in a small blue building once used as a garage in the backyard. Its walls displayed unofficial AA symbolism in permanent marker.
Motivational words written in Spanish scrawled throughout the small blue building encourage addicts seeking recovery “to be born again.” “Grupo Volver A Nacer” appears the most often in a conglomerate of words in journals and on signs once hanging on the wall. One blue sign reads: “Volver A Nacer Me Da La Oportunidad Ya Que De Por Medio Es My Vida Y My Sobriedad” (rough translation: Grupo Volver A Nacer provided an opportunity for me to find sobriety.)
Grupo Volver A Nacer also appears on a certificate of recognition for the “Southern Group Dallas Chapter” of Alcoholic Anonymous without any official signatures of who’s doing the recognizing. The certificate looks official to the untrained eye in a frame on a bench in the backyard filled with items that look as if they were pulled from the dump.
The AA director at the central office in Dallas, Janis R., says they don’t give out certificates because they are anonymous. Grupo Volver A Nacer wasn’t registered with Dallas, and she doubts they registered with New York. “But they’re not AA because we don’t tie people up and beat them,” she says.
Mismatched chairs are the dominant theme among the discarded items scattered throughout the backyard of the rundown house. Some line the small back porch; another faces a volleyball net that resembles a masterpiece of several drunken Picassos. A next-door neighbor claims the 30 men police discovered at the rundown home had grilled fajitas in a rusted smoker in the backyard the weekend before police arrived on the morning of Oct. 4.
“I don’t see nothing bad,” she says, echoing her earlier statements to another reporter. “Sometimes guys don’t stay. Others bring 'em back. I don’t see nothing bad.”
Jesus Dorado is one of the 30 men who didn’t want to stay. He took off running down the road with three men chasing him. Someone saw them and called 911. Police found the men in the 1100 block of Union Bower Road; Dorado was in a field across the street. He told police he didn’t want to be there anymore, that he was being held against his will. Police say at least three men at the rundown house didn’t want to be there.
Police pulled up to the house to check on the occupants' welfare and discovered the 30 men and sleeping mats. The arrests began soon after.
Irving police spokesman James McLellan says only two of the 30 claim they’d been kidnapped, despite news reports. One says he’d been kidnapped twice and threatened, and another claims he’d been restrained with cords and beaten. He told police he needed to go to the hospital because he wasn’t feeling well, but McLellan says he disappeared shortly after he was taken away by ambulance.
Police don’t know what happened to him. They’re still busy sorting through more than three dozen testimonies as more and more people call with their own stories about the seemingly unorthodox AA group in the small blue building behind the rundown house.
Irving police arrested six men for aggravated kidnapping: Carlos Diaz, 20; Jonathan Ortiz, 21; Bryan Gutierrez, 21; Jorge Ramirez, 30; Leonel Fernandez, 39; Jose Pascual Hernandez, 29. Jose Saul Reyes Hernandez, 31, was charged with unlawful restraint. Ramirez was also held on immigration detainer.
One of the men took Irving detectives to the AA group meeting place in Fort Worth where he’d escaped only to be recaptured by six men and taken to Irving. Fort Worth police raided two locations and arrested three people: Rodrigo Soto Gonzalez, 23; Ricardo Rodriguez Taylor, 21; and Adolfo Tello, 60.
McLellan says some of the men claimed they checked themselves into the rundown facility willingly. Despite the unorthodox methods caregivers were using, they were able to kick the addiction when they hadn’t been before, he says. But others were thankful police had taken them out of the situation.
“But we don’t know if this was some type of smuggling operation or a safe house or some other criminal enterprise or if the men were being recruited,” he says. “At face value, this isn’t just some substandard rehab facility that doesn’t have the money and the means.”
A large pot of beans knocked over in the front lawn of the rundown house nearly a week later still attracts a swarm of flies. Landlord Pervez Raza says the police knocked the pot over when they raided his rental property. “I think it got bad because they were cooking, and police took them all,” he says. “A lot of food left there, which is really giving it a lot of bad odor and everything.”
Raza, 76, originally from Pakistan, came to Texas in the early '70s to earn his MBA. He owns several rental properties across the metro area. He rented this property to a man named Jose Mercado in 2011. He charged $700 monthly rent initially, but dropped it to $600, then $550 because Mercado told him they weren’t getting many patients.
Raza says Mercado and his group would collect money from donations and from the people they helped to kick their alcohol or drug addiction. They were doing OK for a time, but then something happened. He doesn’t really know. “Bad guys might have come in there and took it over,” he says. “That’s the scary part. God knows what’s happening. What could be reason for them to bring somebody and hold them hostage and then … for what?”
A week later, Irving police still aren’t sure. Raza says investigators still haven’t contacted him. He found out about the raid from a reporter.
No yellow crime scene tape blocks the entrance or exit of the Irving house. It’s mostly empty inside Raza’s small rental property on this Monday afternoon. A few pieces of furniture and discarded trash still remain. Raza has been busy the past two days throwing away what could be potential evidence. He hired a worker to load up clothes, papers, trash and other assorted items in black plastic bags taken to the curb. Some of the potential evidence includes notebooks filled with information about how the 30 men spent their days with Grupo Volver A Nacer.
One notebook entry on Feb. 29 appears to be a logbook of sorts, listing the times of meetings as well as who did what jobs like preparing food, cutting hair and acting as a guard. Meetings lasted two hours. A pastor would visit the group for the 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. meeting. A new guy named Jose Luis also arrived for the same meeting.
Another notebook entry on March 1 translated reads, “We woke up at 7 a.m. We did services (religious). We started the 8 to 10 a.m. meeting, but Hector and Danny slept through the meeting. Hector came out to make food for the 12 to 2 meeting. The pastor came again, and the meeting started. Everything was good.”
Raza says 30 men were not living there. Only three or four guys would stay, and the rest showed up for the daily meetings. “I think it was a religious group,” he says.
A letter from a sister to her brother who was one of the patients indicates family also thought it was a place where their loved ones could find peace from their demons. “I know three months is a long time. So I told Mom to bring these books I wanted you to read. You now have time to read them. I love and miss you so much. Please stay there and get better.”
City officials told WFAA that they’d spoken with Grupo Volver A Nacer staff in 2011 to determine if Raza’s property was zoned for AA meetings. It was.
A couple of days ago Raza placed a For Sale sign in the front yard. His son was scared and told him, “Pop, why don’t you get rid of the house?”
“Yes, I think I don’t want this no more,” Raza says.