Feature: Wednesday, September 17, 2003
‘There is a mismatchin those numbers,and that’s what nagsat them.’
We’re Not

Murder victims’ families use their grief as fuel to turn up the heat on cold cases

By Gayle Reaves

The dark-haired, middle-aged man has come before Fort Worth City Council so often that an observer can almost physically see the glaze come over some officials’ eyes when he approaches the microphone. Here he is again, with the charts, the numbers, the confusing statistics, the polite but insistent criticism. His accent sometimes makes it even harder to follow his numbers and his logic — “murder” sometimes sounds like Mordor, J.R.R. Tolkien’s kingdom of doom and damnation — the place where council members, no doubt, sometimes feel they too have landed.

But those who take the time to listen to Hector Carrillo — to comprehend his statistics, or to get beyond them — may find some surprises: a poet’s eloquence, an intellect honed in the fires of rage and grief — and the patience of one who looks a long way down the road. City officials don’t see a politician when they look at Carrillo — but if they look hard, they might see a glint of their political future.

Carrillo and his family have lived in that hellish kingdom since April 5, 2001, when his son Oscar was shot down outside the family’s Riverside area home. Carrillo believes he knows who shot his son — a longtime East Side gangbanger who was on probation on a criminal mischief conviction the day Oscar was killed. But police said witness identifications of the gang member were shaky. The case was presented to the grand jury only after Carrillo hired a private detective to investigate. Even then, the suspect was no-billed.

Eventually, Carrillo found Robert and Sandy Houston and Andrea Maahfuz and Brenda Allen and Lee Saldivar and others whose loved ones have been killed and their killers either never found or not punished. Moving their rage from personal to political realms, these grieving mothers, fathers, sisters, and uncles have tried to change the way Fort Worth police handle murder. In the 15 months since the group began taking its concerns to city council, police, under pressure from the council, have significantly stepped up their already-ongoing efforts to reinvestigate unsolved killings. The result: Police are pouring more effort into solving “cold cases’’ than they have in years and almost 30 suspects have been charged.

But major frustrations remain. This many months after their campaign began, the families are still arguing with police officials about how many unsolved murders are still on the books, and about how much effort is being put into their investigation. So now, both emboldened and frustrated, they are enlarging that political stage. Some members of the group joined Terri Moore’s unsuccessful campaign last fall to unseat District Attorney Tim Curry. Carrillo has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city. The group is trying to determine whether it could use the referendum process to force creation of a cold case unit. They may propose creation of a citizen’s police review board. And they are creating a web site to list the names of victims of unsolved murders, in hopes that it might turn up new evidence or witnesses. “We’re kicking and punching in every possible direction,” Carrillo said.

In school, Andrea Maahfuz hated getting up in front of the class. After her brother’s murder, there were many days when she could barely even get up out of bed. “And yet I went up in front of the city council, and I didn’t have any trouble speaking at all,” she said. Grief “makes you do things you’ve never done before.”

Even if their loved ones’ killers were charged and convicted tomorrow, Carrillo and the others probably wouldn’t rest. They’ve got the lives of other sons and daughters and siblings and grandchildren to think about. The fight now isn’t just about bringing any single killer or handful of killers to justice, but about changing the way that Fort Worth residents view their city and their police department — convincing them that too many neighborhoods are dangerous, that they’ve tolerated too much violence for too long, that gang violence is coming back with a vengeance.

“This battle is going to last beyond several political generations,” Carrillo said recently. “This is the rest of our lives. Regardless of what they do or say, when they are finished, we will still be here. We have to change the character of this city. We have no choice.”

As Robert and Sandy Houston have told the council, “We are not going away.”

Unsolved murders can be wounds that never heal, for families, detectives and communities alike. The Carla Walker case that keeps retired detective John Terrell scratching for evidence dates back to 1974. Brenda Allen still has nightmares about the November day nine years ago when her brother was shot down outside a Southside bank. The Houstons remain outraged that the D.A.’s office refused to accept a murder case against the young men the Houstons say killed their son Chad in a fight outside a TCU area bar. Andrea Maahfuz believes police could have caught her brother’s killer if they hadn’t waited so long to follow an evidence trail to Las Vegas. Many longtime Fort Worth residents remember the high-profile, unsolved murders of 10 young women in the mid 1980s. And most detectives who have worked homicide can name a few unsolved cases that, years later, still disturb them. As one ex-officer said, “There are several I still sleep with.”

Working cold cases is typically something that police departments do when they’re not drowning in a current crime wave. Even when their caseloads are staggering, individual detectives keep going back to certain ones over the years, and pass them along to other officers when they retire. But there’s a limit to what a handful of officers can do.

Danny LaRue worked homicide in the 1980s and early ’90s, years when gang violence and drug-related crimes drove the city’s murder rate to triple its current level, and detectives handling homicides also had to investigate rapes, kidnappings, aggravated assaults, and attempted murders. Between 1979 and 1995, the city’s homicide totals were in the triple digits every year but one, and reached as high as 206. Last year’s total, by comparison, was 53. But the size of the homicide squad has remained about the same, at 8 to 10 officers.

“We were overwhelmed with the caseload,” LaRue, now a private detective, said. “We were getting 220 to 300 cases a year,” including all the different kinds of felonies. With that kind of workload, he said, few murders got intensive attention for very long. “We just couldn’t keep up. ... If there wasn’t a good lead to go on, it became a moot issue in a short amount of time.”

LaRue said the detectives’ devotion to a case didn’t vary because of the race or relative wealth of the victim. But news media attention certainly did — and that sometimes affected the resources that the squad had to devote to the case. “The publicity was obviously different on, say, a high-dollar Westside victim as opposed to a drive-by on the East Side,” he said. “Did that make any difference to the work we did? No, a murder was a murder.”

It’s not that detectives didn’t care and didn’t put out their best efforts, he said. “We did the best we could with what we had to work with,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong — I worked several years on some murders, worked them whenever I could.” But the caseload severely limited the time that could be spent on any single case, he said. “Prior administrations of the police department either didn’t understand that, or it wasn’t a major concern to them.”

Even with those pressures, the department was still matching or surpassing the national average in the percentages of murder cases cleared, LaRue said, just as it does now. But with 130, 150, 190 murders being committed a year, and 10 detectives to investigate them plus other first-degree felonies, the unsolved cases started to stack up.

In 1996, when the pace finally slacked off a bit, detectives had breathing room to go back and begin reworking some of the older cases. At least nine old cases were cleared that year, according to a Fort Worth Star-Telegram article from the time.

But even though murder rates had eased off, and some old cases were being addressed, a curious thing happened: While Fort Worth’s total number of murders for about the past eight years has subsided to 1960s levels, clearance rates, according to a report released in July, have not. In 2001, for instance, 24 of 67 murders went unsolved; in 1966, with the same number of deaths, only three went unsolved.

Oscar Carrillo, his brother Ralph, and a few friends were sitting outside the Carrillos’ house just after midnight on that Thursday in April 2001, drinking a few beers on the porch, when the white car drove by. Oscar, a former chess champion and excellent student, had apparently grown bored with high school, dropped out, got his GED, and was taking courses at Tarrant County College by the time his ex-classmates were graduating. Putting his love of computers to work, he’d taken a job with an internet company but had been laid off. Now, as Oscar and his friends talked, the car turned to make the block. When it came by a second time, a man jumped out and started firing, wounding Oscar and one of his friends. A terrified Hector drove his son and the second victim to the hospital. The friend survived his wounds, but Oscar did not.

Hector Carrillo said that, for a year before his son’s death, he had tried to get police to do something about the threats to his family from gang members and the gunshots that rang outside his door on several occasions. Even after his son died, Carrillo said, police did not investigate aggressively enough. He has come to believe since then that, had police paid sufficient attention to the graffiti and the other indices of gang activity in his neighborhood, Oscar might not have died. And had police investigated Oscar’s murder more thoroughly, he said, another man might not have been stabbed a few months later — allegedly by the same suspect.

When a loved one is murdered, Carrillo said, “in an ugly way, you’re reborn — but without part of your being. You have to recreate your life. Your perception of everything is destroyed and rebuilt. Sunlight. The landscape. Your relationship with your wife and your other children. You have to start at zero.

“You make anger out of your pain. And you make political effort out of the anger. Anger sustains you every day.”

For the remainder of 2001, Carrillo said, he dealt with his son’s death “only on a personal basis.” Some of his grief he diverted into his paintings and drawings, and the artwork he had done for many years became more important to him. But more of the emotion went into action. Dissatisfied with police handling of the case, he added his own efforts to try to get an indictment of the man he believes is his son’s killer. He talked to police in other jurisdictions. He talked to the FBI about the possibility of a “continuing criminal enterprise” indictment in the case, on the basis that it was gang business. He met other survivors, like the Houstons. But the families were still intent on dealing with individual cases, he said.

“At a certain moment, I realized that wasn’t the right thing to do. We needed to address the bigger picture,” he said. And so began his fight with municipal bureaucracy.

About 18 months ago, Carrillo asked the city for a list of all its unsolved murders, dating back to 1982. The city, in the midst of having an outside company take over many of its computer operations, fumbled the ball, but after a couple of tries came up with a list of about 750 names, for which Carrillo and the newly formed Citizens Against Unsolved Murders paid about $500. Then they took the city’s list and bought full-page ads in Fort Worth Weekly and El Informador, a Spanish-language paper, listing all the names.

The group invited others concerned with the killings to a meeting. About 60 people turned out, including D.A. candidate and former prosecutor Terri Moore and someone from State Rep. Lon Burnam’s office — but no city officials. “It was very emotional,” Carrillo said. “People saw an opportunity to vent their anguish over the cases, about how disappointed they were with the system.” Out of that group, about a dozen joined Carrillo, Ernest Mackey and Lee and Albert Saldivar — all of whom had worked together in LULAC — and began planning how to address what they saw as an excessive number of unsolved murders, especially in cases with Hispanic victims.

When the group took its complaints to city hall, police officials were defensive. They correctly pointed out that the list — originally provided by the city’s information technology department — contained many errors, both in the names included and the names left off. But then began a battle over numbers and lists and definitions that, to some degree, still continues. A July 2002 memo to the council said there were only 606 unsolved murders, going back as far as 1968. Police officials eventually corrected that, saying the 606 figure covered the period only as far back as 1980. In December, Police Chief Ralph Mendoza said the numbers were still uncertain, in part because of the confused state of some of the old case files. At one point, a detective told Carrillo that the department had no information in their files on more than 160 cases on his group’s list. Police also disagreed with the survivor group’s definitions of unsolved cases— if police identified a suspect but the grand jury declined to indict, the cops considered that case closed.

City council members were less than impressed, early on, with the discrepancies in the records and the explanations — and with Chief Mendoza’s estimate that reviewing all the unsolved case files to determine which might benefit from more investigation could take five to six years. Then-Mayor Kenneth Barr asked Mendoza to step up the effort. He did, and for the last year two detectives have been assigned full time to what the chief calls the “cold case effort.” By the end of June, all the cases dating back to 1966 had been reviewed, prioritized, and entered into a database, and more effort was being directed toward reinvestigating them. By that time, the total of still-unsolved murders, reaching back 37 years, was 783. Since then, another six have been solved, police said.

But Carrillo and the other family members still aren’t completely satisfied. In the last few months, Carrillo has found about 60 other names that he thinks should be on the list of murder victims. And he’s still trying to figure out why, in some years, there are sizable discrepancies between murder statistics provided by agencies such as the city health department, Texas Department of Public Safety, and Fort Worth police.

Carrillo and LULAC have also been trying for six months to get copies of the original reports on the 34 years’ worth of unsolved murders covered by the police department review. After he complained to the state attorney general that the city was not complying with public information laws, Carrillo said, the AG’s office stepped in to mediate — and determined that the survivors’ group should be able to get the front page — the basic information — from all those reports. A large catch remains, however — the city wants to charge $7,800 for the information. City council member Jim Lane said months ago — and he and council colleague Wendy Davis reiterated a few days ago — that they are willing to request the same information themselves and give it to Carrillo’s group without the large bill attached. But it still hasn’t happened.

Then, of course, there’s the $500 that the group paid more than a year ago for the original data set that got the fight started. City Manager Gary Jackson told the council that, because the information was so full of errors, the money would be refunded.

That was in April. Carrillo said it took the group two more months to get the money back. “We had to go to the open records office and show them the letter,” he said. “We threatened to go back to the city council again. And the next day we got the money.”

Carrillo’s group won that particular skirmish. But by insisting on continually refining the statistics, are they losing the war for the council’s attention?

“I kind of sense eyes glazing over at this point,” Davis said. “It’s not fair to Mr. Mackey or Mr. Carrillo. They have legitimate concerns, and they don’t feel those have been addressed yet.” Both she and Lane emphasized, however, that Mendoza — who was out of the office and not available for comment on this story — and the officers handling the cold-case review are working in good faith and want to see the cases solved.

Davis said she understands that many of the discrepancies between the police statistics and the citizen group’s lists “can be explained by going through them one by one. But I still think there is a mismatch in those numbers, and that’s what continues to nag at them.” In part, she said, there are valid answers that Carrillo and the Houstons and others don’t want to accept. But there are larger concerns that aren’t being addressed, she said — such as the discrepancies among various agencies’ murder statistics.

“I hate the numbers,” Carrillo said. Thinking of the problem as numbers makes his son and Andrea Maahfuz’ and Brenda Allen’s brothers and the other murder victims into an accounting problem, he said, “like in a meat market. But in a meat market they have more respect for counting how many horses or cows you have killed. These guys, they swap numbers like swapping dollars and cents. They talk about being 10 percent above the national average [in clearing murder cases]. You tell me that, and I know that I have 60 names that are not even included in your report?”

Because, of course, to the survivors’ group — and to the detectives as well — the cases aren’t statistics. They’re individuals and families and heartbreak.

The problem, said police department spokesman Jesse Hernandez, is that when Carrillo or another member of the group comes up with new information or new questions, they “run to the council without having touched base with the folks who do the work.” But he and homicide Sgt. J.D. Thornton, who is working on the cold-case effort, said they still would want to see any names of possible murder victims that the group comes up with. “Let us look. If it belongs [on the cold case list], we want to do the work,” Lt. Hernandez said.

Carrillo can recite a long list of the police officials with whom he has shared information over the last 15 months, without feeling that he’s gotten satisfaction.

How much of the families’ time does this cause take up? “Discounting the time I sleep, all the rest of the time I’m thinking about it,” Carrillo said.

“I see it as long-term,” Andrea Maahfuz said, “for the rest of my life.”

For all the animosity and mistrust that exist between the survivors’ group and some police officials, there is no doubt they’ve helped each other — and that, separately and together, they have helped murders get solved. Not only that, but because of the survivor group’s pressure, the cold-case work has perhaps become more organized and sophisticated than ever.

Thornton noted that the cold case review had begun before the survivors group began making their push, and before an outside consultant similarly recommended creation of a cold-case unit in the department. But he acknowledged that the extra attention has indeed helped gain resources for the work.

Since September 2002, when the cold-case review was stepped up, Thornton said, 87 of the old cases have been assigned to detectives for further review. Of those, 50 are still being worked, and eight have been worked to no avail. But 29 have been solved, including at least one going back more than 20 years. The bittersweet part, of course, is that some of the solutions seem so straightforward that observers wonder why it couldn’t have been done just as easily many years earlier — suspects who’ve been living here for years, witnesses who could have made identifications long ago. Other cases benefitted by the technology, such as DNA testing, that wasn’t available when the murders occurred.

Thornton said the cold-case officers have developed relationships with the federal immigration agency, and with Spanish-language news media along the border, that have already led to the arrest of one suspect in a 1999 homicide, and that could lead to others. All 58 of Fort Worth’s outstanding warrants on homicide suspects are for Hispanics, some of whom might be living in Mexico or along the border.

Another effort that is being undertaken, he said, is a separate analysis of all the cold cases with female victims — including those of the 1984-85 cases that ended up in the Fort Worth police jurisdiction. (One body was found outside the city limits.)

Brenda Allen and Andrea Maahfuz and the other family members of the murder victims acknowledge the hard work that’s been put into many of the unsolved cases recently. But to them, it’s not enough. They want what they’ve asked for all along — a separate unit within the police department dedicated to reviewing the cold cases — not an amorphous “cold-case effort” that might get scaled back if some other hot-button issue comes along.

Most say they believed wholeheartedly in the justice system before they saw it working first-hand; now, they are filled with doubts and cynicism. Several see Mendoza’s refusal to support the separate cold-case squad as being the single largest obstacle in the way of solving more cases. They talk with bitterness about how the council these days seems more passionate about garbage and dog parks than about dedicating the resources to help bring killers to justice.

Carrillo acknowledges the support of Barr and Lane and Davis and others, in helping get this far. But he said the council no longer seems very interested in the unsolved murders, and he’s been told that the council meeting isn’t the right time or place to continue the discussion.

“Now, he said, “it’s like we stink or something.”

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