Murder suspect or urban myth?

SUN JOURNAL

Slayings: Dallas police seek a man who they believe killed two young women. Intriguingly, his description fits that of a handsome but deadly stranger of local lore.

August 21, 1999|By Claudia Kolker | Claudia Kolker,LOS ANGELES TIMES

DALLAS -- The stranger at Mike's nightclub seemed a daydream made flesh.

To the men, rural Mexicans newly arrived seeking work, he had all they longed for: manly good looks, fine cowboy clothes, the confidence of a rich man. Unlike the other patrons, he didn't appear to be paying the woman beside him. He never even asked her to dance.

Eyeing the light-skinned stranger from bar stools, the women hoped he'd ask them to dance. They liked the way he sipped soda instead of swilling beer. They noticed his wavy hair and his glinting green eyes. Even a woman here strictly to work, a woman frantic to feed several children, could dream about someone like this.

But the stranger who showed up at Mike's last summer might have been too dangerous to dream about. Police say they think he was a killer. Sometime after midnight, he escorted his companion, Olivia Hernandez, 23, out the door. The next day, she was found strangled and naked, carelessly tossed near a public thoroughfare.

Six months earlier, police say, the stranger had left a similar club with Maria Perales, 19. She, too, was found the next day, her strangled, nude body flung near a train track.

So lean and handsome, so striking was he in the murky bar light, the stranger was quickly described by one witness after another, says Dallas police Detective Jesse Trevino.

What Trevino didn't know is that he could have assembled an almost identical profile listening to whispers at dance halls and cantinas throughout the Southwest. Because, for generations, in nightclubs such as these, Latinas have been telling their stories of a handsome stranger.

In these folk tales, he's always tall, well dressed, with fair skin and light eyes, irresistible. Each time, he lures a dancer into his arms. And to each one, he's a dream come alive until she suddenly, appallingly, understands who he is.

In the stories, the stranger is Satan.

Folk tales are far from most people's thoughts on a typical evening at Mike's. Tucked in a barren corner of East Dallas, Mike's is a traditional taxi club, where women rent their time, taxi-like, song by song. Here, within its rough walls, a Mexican laborer with $12 can buy a dance and a woman's embrace. And here, surrounded by music from home, a woman with high heels and maybe some dreams of her own can at least earn enough to survive.

The killer, police say, must have known this culture, known how to twist it to his advantage. From the cadences of his Spanish, he was clearly Mexican; though witnesses couldn't place his origins, he addressed women bartenders in a courtly way that, to Trevino, suggests he had left Mexico recently. Though he wore Western attire like the rest of the club's rural clients, the stranger's clothes were immaculate and enviably new.

So, as dark turned to dawn, it was not surprising that Olivia Hernandez walked out the door with him. Solemn-mannered and graceful, Hernandez had started at Mike's only four months earlier. Hernandez, other dancers say, likely didn't work as a prostitute, as some women did.

The day after Hernandez left with the stranger, her corpse was found at a Dallas building site.

Six months earlier, Maria Perales left another club, the Tapatio Ballroom, apparently with the same stranger. Her body was found the next day. DNA evidence shows both women had had sex with the same man before dying. By the time the two cases were linked, the stranger had vanished.

When Hernandez arrived in Dallas from Chihuahua eight years ago, it was meant to be just a visit. But, says her sister, 36-year-old Maria Martinez, the visit dragged on. Hernandez worked in a bar. She got pregnant; the boyfriend ran. She bore a second child by an older man; he was in jail on drug charges months after she gave birth.

With her lover in jail and two babies to support, Hernandez went to Mike's out of desperation. She always left early, earning about $80 a night before slipping home to collect the children from their sitter. Not even her sister knew of Hernandez's taxi dancing until police told her.

"As a girl, she was very tranquil, very retiring. She always played alone," Martinez recalls. In Dallas, she adds, "nobody knows what Oli suffered. She was alone with just the kids."

Perales, on the other hand, was strong-willed, daring, educated and didn't care who knew what she did for a living. She attended private schools before starting work as a hostess in Acapulco nightclubs at 17, says her sister-in-law.

Her parents, middle-class Mexicans who previously had lived in the United States, allowed Perales to stay in Mexico when they and their three other children came to Dallas three years ago. Delighted when Maria joined them here last year, they soon found themselves embroiled in fights over the taxi clubs.

"She was a show person. She just liked to go out and wanted to do her own thing," says the sister-in-law, who did not want to give her name. Taxi dancing "appealed to her."

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