Sarita's Secret

Once the seat of a famous ranching empire, this sleepy town has kept hidden for eighty years the answer to one of South Texas's greatest riddles: Is Ray Fernandez, the descendant of a Mexican maid, the heir to the gigantic Kenedy fortune?

THE TRAIN DOESN'T STOP IN SARITA anymore. They tore down the depot years ago, along with the hotel, the lumberyard, and the cotton gin. It has been a century since anyone referred to this part of South Texas as "the French Riviera of Texas," as land speculators once did. Driving a desolate stretch of U.S. 77, twenty miles south of Kingsville, I almost missed Sarita entirely: The only visible landmarks are a green sign identifying the town, a blinking yellow light, and a water tower off in some distant trees. Sarita has an elementary school and a Catholic church but no shops, cafes, or even a convenience store. The closest supermarket is in Kingsville; the nearest major medical center is in Corpus Christi, seventy miles north; and the pharmacy of choice is in Nuevo Progreso, Mexico, an hour-and-thirty-minute drive for cheap drugs. The only place to spend the night is a one-suite bed-and-breakfast run by Patti Fain, who is also the justice of the peace; her husband, Mike, a retired game warden, is the local gunsmith. The only source of soft drinks is a vending machine at the Kenedy County courthouse, a dim cavern of mostly empty hallways and faded photographs. When I was there in June, a dog slept in the dusty street between the courthouse and the former home of the old Kenedy Pasture Company, now a museum.

Sarita is not a ghost town in the usual sense. But the ghosts of the Kenedys—Captain Mifflin Kenedy and his star-crossed heirs, especially his two grandchildren, John G. Kenedy Jr. and Sarita Kenedy East, for whom this unincorporated county seat is named—hover like the hot blue sky over the tiny town of around 250, which appears as a footnote to the huge ranch that the captain founded after the Civil War. Though all the Kenedys are dead, their legend is as alive as the front page of your morning newspaper. It crackles with the legacy of the patrón system: tales of stolen land and inheritance, racial and religious conflict, endless courtroom battles, violence, avarice, and shadowy family secrets, all of which connect the cultures and histories of South Texas and northern Mexico.

Mifflin Kenedy was one of the three great ranchers of far South Texas, the others being his close friends Richard King and Major John Armstrong. Though he was a Quaker from Pennsylvania, he never let religion get in his way. He met and fell in love with a beautiful 26-year-old devout Catholic from Mier, Mexico, Petra Vela de Vidal. Depending on which version of history you believe, Petra was the wife, mistress, or widow of Luis Vidal, a captain in the Mexican army. Some historians believe that Kenedy arranged the murder of Luis, who had already fathered at least six children by Petra. Kenedy moved his bride to Brownsville, where they had six more children. Most of their sons lived fast and died young. Tom Kenedy, the eldest, was killed by a deputy sheriff in Brownsville whose estranged wife the young ranching heir was courting. Adrian Vidal, Mifflin's adopted son, was executed in a Mexican prison while the captain stood helplessly outside the prison walls. After driving a herd of cattle to Dodge City and getting into a fight with the town's mayor, James Kenedy barely survived a shoot-out with a posse that included Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, only to succumb later to typhoid fever. When Mifflin died intestate, in 1895, the 400,000-acre ranch ended up in the hands of his sole surviving son, John Gregory Kenedy, known as Don Gregorio.

The dynasty might have gone on indefinitely, except that neither of Don Gregorio's two surviving children produced an heir. John G. Kenedy Jr., known all his life as Johnny, was a boozer and a womanizer who died in 1948 in Saltillo, the home of his Mexican-born wife, Elena, who inherited his half of the fortune. According to family legend, Johnny was rendered sterile by a childhood case of the mumps, and his sister, Sarita, the last of the Kenedys, died childless in 1961, leaving the bulk of her estate to the John G. and Marie Stella Kenedy Memorial Foundation, named for her parents. Elena died in 1984, leaving her estate to the John G. Kenedy Jr. Charitable Trust. The two institutions are handled by administrators and lawyers; together, they control assets valued between $500 million and $1 billion, of which about 80 percent of the income goes to the Catholic Diocese of Corpus Christi, the Christus Spohn Health System, and various Catholic charities. In the final years of her life, Sarita was attended by a number of ambitious men, including clerics, with designs on her millions. "Vultures," she called them. Lawsuits over her fortune began two months after her death and continue to this day.

In the heyday of the Kenedys, the ranch headquarters was located far from town, down a long, narrow road toward the coast that dead-ended at La Casa Grande, the thirty-room family estate. Sarita bequeathed the house and the 10,000 acres surrounding it, including the family chapel and cemetery, to the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Today the Oblate fathers use the property—since reduced by settlements to 1,010 acres—as a religious retreat called Lebh Shomea House of Prayer. ("Lebh shomea" is Hebrew for "listening heart.") This veneer of peace and tranquillity is profoundly deceptive, however. One of several lawsuits still pending threatens to expose the darkest secret of all: that Johnny Kenedy may have sired a child by one of the Kenedy maids in 1925. The allegation started bubbling to the surface on Mother's Day, 2000, with a chance remark to a Corpus Christi man named Ray Fernandez by his dying grandmother. Speaking in Spanish, she told her grandson: "You look just like your grandfather Johnny Kenedy." Assuming she was talking about the late son of the late president, he dismissed it as the babbling of an old woman with dementia, dying of bone cancer.

But as Ray began to research his

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