Thrill Killers

All over urban Texas, young thugs are committing a vicious new kind of crime: Find an unsuspecting victim, rob him, then shoot him just for fun. And most of the time, they’re getting away with it.

AROUND MIDNIGHT ON JULY 1, 1995, JUAN CHAVEZ and Hector Fernandez hopped into a Chevrolet Caprice they’d stolen from a Greyhound bus maintenance center and headed north toward the apartment complexes of Northwest Dallas—terrific territory for ganking. The latest inner-city fad, ganking is essentially what used to be called a stickup, only these days the victim frequently, and needlessly, ends up dead. Chavez and Fernandez spent a lot of time ganking that summer, if not always to turn a handsome profit then for the sheer sport of pulling a gun on some unsuspecting stranger, taking what they wanted, and putting a few bullets in him.

Chavez, then 27, was out on parole after serving seven years in various state prisons for a 1985 murder that would have been called a ganking had the term existed. Fernandez, then 15, was mentally deficient but a master car thief. Both were well known in West Dallas, a sprawling underclass-to-working-poor neighborhood that rests on the western lip of the Trinity River bottoms. Chavez was John Travolta handsome, charming, and quick-witted; he was also vicious, as you could tell from the huge Texas Syndicate prison gang tattoo on his chest that he showed off as often as possible. Fernandez was slender and shy and very loyal to Chavez, who protected him from the Junior Homeboys, a street gang whose members had terrorized Fernandez for most of his short life. In fact, it’s believed that Fernandez had acquired his street nickname—Crazy—because of the many obviously unwinnable brawls he’d fought with gang members before he hooked up with Chavez.

The two cruised around a bit that night before stopping at Zapp’s, a Mexican American nightclub on the West Northwest Highway. There, they happened on two acquaintances from the ’hood, Joe Gonzalez and Edgar Retiz, who had also been out cruising. Retiz would later testify that they all shot the bull for a while and then, at Chavez’s suggestion, decided to head out and look for a party.

With Fernandez at his side, Chavez sped the Caprice toward a cluster of apartments on Webbs Chapel Extension; Gonzalez and Retiz followed in Retiz’s pickup truck. At one complex, Chavez spotted a Hispanic man talking on a pay phone in the parking lot and pulled up alongside. “Are you still on the line?” Juan Chavez asked, flashing the coy smile that is his trademark. When the man stepped from the phone booth to respond, Chavez calmly got out of the car and shot him in the chest. From thirty yards away, Gonzalez and Retiz heard the shot and then saw Chavez lean over, rifle through the man’s clothing, and shoot him again. They watched, stunned, as he jumped back into the Caprice and sped away. They followed him until he pulled into a vacant parking lot down the road. Gonzalez went over to talk briefly with Chavez and Fernandez. When he returned, Retiz would later recall, all he said was, “Juan says if you tell anyone about what you saw, you’re going to get the same thing.” Frightened, Gonzalez and Retiz split, leaving Chavez and Fernandez to divvy up their take from the ganking: $2 in cash and some credit cards, which Chavez blithely discarded.

Gonzalez and Retiz headed home, but Chavez and Fernandez were just getting started. In the next four hours, the pair would terrorize West Dallas with a string of gankings, leaving four more people dead, three seriously wounded, and the authorities bewildered.

With rapacious efficiency, they:
• Assaulted and murdered a female security guard in an empty parking lot near a movie theater at the Stemmons Freeway and the Northwest Highway. Before killing her, Chavez asked her, “Do you have any children?” Then he shot her in the face, frisked her, jumped back into the car, and for good measure, ran over her.
• Shot and robbed a male security guard as he stood watch over the Indian Ridge apartment complex on West Eighth Street in Oak Cliff. The two made off with his 9mm pistol. The guard miraculously survived two point-blank shots to the neck but was permanently paralyzed.
• Robbed three Hispanic men they found standing on East Ninth Street. Chavez shot and killed one, and Fernandez, packing the security guard’s pistol, shot and wounded the two others. One of the survivors had tossed a money clip onto the hood of the Caprice but said he wasn’t sure Chavez had even bothered to pocket it.
• Ambushed a man and woman necking in a pickup at nearby Kidd Springs Park. Chavez shot and killed the man on the spot after he refused to give up his wallet. Chavez then jumped into the truck with the very dead man and his very frightened girlfriend. As Fernandez followed in the Caprice, he drove to the Trinity River bottoms, dumping the man’s body along the way; once there, he forced the woman out of the truck and ran over her. Fernandez later alleged that Chavez ordered him to “finish her off” with his pistol because she wasn’t dead—and he did.

The pair left the Caprice and took the truck to Chavez’s house, where they picked up some gasoline. They drove to a spot near the Edgefield exit off Interstate 30 in West Dallas and torched it. It was a dramatic end to the goriest murder spree in recent memory. “Random and cold-blooded” is how a Dallas cop at one of the crime scenes described it: “They were just killing people for the fun of it.” Hector Fernandez would later tell authorities that it “was real bad, what we had done.” But, as he recalled, Juan Chavez laughed and smiled all the way through it.

WHEN DALLAS RESIDENTS AWOKE on the morning of July 2 and learned of the vicious rampage, they had to be surprised and more than a bit dismayed. The city was just getting used to the idea of declining crime rates. Like most major urban areas, Dallas had seen a steady and at times astounding decrease in lawlessness—especially in violent “category

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