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.

November 1996By Comments

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 one” crimes—for the better part of the decade. Gone, apparently, was the edginess of the eighties, when every other day’s headlines brought news of a drive-by shooting or some other gang-related mayhem. The drug gangs were still a force to be reckoned with, but the crack epidemic seemed to have leveled off, and the Crips and the Bloods seemed to be conducting their illicit activities with a good deal less bloodshed.

So how to explain Juan Chavez and Hector Fernandez? Under the circumstances, it is tempting to speculate that their orgiastic spree was an aberration. But to analysts who have looked between the lines of the FBI’s glowing reports, the senseless murders are less an anomaly than an omen. While the fight against crime is being won in quantitative terms—murder in Dallas, for example, declined 16 percent from 1994 to 1995—the quality of the crimes is more alarming than ever. Violent crime may be down, but random violent crime as a proportion of the total is up. According to research by New York attorney Adam Walinsky, stranger-on-stranger murders are now four times more common than family killings and constitute a slim majority of all homicides. And the increase has been accompanied by a concurrent decline in the “clearance” of homicide cases; that is, fewer murders are being solved. Walinsky reports that in urban police departments, the clearance rate for all murders has dropped over the past three decades from about 90 percent to 60 percent. Worse, the clearance rate for stranger-on-stranger crimes is just over 20 percent, so nearly four in five strangers who commit a violent crime today will get away with murder—literally.

The culprits this time around are not the drug gangs but a new breed of street criminals known as superpredators. They tend to be young, aren’t affiliated with any group, and have little if any organized criminal intent. Their crimes are as savage as they are pointless. The superpredators’ carefree attitude about the consequences of their actions brings to mind plain old juvenile delinquents—but these JDs are armed with Tec 9 semiautomatic pistols, and they prefer slashing throats to slashing tires. Anyone who reads the papers knows there’s ample anecdotal evidence of this trend. If news of gang-related crime has mostly disappeared from the front page, it has been replaced by reports of superpredator crimes: carjackings, driveway stickups, and (in Dallas, at least) stranger-on-stranger rapes. Robbery is the putative objective of much of this type of violence, yet as the Chavez murders indicate, the victims are often lousy marks, and the perpetrator’s plunder from such crimes is rarely equal to the level of risk or violence. (Carjackings are a good example. Automobiles are among the most lucrative items a crook can steal, but why hijack them at gunpoint when they can be easily pilfered from parking lots with no harm to the perpetrator or victim? Because money isn’t really the motive.)

The usual suspects have been blamed for this latest crime wave: poverty, the failure of the education system, the disintegration of the traditional family, the ease with which guns can be acquired on the streets, the drug plague. No doubt all of those well-worn scapegoats have played a part in the rise of the superpredator class. But they don’t really explain the most distinctive aspect of the phenomenon: Why thugs like Juan Chavez commit crimes for which they admittedly have no motive, and why they’re so indifferent to the consequences. I had hoped to hear the answer from Chavez himself, but he never responded to my request for an interview. Of course, that’s typical of the superpredator mentality. The blood he spilled on that July night is long out of sight, out of mind—has been, in fact, since a few seconds after he pulled the trigger.

Princeton University professor John DiIulio has said this chilling lack of conscience is the result of a “moral poverty” that afflicts Chavez’s generation. That may be true, but these new urban marauders are also throwbacks. Three decades ago, we began hearing about sociopathic disorders that could lead people to commit crime. But that explanation went out of fashion during the crack-addled eighties, when so much crime was committed by the people who abused the drug or sold it that law enforcement officials seemed to think drugs were the primary cause of all violence. Police, prosecutors, and judges played down the impact of psychopathic or sociopathic personality disorders and instead waged their war on crime by waging a war on drugs. Today, however, as the superpredators thrive while the crack epidemic tapers off, it’s clear the target of our attack needs to be a criminally antisocial disposition that is not chemically induced.

And the attack couldn’t come a moment too soon, for the superpredator class is growing at an alarming rate. In a recent study he conducted for the United States Department of Justice, Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox noted that over the past ten years, the percentage of murders committed by juveniles has nearly doubled. Indeed, it now may be safely said that the violent crime problem and the juvenile crime problem are one and the same—a frightening thought when you consider that our teenage population is expected to swell by 20 percent in the next decade. “We can expect a crime wave of juvenile violence that will be so bad,” Fox told the ABC newsmagazine 20/20, “that we’ll look back someday at 1996 and say, ‘Those were the good old days.’”

“THE CHAVEZ CASE WAS AS COMPLEX and confusing as any I’ve ever tried to unravel,” says Greg Davis, a square-jawed veteran prosecutor in the Dallas County district attorney’s office. “You had multiple victims, multiple crime scenes, and multiple suspects—all from basically the same place.”

Small wonder that the rise in superpredator crime has coincided with a decline in murder clearance rates. Precisely because random acts of violence are, well, random and involve individuals who don’t know one another, the police are particularly confounded by them. Superpredator crimes tend to be committed by young, underclass males and typically look alike in their messy spontaneity, which is why they can be more difficult to sort out than the most complex murder-for-hire scheme. In the aftermath of last July’s murder spree, the confusion led to the arrest of four suspects within two weeks, two of whom were quickly and, as it turned out, wrongly indicted after lengthy interrogations and dubious confessions.

Fortunately for the police, the fifth suspect hauled in was Hector “Crazy” Fernandez, and if they were to believe his court-appointed attorney, Brook Busbee, he could singlehandedly unravel the entire tangled investigation and also provide information on as many as half a dozen other unsolved gankings in the area. Davis and his investigators immediately met with Fernandez, who was somewhat reticent at first but eventually recounted a tale of senseless savagery far beyond what the prosecutor had suspected. Fernandez was a bit slow, and he hadn’t exactly been a passive bystander on that night, but his recollections were precise. His friend Juan Chavez was not only responsible for an extraordinarily ferocious rampage; if you counted the other murders he had committed, he would earn the ignominious distinction of being the single most productive killer in the history of Dallas County: Twelve people dead and six more wounded over a period of four months. Based on Fernandez’s statement—and his promise to testify in exchange for “use immunity” (freedom from prosecution that would result from self-incriminating statements)—Davis moved quickly to have Chavez indicted on capital murder charges for the brutal slaying of the man using the pay phone at the apartment complex.

Once Chavez was arrested, Davis began delving into his psyche, and what struck him was the fact that his criminal résumé contained little of the “negative sociology” commonly associated with abominable felons. Although Chavez grew up in impoverished West Dallas, he had lived across the tracks from the housing projects in a small, predominantly Mexican American neighborhood where the social atrophy was far less pervasive. There were, predictably, juvenile delinquents in the area who robbed residences and businesses, stole cars, sold dope, and belonged to street gangs, but plenty of hardworking, law-abiding people lived there too.

The Chavez family seemed unremarkable in this environment except for its size: Juan grew up with eighteen brothers and sisters. His father, a construction worker, had stayed married to his mother for 35 years, and most of the children had graduated from high school, entered the work force, gotten married, and had kids of their own. Juan himself seemed similarly unremarkable. Although he dropped out of school after the ninth grade, he had no history of juvenile misbehavior, drug abuse, or formal gang membership.

In 1985, however, all that changed. Overcome, perhaps, by some latent psychopathic urges, seventeen-year-old Chavez and two cohorts pushed their way into the West Dallas home of Raul and Vincente Mendoza, robbed them, and shot the place up, partially blinding Raul and killing Vincente. Chavez was arrested, convicted of murder and aggravated robbery, and sentenced to fifteen years. Any chance he might have had for a normal life was dashed by hard time in the state’s toughest correctional facilities. “I think you had a kid who was only medium-bad to begin with,” says an investigator who worked on the case. “He goes to the joint, he comes out very bad. It’s that simple.”

Not that Chavez unwillingly degenerated in prison: Indeed, his record indicates he eagerly allied himself with the darkest forces he could find. In mid-1987, only a few months after he was sent to the Pack II Unit at Navasota, Chavez was tapped for membership in the infamous Hispanic prison gang known as the Texas Syndicate (TS). One of the largest, most powerful, and most ruthless prison gangs in the Southwest, TS is a multi-pronged enterprise that stretches from prison unit to prison unit and even outside the walls of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The gang, which started in the California prison system in the seventies and spread to Texas in the eighties, is selective about its soldiers and demands loyalty from them. “Anyone in TS understands that if he doesn’t carry out the orders of the leadership, he’ll die,” says A. P. Merillat, an investigator with a special statewide prosecution unit for prison crimes. “The Syndicate has long arms too. If you slack on an order to carry out a hit or you turn snitch, they’ll come and get you even after you’re out. Or they’ll come get a family member. You gotta be bad to make it in that gang.”

Make it is precisely what Juan Chavez did, and soon enough he became known as a bad guy within the prison system. “He reminded me of a death row inmate,” a guard would later testify. Beginning in April 1988, Chavez was cited more than forty times for violating prison rules. Sometimes he refused to work at assigned jobs, but usually his offenses were much more serious: In 1989, while at the Ellis II Unit in Huntsville, the maximum security facility that houses death row, Chavez fought so frequently with other inmates that he was placed on cell restriction, meaning he could not leave his cell without an official escort. A year later, he was sent to solitary confinement for the near-fatal beating of a fellow inmate. In November 1992, while at the Beto I Unit near Palestine—“the tightest lockup we have,” according to one guard—Chavez showed his true gang colors by climbing a fence topped with razor wire to get at another inmate in what Davis surmises was a hit ordered by the Texas Syndicate. A guard later testified that he’d never seen anything like Chavez’s single-mindedness and disregard for his own well-being in carrying out his mission.

DESPITE HIS CAPACITY FOR MEANNESS and his propensity for deadly violence, Juan Chavez was inexplicably paroled in April 1994. When he returned to Dallas to live with his sister Isabel, he was, in her words, “a different person”: He cooked and cleaned and baby-sat her two children. He tried to get a few odd jobs, but since he was a high school dropout with a felony record, he had trouble finding steady employment. His parole officer would later testify that he was a model parolee.

But as prosecutor Davis would eventually learn from Hector Fernandez, a different Juan Chavez was wreaking havoc on the streets of West Dallas and Oak Cliff after nightfall. Fernandez said he and Chavez had become running buddies not long after Chavez made parole. He liked hanging with Chavez because he was “cool” and introduced him to the world of illegal firearms. Chavez always had a gun—if not two or three—and Fernandez quickly learned more about Tec 9’s and .38 Specials than any of the subjects he studied in school.

The only trouble was that when you hung with Juan Chavez, you became involved in murder. On March 22, 1995—less than a year after his release from prison—Chavez, Fernandez, and Chavez’s girlfriend at the time, Rachel Blanco, went cruising in north Oak Cliff in Rachel’s father’s Lincoln. According to Fernandez, they were “looking for rims,” the expensive chrome wheel covers especially favored by many Hispanic car owners. Juan spotted a set of rims he liked on a car at a car wash on East Davis, and just like that, they pulled over, hopped out, pulled a gun on the owner, and demanded his car keys. “Juan shot him, and we run off,” Fernandez later testified. The trio took the car keys but not the car. Two months later, Fernandez said, he and Chavez struck again, carjacking and shooting a man in the parking lot of the La Favorita market on West Davis. That time, the two managed to make off with their booty—a Buick Regal with the desired fancy rims—and took it to a chop shop. Fernandez kept the stereo system. Chavez, typically, didn’t keep anything, not even the rims.

Davis was mystified. As bloody and ghoulish as Chavez’s crimes were, they were strangely profitless. Many times he made off with little more than chump change. But Chavez, Fernandez said, liked to pick fights for the hell of it. On July 4, 1995, he accosted two men in the parking lot of a tire shop on West Davis and told them, “If you don’t move that piece-of-shit car, I’m gonna fill your ass full of lead!” When one of the men replied, “Go ahead,” Chavez shot them both dead. And as he sped away with the car in reverse, Fernandez said, Chavez “sport shot” a third man who had made the mistake of standing in his mother’s front yard. Just as mystifying was Chavez’s apparent preference for exterminating other Hispanics, especially immigrants and day laborers. Fernandez, in fact, told Davis that Chavez frequently spoke disdainfully of Mexican immigrants of a lower social station, calling them wetbacks.

As Fernandez continued to talk more about the gankings, Davis knew he had what prosecutors call a “gut cinch” case on Juan Chavez. He knew he could prove that Chavez had committed a dozen murders. What continued to vex him, and anyone else who would peruse the case file, was, Why?

THAT WAS A QUESTION THAT WOULD never be satisfactorily answered. When Chavez went to trial this past March for the murder of the man at the phone booth—the only crime for which the DA’s office had secured testimony from multiple eyewitnesses—there was never any doubt that a Dallas County jury would convict the young thug and sentence him to death. Chavez’s court-appointed attorneys tried gamely to construct a defense of mistaken identity, citing the two suspects initially arrested and indicted. But Hector Fernandez’s gripping account of that July night left only one question about the outcome of the case: how quickly the jury would convict.

Chavez’s demeanor throughout the proceedings was fascinating. As police officers and the medical examiner graphically described the degree of his bloodlust, as relatives and friends of the victims wept on the witness stand, and even as Fernandez detailed his sadism, Chavez remained chillingly dispassionate and expressionless, though occasionally he turned to smile at members of his family seated in the gallery. He just didn’t care—not then, and not at the time he committed the crime. He wasn’t acting out any formless underclass anger when he gunned down all those people last year. Murder was a diversion for him, an activity engaged in as spontaneously as the rest of us might decide to take in a movie on a lazy Saturday afternoon. That is the haunting legacy of Juan Chavez: that he murdered not only without remorse after the fact but without motive before it.

Chavez was convicted, of course, after the jury deliberated for just two and a half hours. Five days later, he returned to court to be formally sentenced to death. Judge Harold Entz asked him whether he wanted to say anything, and he replied firmly, “Yes.” Then, turning to the relatives and friends of some of his many victims, he said, “I still say I’m not guilty.”

As he mouthed the words, his voice seemed to catch a little, but this was not a man stifling fear or ruefulness. Juan Chavez seemed to be swallowing a laugh, and you couldn’t help but think that his coy little smile was the face of the next great crime wave.

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