At seven o’clock in the morning on February 11, 2010, a man drove to the well-heeled community of Bellaire, in the heart of Houston. He turned onto South Third, a quiet street dotted with million-dollar homes built on small lots, and stopped in front of a two-story, five-bedroom stucco house with a swimming pool in the backyard. It was the residence of Jeffrey Stern, a successful personal injury lawyer; his wife, Yvonne; and their fourteen-year-old daughter and twelve-year-old son. The driver paused for a moment and studied the house. Then he pulled out a handgun; fired two shots, one of which went through the living room window; and drove off.
Jeffrey was out of town, but Yvonne and the children were sleeping upstairs. She was wearing earplugs and didn’t hear a sound. Her daughter, who was awakened briefly, thought a painting had fallen from a wall. But a neighbor who did hear the gunshots called the police. The Sterns were completely bewildered when officers arrived at the house. All they could imagine, they said, was that some teenagers from another neighborhood had shot at the house as part of a prank drive-by. Two months later, at ten-thirty at night, another man with a gun drove to Bellaire. He got out of his van, walked up to the Sterns’ home, and rang the doorbell. Yvonne went to the door and her son followed behind. She was 52 years old, a beautiful woman with flawless skin, gleaming dark eyes, and glossy brunet hair cut to a shoulder-length bob. The man saw her through a glass pane, smiled, and fired at her. Yvonne pressed herself against a wall, and the bullet missed her and her son by inches. The man sprinted to his van and sped away.
Once again, the police were unable to find any leads. Jeffrey, a slim, bespectacled 54-year-old with carefully groomed silver hair, hired a security company to install bulletproof glass in all the windows, erect iron gates around the front door, set up surveillance cameras, and place floodlights on the roof. He bought a German shepherd to patrol the house, and he purchased a Toyota Sequoia and arranged to have armored plates installed. He even hired a former Navy SEAL to teach the family how to respond if another gunman came around, and he asked a private investigator to help the police find out who might have had a reason to come to the Sterns’ home and start shooting.
Because the police and Jeffrey’s private investigator believed that Yvonne was the target of the last shooting, the couple decided that it would be safer if she secretly moved into a luxury apartment a few miles away called the Meritage. But Yvonne made it clear that she wasn’t going to become a recluse. On the morning of May 5, wearing chic black workout clothes, Yvonne took the elevator from her apartment down to the Meritage’s parking garage. She was headed to the home of a friend who had invited her to meet a California jewelry designer who had flown to Houston to show off his latest collection. A man wearing silver aviator glasses, a black jacket, and a black turtleneck was waiting for her. He aimed a gun at Yvonne and shouted, “Give me your f—ing money or I’ll kill you.” Frantic, she held up her purse and turned it upside down. Then the man shot her in the abdomen.
The bullet clipped her liver and colon and lodged in her right hip. She drove to a nearby Citgo station, stumbled inside, and collapsed. But while lying on the floor, she found the strength to text her husband. “I’ve been shot,” she typed. Jeffrey ran out of his office, leaped into his black Maserati, and raced to the gas station, arriving just in time to see his wife being loaded into an ambulance.
For the third time, with no suspects or solid leads, the investigation hit a dead end. Then, on May 27, detectives received a phone call from a man who was awaiting deportation in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility. He said he had seen a photo of Yvonne on the news, and it just so happened that he knew all about the plot to murder her, which he’d be happy to talk about if he could stay in the United States. In fact, he later told detectives, a childhood friend named Richard Gutierrez had approached him weeks earlier and asked if he would be the assassin.
When detectives tracked down Gutierrez, a tattooed driver for a Houston wrecker service, he nervously started talking about a woman named Michelle Gaiser, who worked as the office manager of a small law firm in Houston. Since January, he said, she had been asking him to recruit hit men to kill Yvonne Stern. She never once gave any indication how she knew this particular woman or why she wanted her dead. But she was so determined to have her killed, Gutierrez said, that she told him she would pay $20,000 for a successful hit.
Armed with an arrest warrant, the detectives paid a visit to Michelle’s office. They arrived just as she was walking out of a meeting. She was a pretty Filipino woman in her late thirties, dressed in a dark business suit, with thick, curly hair pulled back from her face. For a moment they stared at her. Then they stared at the man who was standing behind her. It was none other than Jeffrey Stern.
A year and a half later, on a blustery December afternoon, Yvonne Stern strolled into Vietopia, a popular Houston restaurant on Buffalo Speedway. She was wearing a black blouse, black pants, black boots that came to just below her knees, and a snappy black fedora, the brim pulled over her forehead. Wrapped around her neck was a leopard-print scarf. As she headed for her table, some of the diners could not help but do double takes.
It wasn’t just her appearance that set off the wide-eyed stares. People were looking at her