The sun’s gone dim, and
The moon’s turned black;
For I loved him, and
He didn’t love back.
On an early June day, Brenda Delgado received a devastating email. It came from her ex-boyfriend Dr. Ricardo “Ricky” Paniagua. Brenda was 31, a student in the dental hygiene program at Sanford-Brown College, a for-profit institution in Dallas. She was petite, with eyes the color of almonds and a thick mane of auburn hair that fell to her shoulders. People who knew her described her as pretty and personable—“someone always easy to talk to,” one friend said.
Ricky was 38, a California native and graduate of the prestigious Stanford medical school. He had come to Dallas in 2011 to complete his residency in dermatology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Now it was 2015, and he was working as an assistant professor at UTSW. He was slim, with short black hair that he liked to brush straight upward. People said he looked like David Schwimmer, the actor who played Ross on Friends. He was quiet and thoughtful, with a bedside manner that one patient described as “second to none.”
Thank you for reading Texas Monthly
Now more than ever Texans are connecting over shared stories. Enjoy your unlimited access to our site. To have Texas Monthly magazine delivered to your home, become a subscriber today.
Ricky had met Brenda in August 2012, and only three months after their first date, Brenda was living with him in his apartment. Except for one brief breakup, they were inseparable for two and half years. Ricky had gone so far as to give Brenda a promise ring. In February 2015, however, Ricky informed Brenda that he needed to move on. He began dating around and eventually found another girlfriend—which was the reason he decided to send Brenda the email in June. In the email, he politely let her know that he was in a new relationship and that it was going very well.
The new girlfriend’s name was Kendra Hatcher. She was a 35-year-old pediatric dentist who lived in Gables Park 17, one of the luxurious high-rise apartment buildings in Dallas’s Uptown, the neighborhood just north of downtown that’s home to thousands of upwardly mobile millennials. She looked like a toothpaste model, with perfectly white teeth, high cheekbones, green eyes, and softly waving raven hair. And she was enchanted with Ricky. During one of their first dates, she wore a pink sweatshirt that read “I’m With Dreamy.”
Throughout that summer, Ricky and Kendra dined at fashionable Uptown restaurants. They took expensive trips. On their Facebook pages, they posted photos of themselves hugging each other and smiling. They were so in love they talked about starting a wedding fund.
Then, on September 2, the day before Kendra was to fly with Ricky to Cancún for a long weekend, someone walked up to her in the parking garage of Gables Park 17 and fired a bullet into the back of her head.
The killing sent shock waves through Uptown. Young women were hesitant to stroll the neighborhood’s sidewalks or linger over cocktails at night with their friends. Kendra’s coworkers at Smile Zone, the Irving practice where she worked, gathered one evening outside the entrance to the Gables Park 17 garage. They held flowers, candles, and posters with Kendra’s picture on them, and they told reporters that Kendra was kind and congenial, with a smile always on her face. They could not imagine who would want to kill her.
Because Kendra’s tan Coach purse was missing, Dallas Police detectives initially speculated that she had been shot during a robbery. But within a week, the narrative took an almost unbelievable turn. The detectives believed Kendra was the victim of a murder-for-hire scheme orchestrated by none other than Ricky’s ex-girlfriend Brenda Delgado. Since the breakup, the detectives had learned, Brenda had been stalking Ricky, reading his texts and emails and tailing him around Dallas. When she realized that he was falling for Kendra, she recruited two people she barely knew—a down-on-her-luck single mother and a small-time marijuana dealer—to kill Kendra. Maybe that way, police theorized, she could again have Ricky to herself.
Soon, producers from all the network television true-crime shows—48 Hours, Dateline, 20/20—were racing to Texas to cover the story. A correspondent from the Daily Mail, in London, arrived to do interviews. Everyone wanted to talk to Brenda or at least get a look at her. But she was nowhere to be found.
The detectives met with the FBI, which eventually put Brenda on its Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list (making her, at the time, only the ninth woman to attain that distinction) and offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to her arrest. The FBI also warned anyone who spotted her not to approach her. As far as law enforcement officials were concerned, Brenda was dangerous and desperate, a jilted lover on the run.
Members of Brenda’s family, however, insisted that the police had got it all wrong. They said they could not fathom Brenda’s coming up with a plan to commit any kind of crime, let alone murder. “She’s a beautiful and very Christian person,” Brenda’s mother, Maria, told the Daily Mail’s correspondent. “She has the best family values and is not the jealous type at all.” George Milner, a well-regarded Dallas attorney who had been hired by the family to represent Brenda, declared that she had never before been in trouble and that she had no history of mental illness. “Brenda Delgado is a nice, normal thirtysomething American,” Milner told me. “She’s incapable of violence.”
Not even Ricky could imagine that Brenda had anything to do with Kendra’s murder. Since his breakup with Brenda, he said, they had remained good friends. On the very night of Kendra’s murder, Ricky had texted Brenda to let her know what had happened, and she had texted him back the next morning, offering to bring over groceries or anything else he might need.
Ricky told police and prosecutors he was baffled. It just didn’t seem possible, he said, that someone so kind and helpful—so genuinely sweet—could transform herself, almost overnight, into a cold-blooded killer.
In 1982 Brenda’s father, Luis, a factory worker in central Mexico, decided he and his family deserved a better life. After visiting Texas and other states, he brought his wife and five children to Dallas, which he called a city of opportunity.
The Delgados found a modest home in Pleasant Grove, a lower-income community in southeast Dallas. Luis got a job in construction; Maria worked for the U.S. Post Office and cleaned houses. Brenda was the second of their five children and the only girl. According to one of her brothers, who asked that his name not be used, she was determined to make something of her life. She was an excellent student, loved by her teachers. After school, she worked part-time at a floral shop and as a waitress.
When Brenda graduated from Skyline High School, in 2000, she talked about enrolling in college and someday attending medical school. But because her parents couldn’t afford to pay her tuition, Brenda continued to live at home, attended an evangelical church, got a job as a dental assistant, and took on a second job whitening teeth at a day spa in NorthPark Center, a popular high-end mall in North Dallas.
Occasionally, she went out with girlfriends to trendy restaurants and bars in Uptown. She didn’t dress as well as the more fashionable Uptown women—she bought her clothes at Forever 21—but there were plenty of guys interested in her. According to her brother, Brenda was very selective about whom she dated, and when she did go out, she didn’t drink much or act flirtatious. One man who met Brenda for dinner told me that she showed up with one of her brothers. On their second date, she brought along a girlfriend.
In time, Brenda did move out of her parents’ house. She stayed in northeast Dallas, in the spare bedroom of an apartment of a childhood friend and her husband. She continued to socialize on occasion in Uptown. And she joined a couple of dating apps, which is how she met Ricky. He was a studious young man who loved to do research, coauthoring academic papers with such titles as “Selective tyrosine kinase inhibition by imatinib mesylate for the treatment of autoimmune arthritis.” He was not a big talker. Brenda’s brother described him as “kind of introverted, to say the least.”
Ricky was in the final stages of a divorce (he had married a woman in California before moving to Texas to do his residency), and he was just beginning to date. He was a catch, a handsome and ambitious MD, and he had his share of female admirers. But among all the women he got to know in Dallas, there was something about Brenda that intrigued him. He too had come from a humble background—raised in a single-wide trailer in rural Northern California—and he appreciated Brenda’s desire to make a better life for herself. For their first date, Ricky took her to a Jennifer Lopez concert at the American Airlines Center.
Brenda was dazzled. And Ricky clearly cared for her. In November 2012, three months after the J-Lo date, Brenda’s childhood friend told her that she and her husband were ready for her to move out of their apartment. Brenda asked Ricky if she could stay with him, and he promptly invited her to move into his apartment at the stylish Fitzhugh Urban Flats, just across Central Expressway from Uptown.
Brenda brought Ricky to her parents’ home and introduced him as her boyfriend. Maria cooked dinner, and Ricky tried to speak Spanish with her and Luis. Over the next several months, the relationship blossomed. In April 2013, Brenda posted a birthday message to Ricky on her Facebook page that read, “Happy Birthday to the most amazing and smartest man I know. Ricky, together we’ve shared so much happiness, you are my best friend. I love you with all my heart and can’t imagine life without you!”
Two months later, in June, Brenda learned she was pregnant, and after talking with Ricky, she decided to have an abortion. Brenda said nothing to her family about what she had done, but on the Notes app on her phone (which detectives later read), she typed a message to herself acknowledging how distressed she felt. She vowed, however, that she and Ricky would someday have children.
Brenda was not just curious. She had set up an actual spying operation. She had Ricky’s email and iCloud passwords and a key to his apartment.
By all accounts, their relationship continued to blossom. In the fall of 2013, Brenda enrolled in dental hygiene school at Sanford-Brown. During their first class, the twenty or so students were asked to introduce themselves. One student later told the Dallas Morning News that everyone else spoke about themselves and their families. Brenda, however, spoke mostly about Ricky.
By early 2014, she was wearing a promise ring that Ricky had given her. Marriage seemed to be on the horizon. She took Ricky to Mexico to visit her relatives. She got a weekend dental assistant job so that she could help him pay for a new two-bedroom apartment. She also arranged for her mother to periodically clean the apartment.
But one day in July 2014, Brenda came to class in tears. Ricky, she told a classmate, had broken up with her and had asked her to move out.
What caused the split is not clear. Perhaps Ricky decided he wasn’t ready to settle down so soon after his divorce. Whatever happened, Brenda did not handle it well. Her grades fell, and for a few weeks she withdrew from the dental hygiene program. Ricky, meanwhile, seemed to be moving on. In September, he signed up for a salsa class at a dance studio. The way the class worked, women and men danced together for a few minutes, then rotated to the next partner. One night, Ricky arrived at the studio and saw Brenda among the students across the room. He had no idea she knew about the class. They danced with different partners, and after a while he rotated to her. As they swept across the floor, the chemistry between them apparently came roaring back. Ricky would later testify that the two of them subsequently got together to practice their salsa dancing. “We reintroduced each other into one another’s lives,” said Ricky, “and we decided to give our relationship another try.”
Brenda had rented a one-bedroom apartment near downtown behind a Target, about a mile from Ricky. This time around, Ricky didn’t ask her to move in with him, but he did pay for some of her expenses. She was on his cellphone plan. For a few months, everything was back to normal. The relationship was going so well that it seemed marriage was again a possibility. Brenda’s father, Luis, asked Ricky about his intentions toward Brenda, and, according to Brenda’s brother, Ricky replied that he had “good intentions.”
But the more he thought about it, the more he began having doubts about the relationship. As Brenda’s mother later explained to the Daily Mail reporter, “he said he had some issues in his life that he needed to take care of.”
And so, in February of 2015, Ricky broke up with Brenda again.
Ricky later testified that he and Brenda remained “platonic friends.” They periodically texted “to see how things were going.” Every week or so, he would see Brenda when he went running on the Katy Trail. “At the time, I thought it was just coincidence,” Ricky said, the same way it had seemed coincidental when she showed up to his salsa class. He also thought it was pure coincidence when Brenda showed up one day at a Panera Bread restaurant near Uptown just as he was leaving with a woman he had started dating, a nurse named Mirlande.
It is hardly unusual for heartbroken lovers to keep tabs, at least for a while, on the people who broke their hearts. Who hasn’t checked the Facebook page of an ex or driven past that person’s house at night to see if there is an unfamiliar car parked in the driveway? And who has not tried to hunt down details of an ex-lover’s new partner, just to satisfy curiosity?
But Brenda was not just curious. She had set up an actual spying operation. She had Ricky’s email and iCloud passwords and a key to his apartment—remnants of their life together. She also downloaded an app that allowed her to track the location of his cellphone.
That spring, Brenda took screenshots of Ricky’s text messages with the new girlfriend, and she took a screenshot of the airline reservations he had made for the pair to visit Denver for his birthday. Brenda was careful. She didn’t say anything to Ricky that would have tipped him off about her digital sleuthing. Nor did she do anything to upset the girlfriend—like leaving her threatening anonymous voice mails.
It’s possible that Brenda remained a passive observer because she sensed from reading Ricky’s email that this relationship was not going to last. It’s possible she believed that Ricky, deep down, still loved her—that all she had to do was stay patient, bide her time, and wait for him to come back around.
And who knows? All that could very well have happened. But in May 2015, along came Kendra.
She came straight out of Middle America, born and raised in a small Illinois town named Pleasant Plains. Her mother, Bonnie, owned a quilt shop. Kendra was captain of her high school cheerleading squad and the girls’ volleyball team. She went on mission trips abroad to help build churches, and she led Bible studies for low-income children. She attended DePauw University, in Indiana, where she majored in Spanish and minored in biochemistry, and after graduation she enrolled at the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry.
Kendra spent her spring breaks working for Habitat for Humanity. One Christmas, she traveled to Ecuador to perform free dental work for children. “She was the most generous, giving friend,” said her dental school classmate Tami Pantano. “You could call her at three a.m., and she would answer without any hesitation. Her laugh was contagious—high-pitched and full of joy.”
She had devoted nearly three years of her life to Ricky. Lived with him. Worn his promise ring. Gotten pregnant with him and had an abortion.
Kendra had married her college boyfriend, but it didn’t last. In 2010, hoping for a fresh start, she moved to Dallas, went to work at Smile Zone, and rented an apartment at Gables Park 17, which features a saltwater infinity pool, a fitness studio, a gourmet coffee bar, a cyber lounge, and a 24-hour concierge.
Elene Velasquez, her yoga instructor at Bikram Yoga, on McKinney Avenue, said that men did double takes when they saw Kendra. But none of the men she met intrigued Kendra the way Ricky would. She read his Tinder profile. (“Living out my childhood dream as a physician,” he wrote. “Very happy and in a great place in life. Enjoy running, exploring places new to me, and opening the car door for my date.”) She swiped right. On May 24, they met for dinner at Kozy Kitchen, in the heart of Uptown. “Things progressed quite rapidly,” Ricky acknowledged. “Our values were matched. Our interests were really in sync right from the get-go.”
When Ricky sent Brenda the email in June letting her know he had a new girlfriend, he never mentioned Kendra’s name. Nor did Brenda ask any questions about her. Instead, she simply “presented herself” as wanting to remain friends, Ricky said. In July, when Ricky needed to get his car repaired, Brenda arranged for him to drop it off at a mechanic’s shop owned by one of her friends. She picked Ricky up at the shop, drove him to work, and later drove him back. She was perfectly pleasant. She didn’t talk to Ricky about their breakup. She said she didn’t mind helping him out. If he ever needed her, she said brightly, she’d be happy to help out.
But alone in her apartment behind the Target, Brenda was starting to fall apart. She had devoted nearly three years of her life to Ricky. Lived with him. Worn his promise ring. Posted messages on Facebook about her love for him. Gotten pregnant with him and had an abortion. And now she was being replaced by an all-American beauty from a heartland town called Pleasant Plains—someone Brenda could never be.
Because Kendra had an open Facebook account, Brenda was able to read all of her posts. She learned on Facebook that Ricky had gone with Kendra to California and to a resort outside Austin. Except for their visit to Mexico to meet her relatives, Ricky had never taken Brenda on any nice trips. She took a screenshot of the photo of Kendra wearing the “I’m With Dreamy” shirt, and she took another screenshot of Ricky and Kendra posing happily in front of the Dallas skyline.
One night, she went to dinner with Roberto Menendez, a car salesman who seemed romantically interested in her. She spent the dinner talking about her ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend. Afterward, she said she wanted to visit a friend, and she had Roberto drive to Gables Park 17. They parked outside the building. If Roberto thought this was going to be his chance to kiss Brenda, he was sorely mistaken. Brenda, he later recalled, spent the entire time peering through the windshield, looking in vain for someone.
Milton Martinez, who had gone to high school with Brenda, also took her to dinner. Once again, she talked mostly about Ricky and Kendra. At one point, out of the blue, she asked Milton if he knew someone who could “hurt someone.” Milton was dumbfounded. “Whatever you are thinking, drop it,” he said.
Brenda was spiraling downward, her jealousy souring into something more obsessive—something dangerous. When she met her cousin Moses Martinez for drinks, she brought along a metal baseball bat. She told him she would either buy him a car or pay his child support if he threatened Kendra with the bat—just to scare her, Brenda said. Moses turned her down, thinking she was just drunk.
Brenda then turned to a friend named Jennifer Escobar, whom she had met when the two of them were working at the NorthPark mall. Brenda knew that Jennifer was going through some hard times with her boyfriend. She expressed deep concern about Jennifer’s problems and invited Jennifer to move in with her.
In early August Jennifer did move in, but she had hardly unpacked when Brenda began talking about Ricky and Kendra. She spent so much time talking about the couple that Jennifer found herself coming up with excuses to stay away from the apartment after work. (“She was super obsessed,” Jennifer later testified.) Brenda offered to buy Jennifer drugs or even a car if she would help exact revenge on Ricky and Kendra. She said she wanted to use the baseball bat to knock Ricky into a coma. She wanted to kill Kendra by grabbing her from behind and stabbing her in the chest with a drug-filled hypodermic needle. Or by beating her to death.
A frightened Jennifer moved out of Brenda’s apartment in mid-August. Brenda promptly approached one of Jennifer’s friends, a 23-year-old single mother named Crystal Cortes who had come to the apartment a couple of times to see Jennifer and let her six-year-old son swim in the complex’s pool.
Crystal, who lived with her son at her grandmother’s home in a low-income area of South Dallas, was struggling financially. She made $11 an hour working as a receptionist and assistant at a dental practice. When I interviewed Crystal, she told me that she admired Brenda. Brenda seemed to have her life together. She dressed well and wore MAC makeup. She drove a used Lexus that was in good condition, and she had two leather sofas and two big-screen TVs. “She looked like she would be a nice friend,” said Crystal.
Brenda started buying Crystal dinners at restaurants. Crystal listened as Brenda recounted her relationship with Ricky, then Ricky’s relationship with Kendra. “She said that Kendra was the reason that Ricky had stopped paying her attention and wasn’t taking care of her,” Crystal recalled. “She said, ‘I’m going to eliminate Kendra. I can’t deal with it anymore.’ ”
Brenda offered Crystal $500 to help her carry out the killing. Crystal, who had never before been arrested, said she’d do it. Why, I later asked Crystal, would she accept such a paltry sum to assist Brenda, whom she had only known for a couple of weeks, to carry out the murder of a woman she’d never met?
She gave me a blank look. “I was broke,” she said, “and I had a son to support.”
Brenda said that she would pay Kristopher a combination of drugs and cash if he joined her murder-for-hire team. He quickly accepted the offer.
For several days, Brenda and Crystal tailed Kendra around Dallas, one of them watching her through a pair of night-vision binoculars that Brenda had purchased. They decided the best way to kill Kendra was to shoot her. But because neither of them had experience with guns, Brenda suggested they find a hit man. “She asked me if I knew someone who could do it, because I came from a run-down neighborhood,” said Crystal.
They drove around Crystal’s neighborhood, asking various men they saw if they would be willing to shoot someone for money. At one point, they dropped by Crystal’s mother’s house. A former neighbor happened to be there. He was with a friend named Kristopher Love, who had brought along his children so they could jump on the trampoline in the yard.
Kristopher, who eked out a small income selling marijuana, was 31, tall and wiry, his body stamped with tattoos. One of the tattoos on his back read “1 MAN ARMY” above an image of an AK-47 surrounded by bullet holes. He had a criminal record going back to his teenage years—he had been convicted of aggravated assault, aggravated robbery, and burglary of a residence—and he told a friend that he wanted to start a prostitution ring. All he needed was some start-up money.
Brenda and Crystal followed Kristopher to his apartment, where they talked on his balcony. To impress Kristopher, Brenda made up a story about having connections to a drug cartel, and she said that she would pay Kristopher a combination of drugs and cash (supposedly totaling $3,000 in value) if he joined her murder-for-hire team. He quickly accepted the offer. When Brenda asked if he had a gun (earlier, she and Crystal had gone to Academy Sports and Outdoors to buy a handgun, but they had backed out at the last minute, figuring the purchase would be too easy to trace), he produced a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson pistol.
Trying to be helpful, Brenda and Crystal bought gloves for Kristopher to wear so he wouldn’t leave fingerprints. Crystal also searched the internet for someone who might sell her a silencer for the pistol. Kristopher told them not to worry. He knew what he was doing. He would take care of everything, he said.
In late August, Ricky and Kendra visited San Francisco—their third trip to California that summer—and they posted photos of themselves on Facebook riding a tandem bicycle and a go-kart. They made plans to take more trips in September: to Cancún for Labor Day weekend and to Kendra’s hometown of Pleasant Plains so that Ricky could meet her family and attend the town’s Fall Festival.
After a mere three months together, Ricky and Kendra were already talking about marriage. Elene Velasquez, Kendra’s yoga instructor, told me Kendra was “ecstatic” about their relationship. “She would come to yoga class and smile all the way through it, even when she did the triangle, which is a particularly hard pose.”
Meanwhile, on August 26, Brenda graduated from Sanford-Brown. She posed for smiling selfies with her classmates. Her family came to the graduation ceremony, gave her flowers, and took her to dinner. Brenda’s brother told me that she seemed perfectly happy. “She was looking to the future,” he said.
After a mere three months together, Ricky and Kendra were already talking about marriage. Kendra was “ecstatic” about the relationship.
Brenda was still in touch with Ricky. He had sent her a text wishing her good luck on her final exams. But he also let her know that starting on August 31, he was taking her off his cellphone plan. He had been offered a position at a medical practice outside Sacramento and would be moving there in October. He asked Brenda if she knew anyone who might be willing to buy some of the furniture from his apartment.
For Brenda, the news must have felt like a punch in the gut. She realized she was about to be shut out of Ricky’s life entirely. He was preparing to start a new life 1,700 miles away, and Kendra no doubt would be with him.
Brenda decided to have the killing done on September 2, the day before Kendra and Ricky were scheduled to leave for Cancún. She borrowed a friend’s silver BMW for Crystal to drive. But that morning, there was a problem with the BMW’s accelerator. Brenda and Crystal took the car to the auto repair shop owned by Brenda’s friend Jose Ortiz, and he agreed to let them borrow his black Jeep Cherokee while he worked on the BMW.
Crystal drove Brenda to a public library, where Brenda had arranged to meet a classmate and study for the upcoming state dental hygiene certification exam—a seemingly perfect alibi. Crystal then picked up Kristopher. They parked across the street from Smile Zone, where Kendra was already at work, fixing kids’ teeth.
For most of the day, they stared at Kendra’s car, a white Toyota Camry. At around 2:30, Crystal suddenly put the Jeep into gear, telling Kristopher that she needed to pick up her son from school. She took Kristopher back to his apartment, got in the carpool line at school, retrieved her son, bought him a corn dog and tater tots at a Sonic, dropped him off at her grandmother’s, returned to Kristopher’s apartment to pick him up, and drove back to Smile Zone.
Kendra was still there. She finished work early that evening and drove away, followed by Crystal and Kristopher. They lost her in traffic—she took a detour to a friend’s apartment to borrow a waterproof camera to use while snorkeling in Cancún—so they drove to the parking garage of Gables Park 17 to wait. Several minutes later, Kendra arrived.
Kristopher, who had been huddled in the back seat, got out of the Jeep right after Kendra drove past them in the garage. He walked toward where she parked, and just as she stepped out of her car, he raised his pistol and shot her in the head. Another resident who was in the parking garage heard Kendra scream—“more like an animal, not like a human,” he said. Kristopher grabbed Kendra’s Coach purse and the camera and hurried back to the Jeep. Crystal squealed away, driving right past Kendra, who was lying faceup on the garage floor.
At the time the murder was taking place, Brenda was at a Chili’s, having drinks with Jose. (One of her classmates had given her a ride from the library to the restaurant.) She and Jose returned to his house after nine. She called Crystal to confirm that “the task” had been completed and asked her to drive to Jose’s so they could swap the Jeep for the BMW. Seconds after Crystal arrived, Brenda grabbed Kendra’s Coach purse from the Jeep and slung it over her shoulder.
Brenda must have been thrilled: it seemed like her scheme had gone off without a hitch. When the police interviewed Ricky that night, he said that he had no idea who would want to kill Kendra. He certainly didn’t mention Brenda as a possible suspect. When he texted her about losing his girlfriend, she was so concerned, so sad—so willing to do anything to help him in his time of grief.
Eric Barnes, a veteran Dallas Police homicide detective who was in charge of the murder investigation, had only one lead: a grainy surveillance video of a woman driving a black Jeep Cherokee out of the parking garage. He decided to release the video to the news media, and Jose happened to see it. Alarmed, he called Brenda, who hastily explained that Crystal had driven the Jeep the entire day. Brenda added that she believed Crystal had a drug problem. Maybe Crystal had been in the parking garage trying to buy drugs, Brenda said, and maybe something had gone wrong.
When Jose said he was afraid to drive the Jeep around Dallas, fearing that he might be pulled over, Brenda suggested he paint it a different color. She also advised him not to tell anyone about their conversation.
After talking to his family, however, Jose met with Barnes and told him about Brenda and Crystal. The detective then quickly contacted Ricky for another talk. Ricky too had seen the video and, at least for a moment, had wondered if the woman behind the wheel of the Jeep was Brenda herself. He told Barnes he was getting scared. Brenda was coming to his apartment later that day to bring him groceries.
Barnes called Brenda, who was at the library studying again for the board exam, and sent officers to pick her up and bring her to one of the homicide division’s interrogation rooms.
She was wearing a black baseball cap, a colorful striped shirt, black yoga pants, and white tennis shoes. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Shortly after Barnes walked in, Brenda noticed his “I Am Second” bracelet, which some Christians wear to let people know that Jesus Christ comes first in their lives. Brenda said she too was a believer. She crossed her legs, leaned forward, and looked earnestly at Barnes as he told her he was investigating the murder of Kendra Hatcher. She seemed to have no idea what he was talking about. “How did my name come up?” she asked.
Barnes questioned Brenda for more than two hours. She told him that her relationship with Ricky was not all that serious. She wasn’t particularly upset, she added, when they broke up. She said she had never learned the name of his new girlfriend and didn’t know what she looked like.
Barnes asked her to recount her whereabouts on the day of the murder. She never mentioned going to Jose’s. She said only that her friend Crystal had dropped her off at the library that morning and had picked her up that night at Chili’s. Brenda opened her wallet and pulled out a neatly folded receipt from Chili’s to prove to Barnes that she could not possibly have been at Gables Park 17.
At some point during the interrogation, an officer informed Barnes that Crystal had been brought in, and Barnes went to question her in another interrogation room. She acknowledged that she had driven the Jeep into the apartment garage, but she told several stories about why she was there. She initially said that she was simply looking for a parking place because she wanted to eat dinner at a Mexican restaurant a couple of blocks away. Then she said that she had been with her son the day of the shooting and that she had parked in the garage so that she could take him to play at nearby Klyde Warren Park.
Eventually, Crystal said that a man named Lamar, whom she didn’t know, had forced her at gunpoint to drive him into the parking garage to rob Kendra. Finally, she admitted that Brenda had paid her and Lamar to do the robbery. But she said she had no idea that Lamar was going to shoot anyone. After the shooting, Crystal continued, Lamar got back in the Jeep and ordered her to drive away. She did not protest, she said, because he had a gun.
Barnes walked back into Brenda’s room, determined to get her to confess. Rather than confronting her, however, as would happen in a typical police interrogation, he decided to speak to Brenda in a gentle voice, like a father talking to his daughter who had made a mistake. “I have had my heart broken, and I know what that feels like,” he told her. “I understand what it’s like to want something that you can’t have. I also know what it feels like to want something so bad that you’re willing to do anything for it.”
Brenda shook her head no, but Barnes persisted. “All this revolves around you, and it’s all because of something you couldn’t have,” he said. “You couldn’t get him back as long as she was alive.”
Barnes didn’t take his eyes off Brenda. “I think you hated the fact that you weren’t good enough for Ricky,” he said. “Maybe he didn’t like the way you look. Maybe he didn’t want a dental hygienist anymore. He wanted a dentist. Maybe he didn’t like the fact that your parents weren’t well-off. Maybe he didn’t want a girlfriend from Pleasant Grove. Maybe his standards were too high for you. But for whatever reason, you weren’t good enough for him. And that’s a hard pill to swallow. Very hard to swallow. To look in the mirror and say, ‘What did she have that I didn’t have?’ ”
Not once did she turn around to look at Kendra’s family or her own family. Nor did she look at many of the witnesses. But then Ricky took the stand.
Barnes’s voice grew even quieter. “I don’t think you’re a bad person,” he told Brenda. “But you know what? You’ve been stomped on. You feel like you’ve been hurt. You’ve run out of options.” He paused. “Everybody has a point where they break,” he said. “And that’s what I think happened.”
For a moment, it looked as if Brenda were going to crack. But she said nothing. Barnes realized he was going to have to let her go. He had her booked into the Dallas County jail on an outstanding warrant for an unpaid traffic ticket, but she quickly paid the fine and was released. Meanwhile, Barnes arrested Crystal on capital murder charges. A few days later, police learned through phone records that Crystal had been texting a Kristopher Love in the days leading up to Kendra’s murder. They searched his car, found the Smith & Wesson behind the glove compartment, and had him arrested. Then they went looking for Brenda to arrest her. But she had already boarded a bus to Mexico.
For six months, she lived quietly with relatives in the town of Torreón, two hundred miles west of Monterrey, in north-central Mexico, doing nothing that would bring attention to herself. She was the same kind, congenial Brenda that she had once been in Dallas. When the FBI, working with Mexican authorities, found her, she surrendered peacefully.
Brenda was a U.S. citizen. But because she was born in Mexico, she was also still a Mexican citizen, and according to Mexican law, she could not be extradited to another country that would seek the death penalty for her crime. After the Dallas district attorney’s office vowed that it would not ask a jury to sentence Brenda to death, she was returned to the United States.
Kevin Brooks, the lead prosecutor on the case for the Dallas district attorney’s office, knew he did not have the strongest case to put Brenda away. She did, after all, have an alibi for the night of the murder. Brooks met with Crystal and offered her a 35-year sentence in return for her testimony about the roles she, Brenda, and Kristopher had played in Kendra’s murder. Crystal spoke to her attorney, who said she could be paroled in fifteen years, and agreed to the deal.
When I asked Crystal why she decided to confess, she told me that her mother, who was battling kidney disease, had come to see her in the county jail. “She said that she was disappointed in me. She raised me better,” Crystal said. After her mother died, in November 2017, Crystal decided to make amends. “I was foolish,” she told me about that August month when she was Brenda’s friend. “I was young and simpleminded. I got caught up in the excitement.” She gave me another of her blank stares, as if she were unsure what else to say.
Brooks tried Kristopher first, in October 2018. Relying on Crystal’s testimony, jurors took two hours to find him guilty, and they voted to sentence him to death by lethal injection.
Brenda’s trial began this past June. In the courtroom, she wore long dresses or pants and oversized black-rimmed glasses. Not once did she turn around to look at Kendra’s family, her own family, or the other spectators packed into the gallery. Nor did she look at many of the witnesses who testified. But then Ricky took the stand.
Perhaps Brenda realized that this would be her last chance to see him—and the last chance for him to see her. Still as a statue, she kept her eyes on him as he spoke. But he refused to turn in her direction, except for a few seconds when Brooks asked him to identify her. There was a pause. Reluctantly, Ricky glanced at Brenda. They locked eyes. Then Ricky looked away.
It took jurors only twenty minutes to return a guilty verdict for capital murder, and the judge sentenced Brenda to life in prison without parole. For just about everyone who had followed the trial, there was still one big unanswered question. What exactly had flipped inside Brenda? Was she afflicted with something called obsessive love disorder—an actual term that some psychologists use to describe someone who is fixated on possessing another person? Had her breakup with Ricky set off some sort of Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation within her? Did she genuinely believe that her plan could work, that Ricky would return to her once Kendra was gone?
The answer wouldn’t come from Brenda. She wasn’t talking. As she was escorted out a side door of the courtroom by bailiffs, she paused for a moment and turned for the first time toward the gallery. Perhaps she was searching for the familiar face of a family member. Or perhaps she was searching for Ricky, hoping for one last look. But he was already gone, on his way back to his new life in California.
Brenda walked through the door, and then she too was gone.
This article originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Doctor, the Dentist, and the Killer.” Subscribe today.