The Public Hell of Bob Carreiro
The Houston trucker turned grief for his murdered daughter into a publicity campaign that led to her killer’s conviction. Now, as a victims’ rights advocate, he’s a star in a world he never wanted to be a part of.
THERE WAS STANDING ROOM ONLY IN A SMALL HARRIS COUNTY COURTROOM THIS past September on the day Robert Carreiro stood before the man sentenced to death for killing his only daughter. The occasion was Carreiro’s reading of his victim’s impact statement, a relatively new and quixotic end-of-trial proceeding meant to provide “closure” for those who have experienced or lost someone to violent crime. But for Carreiro it reflected the moment he let go of one life and embraced another. Behind him was his life as a private individual; before him was a future as a public victim, an inhabitant of that niche in American society where one man’s pain is another man’s diversion. If you lived in Houston in the summer of 1992, his story was familiar to you: He was the father of Kynara Carreiro, who until July 20 had been a particularly pretty seven-year-old with shimmering blond hair and knowing blue eyes. The photograph most often featured by the media at the time of her death was the one in which she posed with her arm around her best friend, Kristin Wiley, a ten-year-old with a tumble of curls and the sweet but tentative smile of an older girl before the camera. Both children were found stabbed to death on a blood-soaked bed in the Wiley home. They had been sexually assaulted and then murdered in the middle of the day, in the middle of a suburb northwest of Houston previously believed to be safe, while Kristin’s brother played across the street, while Kynara’s mother was engaged with chores a few doors down.
For almost nineteen months no arrest was made, though the investigation eventually focused on a neighbor who had lied to Harris County Sheriff’s Department homicide investigators about having seen two men, an African American and a Hispanic, jump the fence into his yard around the time of the killings. That man, Rex Mays, pale and bespectacled, who sometimes performed as Uh-Oh the Clown at children’s parties in and around Houston, confessed to investigators in the winter of 1994. He had killed the girls after having “a bad day”—he’d been fired from his job, and Kristin and Kynara had enraged him by refusing to turn down the Christian music they were listening to as they played. Mays had stabbed Kristin 18 times and Kynara 23, and yet before the younger girl died she had had the courage to tell Mays: “You are going to be sorry you did this,” which, when Carreiro learned of it, inspired in him a mission at first devoted to Mays’s conviction and then to something much larger and much more necessary to his survival.
“Keep it short,” the judge had advised, and Carreiro planned to do just that. He had seen his share of emotional and incomprehensible outbursts by victims—in fact, they had become a staple of tabloid TV shows—and that was not what he wanted. Carreiro stood up and in a gentle, almost abject cadence, did not speak to Mays at all, but to those around him. He thanked the judge and the jurors, the district attorney’s office and the sheriff’s department. He suggested that childhood trauma, an explanation employed briefly by the defense, was no excuse for the horrific violence visited upon his daughter. “Inflated excuses of a poor childhood or ‘my mother didn’t love me as much as my sister’ are no longer acceptable,” he said.
It was not so much the substance of Carreiro’s talk that drew people to him as his style. For his speech he had changed out of the suit he had worn for the seven-day trial into the clothes in which he was most comfortable: a suede vest over a button-down shirt and jeans and his boots. At 46 he wore his long silver hair braided down his back, and his eyes were the kind of bottomless blue that, under the circumstances, could only be described as haunted. He looked as if he had been no stranger to violence before Kynara’s murder, which happened to be the truth. “I ask everyone to keep informed and keep involved so we can rid society of predators such as Rex Mays,” Carreiro said and then, feeling the onset of tears, sat down. He had spoken for no more than three minutes.
After the court was adjourned, cameras blocked the courtroom exit, their lights turning the dingy corridor as bright as midday. Carreiro emerged and was swamped by reporters, while family members, pushed to the periphery, fell into one another’s arms. The crowd reflected the world that had enveloped him since Kynara’s murder: Along with the media, there was Andy Kahan, who ran the mayor’s crime victims’ office, and Randy Ertman, the huge, barrel-chested man with whom Carreiro had fashioned a friendship out of mutual grief. Representatives of Justice for All—the state’s most influential victims’ rights group, which Carreiro had helped establish—and Parents of Murdered Children were there too. After the Wileys emerged from the courtroom, the contingent moved outside for a final press conference. Had justice been served? the reporters wanted to know. Would Carreiro attend Mays’s execution, as a new state policy allows? Where would he go from here?
Carreiro answered their questions as best he could—witnessing the execution, he said, “was not retaliation but justice”—and then, little by little, everyone drifted away. After more than three years in the spotlight, Bob Carreiro was left alone with the life his daughter’s death had created for him.
IN MID-OCTOBER 1995 THE PINK CONSTRUCTION-PAPER ribbon bearing Kristin’s and Kynara’s names still hung on the front door of Bob Carreiro’s modest northwest Houston home. Inside he most often settled in the small living room that remained a shrine to his daughter: Portraits of Kynara lined the wall, videos of her surrounded the TV, and her belongings lay entombed in a cedar chest. Laid off from his job as a truck driver sixteen months before, and long divorced from Kynara’s mother, Carreiro had lately given in to drift. Other parents of murdered children had warned him that the period following the trial, when the cameras went away, could be the worst.
He let the phone direct his day. Carreiro had an answering machine and a pager so they could find him: the parent who had lost a child and could get no help from the police; the victims’ rights advocate who wanted him to attend a conference; the grieving family member who needed a friendly face in court. With Kynara gone, he had little use for a private life. The Harleys upon which he used to lavish so much attention now languished in his garage; his girlfriend, Lesli—the young, beautiful one friends hoped would help him get past his grief—had joined the victims’ rights crusade herself, selling gimme caps or getting signatures on petitions at Justice for All meetings. It was perhaps the bitterest irony of Carreiro’s life that Kynara’s death had transported him into a world much broader than the one he had previously inhabited, and he would give anything that this were not so. At night, when Lesli slept, he went into the spare bedroom and talked to other crime victims on the Internet.
Bob Carreiro had stepped into an ever-expanding role on the American stage. The victims’ rights advocate has become the official griever for a nation in decline: As the judicial system has disintegrated and fear of crime has grown, the advocacy groups of old—those that represented the rights of the accused—have been replaced by those of the harmed. Across the country, the children of socialite Sunny von Bulow, who started the National Victim Center after their stepfather was acquitted of attempting to murder their mother, and Vanity Fair’s Dominick Dunne, who watched the man who killed his daughter receive a seven-year sentence, have become symbols of the movement to make the criminal justice system more responsive to victims; Fred Goldman and Denise Brown, casualties of the O. J. Simpson trial, will no doubt join their ranks.
But nowhere are crime victims more active than in Houston, where fifty such groups make their home. Justice for All boasts almost four thousand members there, and the mayor’s crime victims’ office, headed by Kahan, is the only one of its kind in the nation. (“I want victims’ rights to be to the nineties what civil rights was to the sixties,” Kahan likes to say.) These organizations have been instrumental not just in defeating judges perceived as soft on crime but also in pressing for much harsher criminal legislation around the state: an automatic capital murder charge for the killing of a child under six, community notification of a sex offender’s imminent release from prison, limitation of the number of appeals granted death row inmates, the opportunity for crime victims to testify against their assailants in front of parole boards, and most recently, the right to witness executions.
Not every surviving crime victim becomes a victims’ rights advocate, of course. Those who do usually share certain experiences—a particularly heinous crime and the accompanying media attention it engenders, for instance. Many advocates also possess a powerful personal need for community that sometimes preceded the crime itself. Those who join this world will find that it is not the redemptive one of Sunday newspaper-supplement stories as much as it is a mirror of modern life, where social movements become religions, religions become recovery movements, and grief becomes another form of entertainment. The day that Kynara Carreiro was killed was the day her father’s education in this world began.
SIX WEEKS AFTER THE TRIAL CARREIRO sat in the jury box of a Humble courthouse, fingers to his cheek, studying the crowd. Along with other members of local victims’ rights organizations, he had come to address a group of teenage probationers. Everyday violence was a foregone conclusion here. Carreiro waited his turn while a representative of the Harris County Probation Department presented a “weapons workshop”—a primer on which weapons would land her audience back in trouble with the authorities. “Swords are not to be carried around on an illegal basis,” the compact, no-nonsense woman droned. “A tomahawk is in the category of a club and is illegal to carry.”
Carreiro let his gaze play across the crowd—the worn faces of the parents, the insolent bravado their children, mostly boys, wore as proudly as their fade haircuts, oversized jeans, and Rage Against the Machine T-shirts. Carreiro was searching for the ones he might be able to save, and it looked to him like a friendlier group than the kids he sometimes talked to in juvenile detention, the ones who laughed outright when he told his story. He got tired of telling his story over and over again, but since Kynara’s death, testifying this way seemed, simply, the right thing to do. “I used to wonder why this happened,” he said. “Now I think God has got this other plan for me, and I don’t want to mess it up.”
“This is reality folks, this is not a movie,” Andy Kahan said, pacing in front of the group. The mayor’s crime victims’ director was a tall, balding man with the belligerent air of the parole officer he had been. His was a sensible admonition, given the attention span of those present. Most of the kids had been charged with lesser crimes like car theft and burglary, and it was hoped, perhaps vainly, that a dose of Kahan’s medicine would keep them from graduating to something worse.
It was up to each speaker to make his or her story as dramatic as possible; a generation raised on television required as much. On this night Carreiro followed two women he had appeared with often, Gilda Muskwinsky, the former president of Parents of Murdered Children, and Kathy McCrory, a victims’ rights advocate from Fort Bend County. Muskwinsky’s daughter had been murdered in 1984 by drug dealers in search of her boyfriend; McCrory had been kidnapped, beaten, and raped while on a business trip several years ago. The presentation was something like a television talk show crossed with an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, particularly with respect to the confessional style the speakers used and the way the audience wept at painful moments and applauded at moments of personal triumph. But it was Carreiro who used this style to its most powerful effect; he had a flair for the theatrical that drew people to him.
“I was born and raised in a dysfunctional family,” he began, forming quotation marks in the air around the word “dysfunctional.” “My father was a violent alcoholic—the most time I spent with him was in a beer joint. I grew up hating my father for what he did, but I grew up just like him. That,” he said, letting his eyes pass slowly over the crowd, “was my idea of what it was to be a man.”
He was the son of a Portuguese construction contractor and a German homemaker and grew up in Connecticut watching his father drink himself into oblivion when he wasn’t pummeling Carreiro’s mother. Carreiro grew up to be angry and self-pitying—“it was always me against them”—someone who found himself living in a run-down shack and having to choose between a loaf of bread and a six-pack of beer when he went to the store for food. Carreiro left one bitter marriage and one child behind when he drifted to Texas in 1977 with Diane Kelly, whom he battered and married and who later became Kynara’s mother. Carreiro stopped drinking with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1979, after he blackened both of Diane’s eyes in a fight.
“I feel my daughter was born to teach me how to love,” he said of Kynara. Though he and Diane divorced, they shared custody of Kynara and made peace in the process. With the passion of a changed man, Carreiro took his daughter everywhere, to A.A. meetings, on motorcycle and fishing trips. He built her a playhouse, took her shopping, and found he wanted for nothing. He began to work with drunks at A.A. and discovered he was good at it; he reconciled with his father. And then one phone call proved that a reformed man’s peace is as fragile as anyone else’s.
“That’s the way I’m gonna have to remember her,” Carreiro said to the kids. He had unfurled a poster, a blowup of the familiar snapshot of Kristin and Kynara arm in arm. “No graduations, no first kiss, no grandchildren.” As he recounted the crime, his voice coarsened with anger. “These precious little girls’ lives were lost forever. Forever,” he repeated furiously. When he was done, the crowd rewarded him with thunderous applause.
“Lemme just tell ya,” Kahan said, thanking the audience and opening up the meeting to questions, “this is the best group I’ve seen.” The kids pressed for more dramatic details. One young man asked how Kynara had died. “Did he beat her or shoot her?” To Kathy McCrory: “How did that guy get you?” To Gilda Muskwinsky: “Was this a random killing or did they plan it?”
After the meeting, a small group surrounded Carreiro to thank him for coming. “This is my little girl,” one woman said, stroking the head of her shy, smiling child, who looked to be about seven.
Carreiro bent down toward her and looked urgently into her eyes. “Be careful,” he said. “Be real careful, okay?”
THE SCRAPBOOK IN WHICH KYNARA Carreiro’s father chose to put newspaper clippings about her murder was covered with a Norman Rockwell print of a pretty blonde teenager showing off her corsage to a soda jerk while her date looks on proudly—a mournful symbolism that could be lost on no one. The extensive video library of Kynara consisted of home videos—Kynara on an Easter egg hunt, Kynara on Christmas Day, Kynara hovering near the water at a friend’s beach house—as well as tapes of her father clearing a bayou near the Wiley home, seeking clues to her death. “KC birthday/Cemetery 11/1/93” one tape is labeled; another “Oprah,” another “Jerry Springer.” Because Kynara’s murder went unsolved for so long it happened that Bob Carreiro’s grieving was both public and protracted, which, in turn, led to his rise as a public figure.
Like many high-profile murder cases, this one was played out almost entirely in front of the cameras. The earliest news reports showed Carreiro seated upon several bags of mulch in his ex-wife’s front yard with his head in his hands. He had come upon the scene to find the street blocked by police officers and reporters, and his former wife, now remarried, pacing in front of the Wiley house, carrying her screaming newborn son. “No one would talk to us,” Carreiro said. At first he thought Kynara had been wounded in an accidental shooting; he did not learn that she was dead, and how she had died, for more than four hours. “It looked like a zoo,” he said, and his suspicions about the competence of the sheriff’s department were born at that moment. He was not reassured when a deputy he had known for some time gave him this warning about his colleagues: “Get on ’em and stay on ’em.”
In the first few weeks after Kynara’s murder, he was incapable of doing so. When public interest faded, Carreiro retreated into himself. In those earliest days, his emotional makeup, which tended toward the mystical and the sentimental, saw him through. Searching Kynara’s room, he divined portents in the way she had numbered every day of her July calendar except the one on which she died and in the tombstonelike crosses she had taken to drawing on the inside covers of her coloring books. He formulated a theory in which his daughter was an angel whose time on earth had been brief but purposeful, and then, when he heard his daughter’s voice telling him it was time to rejoin the living, he went back to work at the trucking firm. Passing a tattoo parlor near a sandwich shop he and Kynara had frequented, he had her face, surrounded by roses and a unicorn, tattooed on his upper arm. “What better way to honor my daughter?” Carreiro asked. “She’s in my head, my heart, she’s on my skin too.” He took to caressing his shoulder, as if warding off a chill.
It also happened that the investigation into the murder of Kristin and Kynara stalled in August, just one month after the crime was committed. What is clear in retrospect was not clear at the time: Rex Mays was one suspect of many, and the sheriff’s department set up a task force to investigate everyone from suspicious drifters to Kristin Wiley’s fourteen-year-old brother. The notion that his daughter was dead and her killer was free ate at Carreiro, and he directed his anger at the authorities. The county sheriff’s homicide division, understaffed and ill equipped compared with its Houston police counterpart, had no use for a father who was hysterical and hostile. “If you don’t find him I will, and I will take him down,” Carreiro told the investigators in one early encounter. “Just get a confession before you do,” they told him.
“I was between a rock and a hard place,” Carreiro explained. “I started doing my own investigation.” He worked with three private detectives, gave up on sleep, ignored his girlfriend, began carrying a gun, and plunged himself into a world of paranoia and panic. The calls were constant: One woman said her boyfriend had washed out his truck on the day of the murder and had bite marks on his chest; another woman said she had found a little girl’s sock with blood on it. Carreiro received word that a psychic in Tomball, near where the girls were buried, wanted to see him. The man, a self-described Indian named White Bear, told Carreiro that Kynara was sending him messages in his sweat lodge. A neighborhood security guard seemed overly brusque, members of the Wiley’s church overly solicitous. When Carreiro sat down with sheriff’s department homicide investigators, he felt no more secure: “There were five different officers in charge of five different suspects, and each one could convince you his guy had done it,” Carreiro said.
He turned more and more to the press, which gladly obliged. Television had found a perfect subject in Bob Carreiro. “I was not gonna let this die down,” Carreiro explained. “Every time it was gonna die down, I’d find something to keep it in the news.” He called the media when the reward for finding Kristin and Kynara’s killer was created. He let a reporter watch him tearfully pack up Kynara’s room. Another filmed him grieving at the sweat lodge. He learned to negotiate: “I’d call up and say I wanted to do a news conference about raising the reward money, and they’d say okay, but we want an exclusive,” he said.
Two months after the girls’ deaths, in September 1992, when media interest had flagged and the investigation remained at a standstill, Carreiro had his grandest idea to date. It hit him when he was driving home from work with the helpless feeling that his daughter’s killer would never be apprehended. “My baby’s gonna be on billboards all over town,” he told himself.
WHO KILLED THESE GIRLS? the enormous letters of the billboard cried. Alongside the question was the picture of Kynara and Kristin arm in arm and an offer of a $40,000 reward donated by family members and businesses. Representatives of the sheriff’s department attended the unveiling of the two hundred billboards only because the Houston newspapers had reported damaging information about the investigation—involving contamination of the crime scene, delays in polygraphing Rex Mays, among other things. Privately, the sheriff’s department saw Carreiro as a bum out for attention.
If the publicity did not serve to flush out a killer, it did have the usual effect: It created more publicity. “Tell us what happened,” Oprah would ask, as would Jerry Springer and many others. Carreiro became a regular on segments devoted to unsolved crimes. “When we come back we’ll meet a sixty-six-year-old woman who survived a hired hit—someone wants her dead,” Jerry Springer chirped after Carreiro had, once again, related that his daughter had drowned in her own blood. Carreiro’s tears made for powerful television, but they also inducted him into the new American pastime of vicarious misery. He didn’t care. He thought only of reaching his daughter’s killer. “I wanted that sumbitch to hate it every time he turned on the TV and saw me there.”
The year ended, and the authorities had nothing to show for their efforts. The sheriff’s department had contacted the FBI for help, and the bureau had produced a profile of a killer who was white and between 25 and 35, the proverbial loner who might have taken an unusual interest in the case. The description fit Rex Mays, the neighbor who had lied to investigators immediately after the murder. Unfortunately, Mays’s ruse had bought him enough time to destroy most of the physical evidence that could have been used against him. The only way to apprehend him was the most difficult of all: Someone would have to get him to confess. That job fell to a two-time cop of the year by the name of Bill Valerio, a heavyset, taciturn man with four daughters of his own. For the next fourteen months, he took Mays drinking and to strip joints, and got nowhere.
Once he learned that Mays had been targeted, Carreiro took to threatening the former neighbor, an activity that ran counter to the FBI’s advice that the killer would confess only if treated kindly. (“There were times when I probably hindered the investigation,” Carreiro would later admit.) He had his biker buddies gun their cycles outside Mays’s home. He had friends send Mays birthday cards—“Roses are red, violets are blue, the girls are dead, wish you were too.” He followed Mays to bars, waiting outside while he drank, and when Mays applied for jobs—particularly those involving children—Carreiro saw to it that he wasn’t hired. When Carreiro heard that Mays was bragging about being the prime suspect in the murder investigation, he thought he would go mad. He imagined hanging him up and peeling his skin off, or simply snapping his neck. Said Carreiro: “I was getting real close to killing him.”
OUTSIDE A HIGH-RISE OFFICE BUILDING on the West Loop South, Bob Carreiro, finishing a cigarette, served as the unofficial greeter for the October meeting of Justice for All. It was a pretty night, the kind that promised the end of another interminable summer, but the people entering were somber. They approached with their heads bowed, not unlike the way people enter church. This was not coincidental: Justice for All served many of the functions most people once found, in a less complicated world, in organized religion. They joined for communion, and they joined to mourn.
In an era in which practically everyone purports to be a victim of one thing or another, these people had a legitimate claim on the word. Dressed in T-shirts and jeans or wrinkled workday clothes, they could be mistaken for guests at a company retreat or a PTA meeting; they were, instead, living memorials to some of Houston’s grisliest crimes. Carreiro accepted an embrace from Jeanne Bayley, a sunny woman whose teenage stepson Robbie was murdered in the woods west of town; his schoolmates had played soccer with his head and taken parts of his body home as souvenirs. Patsy Teer updated Carreiro on the status of the man who had been on death row for twenty years for murdering her son, a state trooper. “This guy is running several businesses from prison,” she told him. Randy Ertman graced his friend with a gruff hello, his wife, Sandra, trailing behind. Jennifer Ertman, along with her best friend, Elizabeth Peña, had been brutally raped and murdered by six gang members just a year or so after Kristin and Kynara had been killed. Greeted with both affection and deference, Carreiro was, in turn, both giving and contained. People were drawn to what they perceived as a calmness within him, though Carreiro defined it differently. “The worst thing that was gonna happen to me has happened,” he said simply.
The topics of tonight’s meeting reflected the group’s need for both solace and social change. Inside the small auditorium containing about a hundred people, Pam Lychner, a movie-star-pretty blonde, opened the meeting by making a plea for financial assistance for a Honduran immigrant who lost both legs after a shotgun attack by her husband. Then she turned the podium over to Andy Kahan, who introduced the widow and teenage daughter of a police officer named Bruno Soboleski, murdered in the line of duty in 1991. “They’ve received the dreaded parole notice,” Kahan said of the family, meaning that they must now perform a new social ritual—that of acquiring signatures on petitions to keep a criminal from being released. “It would mean a lot to us to keep this man where he is,” Sue Soboleski implored, as her daughter studied the floor, as if embarrassed.
The content of the meeting, which would be almost unendurable for people who were not victims of violent crime, was comforting to those who were. There was a mother trying to find her son’s killer and another woman trying to pressure the district attorney into asking for the death penalty for her son’s murderer; while one woman caressed the contents of her dead son’s wallet another railed against medical examiners who removed corneas without the family’s permission. “They’re making a profit off our loved ones,” Carreiro snarled under his breath. In each case, members offered to help or offered a hug, anything so that the person would not feel alone or abandoned. After one woman mentioned that the district attorney had suggested she avoid the arraignment of the boys accused of killing her son, Carreiro was adamant. “You be there,” he said. “You be there.” Later, he made arrangements to meet her at the courthouse.
Shortly after Kynara was murdered, Carreiro attended a Parents of Murdered Children meeting in the basement of a downtown church. He had gone with Diane and her husband, Patrick Taylor. Diane found that she could not return—the sadness in the room overwhelmed her—but Carreiro was drawn back. Unlike his former wife, who had a new baby to attend to, and unlike the Wileys, who could take solace in their church, Carreiro had no one but the people at the meetings. “It was an avenue, and I didn’t know any way else to go,” Carreiro said.
This association also gave him a framework with which to manage another change in his life. Within a few months of the murder, the media exposure had made Carreiro the man to call whenever a child was missing. His phone rang constantly. One parent wanted to meet White Bear. Another wanted help in dealing with a coroner’s report she suspected was bungled. Another wanted to know how to look up criminal records at the courthouse. Andy Kahan had gone to the unveiling of Kynara’s billboards and at the time had known that Carreiro was too involved with his own case to become an effective advocate; still, he sensed Carreiro’s potential. “Within six months he began making himself available and known, as he began talking about the system and not just his daughter’s case,” Kahan recalled. Carreiro became a regular at rallies in support of victims. By the summer of 1993, he felt the need to supplement the cloistered emotional atmosphere of Parents of Murdered Children with something broader and more political. Following Pam Lychner’s lead, Carreiro and several friends formed Justice for All, which has a tax status that allows the group to lobby. He began working as a public speaker, telling Kynara’s story to everyone from funeral directors to parole officers.
A little more than a year after Kynara’s death, he was at one such event when a large man with long hair and a beard approached him: His daughter had been missing for three days, and the police were ignoring his pleas, assuming she was a runaway. Carreiro gave him the number of a network for missing children. “I hope I never have to see you again,” the man told Carreiro. “I hope I never see you either,” Carreiro replied. The man was Randy Ertman, and the next day, his daughter’s body was found, along with her best friend’s, near some railroad tracks in northwest Houston. Right away Ertman called Carreiro for help. He arrived to see kids in a car passing by slowly, like sightseers. Ertman, enraged, took off after them, cursing and kicking at the car. Watching him, Carreiro was overcome with envy. He longed to lose control.
Instead, he began to believe that Kynara’s death held some meaning for him that he had yet to grasp. He took it as a sign when his company closed and he could spend more time working with crime victims. On a trip to Washington, D.C., he met with senators Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison and spoke at a legislative dinner on crime reform. “Maybe we could talk to him about getting a haircut,” Beaumont congressman Jack Brooks muttered, following Carreiro to the podium. Carreiro, impervious, did not change his look; he knew it made him easier to remember.
What he really wanted people to remember was Kynara. When the first of Jennifer Ertman’s murderers came to trial in 1994, Carreiro was there, every day, performing the ritual known among victims’ advocates as court sitting. By then he was on the brink of despair. On the day of sentencing, detectives had picked up Mays for questioning one last time. “Valerio had told me this was the last shot at it. If they didn’t get anything this time, they would have to drop it,” Carreiro said. He sat through the proceedings with his body quaking. As Jennifer’s killer received the death penalty, Carreiro wondered if God would forgive him for killing Rex Mays. And then, just outside of court, Valerio got word to him: Mays had confessed.
The news interrupted regularly scheduled programming in Houston. Two daughterless fathers embraced while the TV cameras rolled, recording what passed for a happy ending. Back in Kynara’s old neighborhood, residents rejoiced. “Was it Rex? I knew it was Rex!” one exulted, as if she had just guessed the end of a made-for-TV movie.
THE HARRIS COUNTY CRIMINAL COURTHOUSE is an ugly building, a slab of muddy pink granite and glass, oafish in comparison with its graceful, cupolaed civil counterpart across the street. But what the building lacks in architecture it makes up for in personality; from the dispossessed on the sidewalk to the cynical lawyers in the basement cafeteria and the teenage mothers weeping on hallway benches, it is perversely vibrant, offering a drama in real life every single day. This was Bob Carreiro’s community now. That he had made the transition from guest star to series regular might be seen as tragic, proof of his addiction to grief, but for this: He seemed happy there. Over the years, some people had come to view Carreiro’s high profile with suspicion, branding him a publicity hound. But the courthouse was more forgiving. People there seemed to understand that he stayed close because the place provided the last link to his daughter.
On one day nearing the end of October, he had in mind to sit in on the preliminary stages of the murder trial of Eric Charles Nenno, who was being tried for a 1995 murder eerily evocative of Kynara’s. Seven-year-old Nicole Benton was playing in a neighbor’s front yard when Nenno, another neighbor, lured the child into his home, where he raped her, killed her, and hid her body. He too confessed to the crime, though in a matter of days, rather than the months it took to extract the truth from Mays. The family had called Carreiro for help soon after Nicole had disappeared.
He had found that such court sitting—a ministry of sorts—had helped him prepare for Mays’s trial, as had his A.A. experience. “The twelve-step program taught me to wait,” he said. “Every day, I’d get up and think, ‘I’ll kill him tomorrow.’” Then Carreiro would head for the courthouse to take a seat behind Mays at the trial. The psyche of Rex Mays remained beyond Carreiro’s comprehension. Detectives had no idea what prompted him to confess—they had merely asked him to come in, saying they had a new lie-detector test that could clear him once and for all, and he had agreed. (He was diffident to the end: “I can’t eat this,” he told them, as he chewed the burger they had bought him for dinner. Detectives believed he had stopped because he was overcome with remorse, or sickened by his actions. Then he explained: “I can’t eat this with mustard on it.”)
Carreiro, who by then had become knowledgeable about the admissibility of certain pieces of evidence and wise to the ways of defense lawyers, anticipated that Mays’s attorney would try to get the confession thrown out, but he could not stop the fear that gnawed at him as he listened to the debate. Likewise, he was in agony when he heard Mays’s attorney establish running objections to certain portions of testimony, building the record for an appeal. When it came time for the coroner’s report, the crime-scene video, and the reading of Mays’s confession, Carreiro fought the impulse to flee and instead sat stoically through Mays’s description of the way he had gouged out the girls’ eyes and used his Marine Corps training to slit the backs of the girls’ necks. Carreiro calmed himself by pretending he was attending someone else’s trial. He knew, then, that his pain would end only with Mays’s execution and tried to reconcile himself to the wait.
And so he had made a home of sorts for himself here, at the courthouse. He felt good: He had a warehouse job starting in a week or so, with a schedule flexible enough to allow him time to continue his work with crime victims; and he imagined that one day he might have a job with the governor’s office, maybe something like Andy Kahan’s.
He went up to the windowless courtroom where the Benton family sat alone behind the prosecution’s table. Pretrial hearings were scheduled for today, so the courtroom was almost empty. Nenno, the defendant, sat against a wall in handcuffs. Aside from the orange hair that matched his jail jumpsuit, his resemblance to Mays was almost uncanny—another pale, bespectacled man wearing a thousand-yard stare. Carreiro regarded him briefly as he entered, then nodded to Nicole’s great-grandfather and gently touched the shoulder of the small, birdlike woman who had been her stepmother.
An FBI agent was called to the stand, the same man, it turned out, who had investigated Kynara’s murder. The questions began: Did you find the body? Yes. How did you find the body? The defendant told me where to look.
When Kynara was small, she had been, like so many children, afraid of the dark. To soothe her, Carreiro would prop her door open with a shoe so a tiny crack of light shone through. Later, it became a kind of joke between them. “Put a shoe in the door, Daddy,” she would say when she felt a little bit scared, and that had always given him the simplest satisfaction, that she knew he would always be there to protect her.
Did you find the body right away? No, the defendant’s first directions were insufficient. I had to return to the attic after he told me to look behind a stack of boxes, where he had hidden her.
Carreiro directed his gaze to the man speaking in the witness stand, but his eyes were vacant and his hands were pressed tightly together in front of his lips, as if he were praying, as alone as one person could possibly be.