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In an almost nightly ritual of 14 years, Alvaro "Al" Barretto made the rounds of his domain, the Crystal Nite Club, on a late Wednesday in December 1997.
The 32-year-old entrepreneur, who had immigrated from Uruguay as a child, now savored the successes for his string of Houston salsa clubs. The Crystal was his crown, with an image he had created and polished with dress codes and even the addition of a second dance area. Near the front door, he passed by the place where weapon detectors once stood, reminders of the dangers of operating such clubs.
Although Barretto retained a reputation as a fighter himself, he still needed bouncers. That was evident on this night more than a year ago, when he moved along a crowded hallway to help quell a disturbance. Two brothers arguing with another group of men refused requests to calm down. So Barretto and bouncer Jamie Anthony Ross led them on "an escort out" through a rear exit.
Clubbers returned to their rumbas and romantic interludes. It was almost 2 a.m. when another bouncer busied himself with a late check of the premises. He opened the back door to discover Ross and Barretto sprawled in the alley, bloodied and barely alive. Both had been stabbed repeatedly. Barretto had five knife wounds to the chest. One of them had grazed his heart.
He was rushed to Ben Taub hospital, with relatives arriving from distant points. Even his sister, model Patrizia Barretto, had been summoned from a photo shoot in New York City. She was on a flight back to be with her brother, consoling her mother through a cell phone, when she heard the screams. Alvaro was dead.
"It was both a very sad, painful moment and a very beautiful one," she says. "There I was, in the sky with the sunrise, and I knew that my brother was with me. I cried and cried."
For a king of Houston salsa clubs known for tireless promotion of his enterprises, the death of Alvaro Barretto brought only brief mention in the local news media.
As a young boy, he had traveled with his parents, businessman Alberto Barretto and wife Maria, when they left their native Montevideo in South America for a better life in El Norte in the early 1970s. They settled in the lower East Side of Manhattan before moving to New Jersey. His parents discovered salsa and merengue, the genres of music popular with Latinos from the Caribbean. Artists such as Hector Lavoe, Willie Colon, Celia Cruz and Ruben Blades became household names for the Barrettos.
"Before then," says Patrizia Barretto, "we didn't know what the hell salsa was. We were from Uruguay, not the islands."
Ironically, their dreams of starting a salsa club were not realized until the early 1980s, when they relocated to Houston, at the time a hotbed of country music spurred by the craze from Urban Cowboy. Alvaro's parents recognized the heavy southwest Houston concentration of Colombians, Central Americans and Caribbean Latinos, all devotees of tropical music.
In 1983 the doors opened at the first Barretto club, a small cantina. Alvaro, between classes at the University of Houston and then Rice, assumed responsibility for daily operations. They soon relocated the early Crystal to its present expanded site near Hillcroft and the Southwest Freeway.
Alvaro became the consummate promoter and marketer. He distributed VIP passes to influential leaders at universities, radio stations and social and professional organizations. Their free admissions and drinks were more than offset by the cover charges and tabs paid by others they attracted.
Barretto displayed strong business instincts as the number of clubs grew to five. He reserved "special days" at clubs to tap into the expanding ethnic market in Houston. On any given night, visitors might hear music from India at one club and hip-hop at another, while a third catered to the fans of Tejano.
"Al knew what certain groups of people wanted and gave it to them," said Patrizia, who has assumed CEO duties for the chain. "It didn't matter if they were Latin, Chinese or black -- he knew."
And homicide investigators probing his killing quickly believed they knew Barretto's slayer. For a case that would later take on considerable controversy, it hardly began as a whodunit.
Not long after the club owner was found lying in the alley, police picked up Juan Paez for questioning. Yes, he reportedly admitted, he had been at Crystal with his brother Hector; they had been ejected by Barretto and Ross, and he claimed Barretto began beating his brother outside the club.
But Juan Paez said he was nothing more than a bystander at a violent scene, with Hector pulling a knife and stabbing the men. Ross, who survived the attack, reportedly told investigators that it was Hector Paez who attacked them with the knife.
Based on the available evidence, the case took on familiar overtones for police: Bar patrons get bounced from club; fight follows and escalates into fatal confrontation. Tragic, yes. But hardly uncommon in the tough urban haunts of Houston.
Police filed a murder charge against Hector Paez, who has yet to be found.
The Barretto family applauded the charge, but they challenge nearly everything else about the investigation. They believe Barretto's murder was a conspiracy.
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