The Devil You Say

Was Jeffery Prible the cold-blooded murderer of an entire family? Or the gullible target of an opportunistic jailhouse informant?

On that road to nowhere, he came across an old acquaintance from junior high who hadn't fared much better than Prible.

Esteban "Steve" Herrera Jr. wasn't living with his parents -- it was their rental house he was in, along with girlfriend Neilda Haydee Tirado, 24, their infant daughter and Tirado's seven-year-old daughter from a previous relationship.

Tirado had just passed her test for a real estate license and seemed to be the stable one. Technically, her boyfriend was a tile setter by trade. In reality, he hustled pool and was a small-time pusher peddling mostly cocaine and some marijuana.

Defense attorneys Wentz (left) and Gaiser vow to continue investigating the Herrera murder case.
Troy Fields
Defense attorneys Wentz (left) and Gaiser vow to continue investigating the Herrera murder case.

Prible was welcomed into Herrera's entourage for regular runs along a route of icehouses, taverns and topless joints. Whatever sobering realities faced them in the rest of their lives, the pair made their escape via drugs, booze and occasional coke whores frequenting these Naugahyde haunts. Neighbors became adjusted to the come-and-go crowds at Herrera's makeshift garage hangout, where parties might not stop until sunrise.

In this coke-addled atmosphere, Prible and Herrera concocted a plan to own their own techno dance club and become the ultimate players.

They envisioned the first club opening on nearby Veterans Memorial and convinced themselves that they'd eventually have a chain of nightspots.

Of course, all this would take cash. They figured that Herrera could take $100,000 in seed money, make a big score in drugs and parlay the profits into the purchase. And Prible, the out-of-work paver, would come up with his share of the money somehow. Banks, the two decided, might provide just the funding he needed.

Within days, Jeffery Prible sat down at his parents' kitchen table, jotted some brief notes and gathered up several large manila envelopes. Prible put on his ball cap -- the one he'd gotten at Treasure Island casino in Las Vegas -- and received permission from his mother to borrow the car for an errand.

He was soon parked near a fence at Ella Boulevard and 43rd. Prible strolled through the Bank One doors, waited in line, then showed the teller his note:

"This is a robbery."

He had her fill the envelopes with money, then advised her not to do anything for 15 minutes, long enough for a clean getaway, or she could be hurt. Soon after that quarter-hour, Prible was back home, along with $9,690 of Bank One's cash.

What authorities would call the "15-minute Bandit" was born.

A couple of days later, he borrowed Mom's car again and got his biggest haul, $12,917 from the Chase Bank on Airline. In less than three weeks, Prible held up a total of six banks. He'd flash the note, take the money and give his warning, saying he had either a gun or a bomb.

On April 22, 1999, Prible scored at the Bank of Bellaire on Bissonnet. His total take from the holdups was more than $45,000, and Prible would swear later that most of it was funneled to Herrera.

His string of heists halted abruptly only two days later. On that Saturday afternoon, sheriff's investigators knocked on the door of his parents' home on Woodwild in north Houston. They weren't looking for a bank robber -- this was a search for the killer of five people.

Prible told detectives he'd awakened about 1:30 p.m. and had been playing with his son. But it was the previous night they were interested in.

Taken in for questioning, he described a fairly typical outing with his friend Herrera. His parents had dropped him off at Herrera's house. They bought beer and snacks at a gas station, then Herrera's brother-in-law, Victor Trevino, came over and they drank more and shot pool in Herrera's garage. After midnight, the liquor stores were closed and they were out of booze, so the informal party moved to Rick's Cabaret on Interstate 45, then back to Herrera's. Trevino left. When Neilda Tirado came out at about 4 a.m., Prible said it was time to go. Herrera dropped him off at his parents' house.

Investigators knew that within the next two hours or so, Herrera and Tirado had been shot, splashed with flammable liquids and burned. The two girls living with them suffocated, as well as seven-year-old Rachel Cumpean. She was Herrera's daughter from a past marriage and happened to be spending the weekend visiting her father.

Prible said there had been no problems when Herrera drove him home. He added to his statement the next morning.

Tirado and he had secretly kissed on two earlier occasions, and then she'd met him that night when he went in from the garage to use the restroom, Prible told investigators. They talked, then shut the bathroom door and began to have sex there until they thought they heard Herrera approaching outside. "Neilda began sucking my dick and then jacking me off," he told investigators. "I do not remember if I came or not."

Why hadn't he mentioned it to investigators earlier? "I really didn't want anyone to know about this because it would ruin Neilda's reputation," he said. Lab results would show traces of his semen in her mouth, while Herrera's semen was detected in her anus and vagina.

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