The first time Ana Prieto Canela laid eyes on Jay Hamburger, he told her he was there to be her angel. She thought he was crazy. Six months later, she still does. Carrying a bouquet of flowers and dressed all in white, his Michael Bolton-like blond hair cascading in ringlets around his shoulders, Hamburger must have resembled something straight out of Heaven's central casting when he walked into Prieto's hospital room last October. All that was missing was a halo and a pair of wings.
Prieto was lying in bed, the trunk of her body punctuated by two bloody stumps. A week earlier, her common-law husband, in an almost incomprehensible fit of rage and depravity, had taken a shotgun and fired it once into each of Prieto's legs. Julio Bustillo did so, Ana would later testify in court, because he wanted to keep her from attending a birthday party. The 23-year-old woman was taken by ambulance to Ben Taub Hospital, where surgeons, to save her life, had to amputate both of her legs above the knees.
It was one of those stories that give pause to even the most jaded among us. And after the public had absorbed the initial horror of Bustillo's insane butchery, Ana's story was to touch other nerves, leaving more than a few people discomfited over vexing questions of rights and responsibilities.
But in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, it hadn't been a story at all, at least to the local media: no one bothers reporting on the details of the shooting of a young illegal immigrant on the edge of the barrio, especially if the victim isn't dead -- although Ana was wishing she was when Jay Hamburger first showed up in her room at Ben Taub.
Just two months earlier, Prieto and Bustillo had entered the United States after walking much of the way from their native Honduras. Suddenly, after losing her legs, Ana was alone, disabled and destitute, and in no position to turn down a little divine intervention -- even if it was in the form of some loco gringo who, like Julio Bustillo, would come to dominate her life.
"I wanted to be everything she needed," says Hamburger, "or at least everything I thought she needed."
These days, what Ana thinks she needs is to have Jay Hamburger out of her life.
"He's really meddling," Prieto says. "He has helped me a lot, but I don't think angels are like that."
At the time Ana was losing her legs, plans already were under way for a rally that would bring her and Hamburger together.
Each of the past six Octobers, a coalition of women's organizations has conducted a candlelight vigil to draw attention to Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Last October, victims of domestic violence and other concerned citizens, among them Jay Hamburger, gathered under the trees around the City Hall reflecting pool. Also on hand were officers from the Houston Police Department's family violence unit, who brought with them the horrifying photographs of Prieto's domestic tragedy.
"I saw the pictures, and something resonated with me about this," recalls Hamburger, who was then a volunteer with HPD's 802 Westheimer storefront crisis team, whose members counsel crime victims. "I had seen enough ugly scenes, and I had read enough ugly stories. But this had a dimension that was beyond anything I had ever experienced."
After seeing the photos and hearing Ana's story, Hamburger was compelled to visit her. He found her alone in a semi-private room at Ben Taub, curled in the fetal position and crying to herself.
"I was crying all the time," Prieto recalls. "I asked the doctors not to give me any more shots so that I could die."
Hamburger was struck by the barrenness of the room. There was no television, no flowers -- not even a hairbrush or toothpaste. He made a list of the things he thought she could use, and in his broken Spanish, told her he would return.
That next day, after picking up a few necessities for Ana, Hamburger went back to the hospital, and was again struck by what he saw. This time, he found Ana methodically cleaning one of her bloody stumps with antiseptic and gauze -- raising her thigh into the air and dabbing at it like it was a foreign object. While his presence didn't seem to faze her, Hamburger was overcome with that uncomfortable sensation you get when you can't decide if it is more embarrassing to stay or go.
"I stood there for a moment," he says. "I didn't want to act shocked or horrified. Then I told her I had to make a phone call and left."
But something kept him coming back.
On October 18, approximately two weeks after Hamburger's first encounter with Ana, HPD's family violence unit went public with Ana's story at a news conference. Representatives of the Houston Area Women's Center, the criminal justice reform group Justice for All and the Honduran consul general also attended. It was announced that the Women's Center had established an account at NationsBank to which donations could be sent to help pay Ana's medical bills.
Soon after, the money began pouring in. It became obvious that because of the language and physical barriers facing her, Ana would need help in coordinating her affairs. The search for someone to fill that role ended at an October meeting at the headquarters of HPD's family violence unit. In attendance were Hamburger and three counselors from the police department, as well as representatives from the Women's Center, Justice for All and the office of state Senator Mario Gallegos. As they looked around the room for a volunteer, all eyes fell on Hamburger.
"Everybody else had full-time jobs," says Linda Morales, who represented Gallegos. "So, Jay just sort of volunteered."
Hamburger concurs with Morales' recollection.
"As I sat there at the conference table, everybody was kind of looking at me," he says. "My instinct told me to just take charge."
One of the first things Hamburger did was arrange for Prieto to be in the United States legally. He says he got extraordinary cooperation from the office of U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. Her staff helped put him in contact with the right people at the U.S. Department of State, through whom he obtained a visa for Prieto that permits her to remain in this country until May 9.
When Ana was ready to check out of the hospital, Hamburger arranged for her to move into the Brompton Court Apartments near the Texas Medical Center. Part of the complex is leased by the Associated Catholic Charities and is maintained for outpatients at the medical center. The units are completely furnished and have telephones and utilities already connected. Residents pay only the monthly phone charges and a nominal rent of $140 a week. (Until this month, Ana's rent was completely underwritten by Shaune Bagwell, the estranged wife of Astro Jeff Bagwell.)
Hamburger took his new responsibilities seriously, donating his time and devoting himself to getting Ana back on her feet, prosthetically and financially. It was a task no one else was willing to take on.
"I invested in helping her spirit," says Hamburger, "and in helping her heal emotionally, as well as physically."
When Ana needed to go back to see the doctors, Hamburger went with her. When reporters wanted to do a story on Ana, they went through Hamburger. He also persuaded a prosthesis manufacturer, the J.E. Hanger Company, to provide $30,000 worth of artificial legs for Ana.
"Some people get fixations and obsessions with doing things," says HPD spokesman Jack Cato. "That's what's happened with Jay."
Tending to Ana's needs was, no doubt, an exhausting, thankless job. Yet Hamburger's obsessiveness when it came to the Honduran woman struck some people as odd.
In December, when Bustillo went on trial for aggravated assault, Hamburger could be seen on the television news every night, dressed in a white suit and bow tie, wheeling Prieto into Judge Michael McSpadden's courtroom. Often, Hamburger would serve as her spokesman, answering reporters' questions in the courthouse hallways. He seemed to relish the attention.
"He was almost always standing in front of her," recalls one of Hamburger's fellow police volunteers, who, like most people contacted for this story, did not want to be identified.
"It was like it was his limelight. He wants some big name for himself out of this."
If Hamburger is indeed drawn to the spotlight, he comes by the desire naturally.
Through the seventies and into the early eighties, Moie Hamburger was one of the more flamboyant characters on the Montrose social scene, an iron-clad eccentric. By day, as the area's Roto-Rooter franchise holder, Moie made a tidy sum for himself unclogging the drains and toilets of Houstonians. Sometimes, he would even hold himself out as the inventor of the patented device. By night, he was often at the coolest parties and hippest bars, usually in some sort of costume. Other times, he could be seen dressed as a priest, skating at the Galleria ice rink. He was also an avid tap-dancer.
Only recently did Moie slow down. At 85, he now resides at a local retirement home. But while Moie was noted for his conspicuous consumption, his 48-year-old son Jay has come to be known for his conspicuous generosity.
Every Sunday for the past several years, Jay Hamburger has prepared food at his restored Victorian home in the Sixth Ward, where he lives alone and works as a photographer. (Earlier this year, Hamburger became a father. Although he is sharing parental duties, neither the mother nor the child live with him.) When the food is ready, he distributes it to the homeless in downtown Houston. In addition to HPD's 802 Westheimer storefront crisis team, Hamburger has also done volunteer work for the Women's Center's rape crisis program and other politically correct causes. Despite his father's wealth, Hamburger insists Moie is not the multimillionaire he often claimed to be and denies that he relies on any trust fund or allowance to finance his benevolence.
"I live right on the edge financially," insists Hamburger, "especially since I've been sort of changing my life into community service."
Even some of his good friends -- who have no doubt that his heart is in the right place -- find it hard to believe Hamburger's claims that he's in bad financial straits and is fiscally independent from his father. In the first place, they say, there is little to suggest that he has made much of a living off of his photography. Although he does have a limited professional track record -- including some work for the Press -- his work is not much in evidence. Secondly, Hamburger readily admits being in charge of his father's affairs. In fact, the retirement home where Moie lives must obtain Jay's permission before his father can leave the grounds, even with other members of his family. Recently, when Moie left the facility with his sister and sister-in-law, his son called the police to report that his father had been kidnapped.
"He's a do-gooder who wants to run his father's life," says HPD spokesman Cato, adding that the police did not take Jay's kidnapping claim seriously. "He's a lot like Moie in some ways, but he doesn't have the pizzazz that Moie had."
Within HPD, there are well-defined boundaries between the responsibilities and -- most important -- the authority of officers, civilian employees and civilian volunteers. No one hesitates to point out when those lines have been crossed or violated, especially to volunteers.
It may not have been his fault, but each time Hamburger appeared in a news account about Prieto last fall, he was identified as a member of the police department. And even though he technically was acting on behalf of HPD, the department gets touchy when a volunteer isn't clearly labeled as such. And it's pretty much the responsibility of each volunteer to make sure that distinction is duly noted. Hamburger was aware that his public appearances with Prieto were not going over well with the department.
"I was too often linked to HPD," he acknowledges. "I know that some of the HPD senior officers had a problem with the publicity."
In addition to his other duties, Hamburger also coordinated a couple of fundraisers for Ana. One was a barbecue at an ice house on Washington Avenue, where Jeff Bagwell signed autographs and members of the Houston Police Officers Association donated their time and equipment preparing the food. Another benefit at DiverseWorks featured an appearance by actor Edward James Olmos.
Combined with the money that had been mailed to the account the Women's Center had set up, along with money generated by a fundraiser held by a local Honduran association, the money donated for Ana swelled to $37,000. (That figure does not include the approximately $5,000 in cash that Hamburger says was given directly to Prieto.)
No secret was made of the funds. So in December, after officials with the Harris County Hospital District began wondering about the $52,000 bill Prieto had accumulated at taxpayer expense during her stay at Ben Taub, they approached Hamburger to see if some sort of payment could be arranged. Hamburger went ballistic and called reporters to criticize the district. District administrators were not pleased.
"For about four days we took a real black eye," says one. "Then I called the County Attorney's office and told them, 'I don't give a fuck; you get all the money that's owed to us.' Jay handled it real inappropriately, for his own self-aggrandizement."
Although Hamburger would later announce a plan to pay off Ana's bill, the public dispute between him and the district proved more than HPD was willing to tolerate from one of its volunteers. Hamburger was told to turn in his credentials.
"He went out there and took over," says HPD's Cato. "He's goodhearted, but he overstepped his bounds."
Within a few weeks of Hamburger's dismissal from HPD's volunteer ranks, Ana Prieto Canela would come to agree with Cato's assessment.
Ana Prieto Canela may not be her real name. According to lawyer Isaias Torres, who is representing her before the Immigration and Naturalization Service, it is a name the woman assumed when she entered the United States. (He will not reveal her real name; INS contends that Ana Prieto Canela is indeed her name.) Although the necklace she wears and the key chain she carries both say "Christie," Ana unconvincingly explains that "Christie" is her middle name.
She claims to have been born and raised in Choluteca, a city of 54,000 located near Honduras' southern border with Nicaragua. It was there, at the age of 17, that she says she met Julio Bustillo, a bill collector four years her senior.
When asked if she found Bustillo handsome, Prieto and a friend from Honduras both put their hands over their faces and laugh hysterically. Instead of his looks, Prieto says, it was the fact that Bustillo had a job that attracted her to him. After moving in together, things were good.
"At first, I didn't see that he was so evil," says Prieto. "He treated me well."
A year later, Ana became pregnant. It was after their son was born that Bustillo began beating Ana and running around with other women. Once, she says, he shoved a loaded pistol inside her mouth. He also threatened to disfigure her, as he claimed to have done to another woman by throwing battery acid in her face.
"He said he wanted her to always remember him," says Prieto, no longer laughing.
Despite her husband's philandering and violent outbursts, Prieto left her child with her mother and father to accompany Bustillo when he left Honduras to seek a better life in the United States. With $1,000 between them, it took the couple the better part of a week to reach the United States, walking part of the way, traveling by bus the rest. Last July, they entered this country by wading across the Rio Grande near Matamoros. Their original destination was Chicago, but weary from the road, they settled for Houston.
For the first week or so, Prieto and Bustillo stayed at Casa Juan Diego, a shelter for undocumented workers that they had heard about on a bus from Honduras. Within a few weeks, they were sharing a one-bedroom flat at the Winkler Apartments on the southeast side with an illegal Mexican couple. Prieto and Bustillo slept in the living room.
Prieto found work straight away, taking various domestic and janitorial jobs. Bustillo was not so lucky. The only work he came across was as a security guard at an apartment complex. He did acquire a shotgun during his employment there, but quit after being cheated on his first two weeks' pay. Soon, Bustillo sunk into a depression and just stopped looking for work. Meanwhile, Ana was flourishing by comparison, finding work and making new friends. Her success only served to infuriate Bustillo. On September 28, he decided to make her pay for her good fortune -- and ensure that she would never forget him.
That Thursday afternoon, Prieto was preparing to leave for a birthday party. Bustillo told her that she wasn't going. Prieto bridled, telling him that, yes, she was. Bustillo grabbed his shotgun and hit her in the stomach with the butt. It was then that the other woman who lived with them ran outside to find a phone and call the police. Bustillo told Prieto that he'd give them a real reason to come. After shooting her once in each leg, he placed the shotgun under a cushion on the couch. Bustillo attempted to run away but was chased down by neighbors.
As the police were arresting her husband, Prieto was taken by ambulance to Ben Taub, a trauma facility where most indigents in Harris County are brought in emergencies. Because the injuries to her legs were so severe, doctors had no choice but to amputate. When she came to, Prieto figured her life was over.
"I didn't know what I could do," she says. "What could I do without legs? I thought I'd be sitting around doing nothing forever."
Prieto says she had no idea there were such things as prosthetics. But the doctors at the hospital showed her other patients who were walking thanks to the plastic and steel extensions, and convinced her that she, too, could use artificial legs. Prieto began praying for the strength, to be able to walk again and return to Honduras to take care of her three-year-old son.
Since her release from the hospital in late October, Ana has spent most of her time inside her first-floor apartment at Brompton Court. The complex is only minutes from the medical center -- a convenient location, since Prieto has undergone extensive follow-up treatment to make sure what's left of her legs mends properly.
The apartment is nice, but life there is tedious for Ana and Brenda, a friend from Choluteca who recently made the monthlong walk from Honduras to help take care of Ana.
A couple of oversized stuffed animals sit on either side of the large color television in Ana's living room. Since she has no transportation, Prieto watches a lot of television. Unfortunately, she doesn't have cable; the set only picks up VHF stations, and none of them are Spanish-language outlets. So Ana passes the time watching TV characters jabber in a language she doesn't understand. Other times she lies in bed surrounded by the several talking teddy bears sent to her by well-wishers. But, like the television, the bears only speak English. So Prieto, until recently, also spent a considerable amount of time on the telephone, talking to her mother in Honduras. Her bill for February alone was $1,300, according to Hamburger.
Prieto's thoughts these days are dominated by her wish to return home to Honduras and her desire to control her own affairs -- especially her financial affairs. The fact that Hamburger continues to have control over her money has eroded her relationship with him, to the point that they barely communicate. When they do speak, the discussion is usually acrimonious. After receiving the $1,300 phone bill, Hamburger had Prieto's long-distance service canceled, against her wishes. They have also disagreed over how much money Prieto should be allowed to send home to Honduras each month for her son. Sometimes Brenda tries to cheer up Ana by jokingly suggesting ways they could kill Jay.
"He has helped me a lot, but he's too strict with me," complains Prieto. "I don't understand why he's controlling my money."
The reason is simple: she agreed to let him, and there was no one there to advise her against it.
Shortly after Ana was basically dropped in his lap by all the social service agencies that were initially involved in her case, Hamburger had Ana transfer her funds from the savings account at NationsBank to a trust fund at Bank One. Women's Center executive director Ellen Cohen says she is "not clear how Jay became the trustee," and says that the banks should answer that question. NationsBank refused to comment; Bank One officials did not return calls from the Press.
What apparently happened was that Hamburger simply convinced Prieto to name him and a Bank One officer -- who administers the account for free -- as trustees over the fund. Prieto was given an allowance of $600 a month. No other money can be withdrawn from the account without the signatures of Hamburger and the bank official.
Hamburger says he had the trust fund established to ensure Prieto has a nice nest egg when she returns to Honduras. He also wants her to go through the extensive physical rehabilitation she will need if she is to be ambulatory again -- therapy that will add to her already outstanding bills. It has not been determined how the rehab expenses will be paid for. But Hamburger is distressed that he's been portrayed as trying to stiff the hospital district for Ana's bill.
"I'm the guy whose trying to get them their money," he says. "If I wasn't involved in this, they'd be shit out of luck."
While Hamburger admits the trust was set up to keep the money out of the hands of creditors like the district, he says the maneuver also kept Ana eligible for benefits from Medicaid and the Texas Crime Victims' Compensation Fund, which is administered by the attorney general's office. Both Medicaid and the crime victims' fund are payers of last resort. Hamburger says it's been a delicate balancing act to qualify Ana to receive money from both. His goal, he says, is to use money from those two sources to eventually pay off a substantial portion of the $52,000 bill rung up for her initial hospital stay.
According to Hamburger's calculations -- which Harris County officials are still trying to verify -- the county should receive about $12,000 from Medicaid. Another $25,000 from the state fund will be split between the hospital district and the doctors who worked on Ana. (Ana has also qualified for a second $25,000 from the crime victims' fund, which can be used for such things as making a home or car wheelchair accessible, job training or home health care.) But once Medicaid pays part of the bill, federal regulations preclude the county from going after Ana for the balance.
Assistant county attorney Dori Wind -- whose job is to collect the money that Prieto owes the county -- has suggested that in order to get around that regulation, Ana could make a sizable donation -- say, about $15,000 -- to the hospital district, which could be paid out of the $25,000 remaining in Ana's trust fund. That would still leave Ana with about $10,000 she could take back to Honduras. Although the hospital district would be stuck with remainder of the bill and the costs of subsequent out-patient treatment, which could total as much as $30,000, Harris County would have collected much more of the Prieto account than it ever thought that it would.
"We weren't going to leave her with nothing," says Wind. "We had said if there was, for instance, $33,000 in the bank for Ana, we would like to get a third of it. So, now we should do a little better than that."
It was an arrangement that, until late January, was satisfactory to Ana. Then, suddenly, her relationship with Hamburger began to sour. Everything was going smoothly, says Hamburger, until Ana decided that she wanted to send $17,000 back to Honduras to build a house. Hamburger flatly refused.
"I certainly cannot advocate sending large sums of money to Honduras until the medical bills here have been settled one way or the other," he says.
Hamburger's recalcitrance did not go over well with Prieto. In an attempt to persuade him to loosen his grip on the trust, she had two female counselors from HPD's family violence unit intervene with Hamburger on her behalf.
"The women from the police told him that it's the same whether I have the money now or later," says Prieto, who insists that she, too, wants to do right by the hospital district. "They told him that if I blow it, I blow it, but that it's my money, and that I should be able to do what I want to with it."
Hamburger says the counselors -- Anita Fuentes and Alma Gonzales -- not only told him that he should relinquish control of Ana's funds, they also pressured him to remove himself from her life entirely.
"They told me that since I am not a Hispanic female, there is no way I could ever understand Ana," says Hamburger. "They also said that Ana wants me out of her life. Well, Ana has still yet to tell me that herself."
At least not in so many words.
Gonzales, contacted at the HPD family violence office, refused to be interviewed for this story, saying that the she was no longer involved in the case. Fuentes did not return calls. However, after Hamburger filed a complaint about their interference, one high-ranking HPD officer says the women were ordered to back off. The officer, who asked not to be named, says that Hamburger, despite his suspension from the department and his sometimes overbearing approach in dealing with Prieto, is performing admirably at a job no one else wanted to do.
"Jay should get a pat on the back," says the officer. "The way Jay has handled things makes a lot of sense to me. It's a big responsibility, and Jay takes his responsibilities real seriously."
Too seriously, in the opinion of another HPD volunteer who has worked closely with Hamburger and believes Jay has crossed the line separating concern and control.
"I don't doubt for one second that Ana would piss away all of her money given the opportunity," says the volunteer. "But the fact remains, it's her money. We gave it to her. We didn't give it to Jay. There are times when counselors and advisors get too close and think they know what's best. But you have to be careful of not stepping into the role of abuser -- which is so easy to do when you've got somebody who is vulnerable and who's been living with an abuser, that those patterns are still there."
That may be a wholly unfair characterization of Jay Hamburger's relationship to Ana, but the comparison to Julio Bustillo, who's now serving a 20-year prison sentence, is something that's also occurred to Prieto.
"I thought I had gotten away from my husband," she says. "I thought I wouldn't have anyone telling me what to do anymore. Now, it's happening all over again."
Ana recently moved to reverse that pattern. Isaias Torres, the lawyer who's asking the INS to extend by at least a year Ana's deadline of May 9 for returning home, has notified Hamburger that Prieto wants him removed as a trustee over her money. Torres, who is working for Ana for free after being contacted by several women concerned about her well-being, says he will also seek an exact accounting of how Ana's money has been spent by Hamburger.
Meanwhile, county officials are feeling burned by the whole affair. They point out that the hospital district is not in business to provide free medical care to someone who has money in the bank that was put there by people who intended for their donations to help defray medical bills -- not build a house in Honduras. Assistant county attorney Wind is, if anything, more upset with Ana than Hamburger.
"After all, she did come here illegally," says Wind. "She kind of imported her own violence along with her. From what I understand, her husband threw battery acid on a woman, yet she thought it was wise to come with him to this country."
Hamburger, for his part, suggests that all Ana has to do is say the word, and he'll remove himself from her life. He knows that many people don't like the job that he's done looking after Ana's interests, but he maintains Ana would have fallen through the cracks had he not been there.
He's probably right. Although she and others may not realize it, Prieto could have done much worse than to have been taken under the dominating wings of Jay Hamburger.
"Ana is a lucky girl in a lot of ways," says Hamburger. "Maybe she would have gotten some legs, but nothing like what she's getting."
Last month, Ana was scheduled to check into the Quentin Mease Hospital on North MacGregor to begin the intensive and painful weeks of physical therapy it will take to get her up and moving on the $30,000 worth of prosthetics donated to her. Hamburger assembled members of the media on the front lawn of the facility to chronicle her arrival. The only problem was, Ana didn't come.
Later, she would claim that the person who was supposed to give her a ride to the hospital never showed up at her apartment. That didn't explain why no one responded when Hamburger tried to call her on his pocket phone as he paced on the sidewalk in front of the hospital, resembling an anxious high-tech Gabriel in his brown leather sandals and loose-fitting white shirt and pants.
After about an hour of waiting, the reporters and photographers gave up and went on to the next assignment. Jay never did get an answer, but maybe he was he finally getting the message.
(Claudia Kolker contributed to this story.)
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