Chuck Rosenthal: So Tough on Crime That a Suspect Goes Free
Like most teenagers, Felicia Ruiz was fired up about going to a Halloween party. It was late, about 11 o'clock on that Friday night by the time the 17-year-old finished her shift at KFC and walked through the front door of her parents' house in north Houston.
As she entered, the phone was already ringing. It was Jesus Salazar, a gang member whom Ruiz had befriended at Eisenhower Senior High School. Salazar had spoken to Ruiz that afternoon, urging her to go to the party, and now he was calling again to double-check she was still going.
Excited, Ruiz quickly changed out of her work clothes into a pair of khaki pants, black Nike sneakers and a black T-shirt with "Don't Ask Me Shit" written across the chest. She popped two plastic breast enhancers into her bra, tied her hair with a navy blue piece of elastic and was ready to party.
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Ruiz's parents, Carrie and Lou, were hesitant to let their only daughter go out. After all, it was late, but Felicia assured them everything would be okay and that she would not stay out all night. All she wanted was to hang out with her friends for a little while.
Just before midnight, Ruiz and her parents heard someone out front honking a car horn. Carrie Ruiz decided to walk her daughter to the car.
"You gonna be all right?" she asked her daughter, recognizing Salazar and noticing a stranger sitting in the passenger seat of the burgundy Honda hatchback.
"Mom, I'll be fine," Felicia responded, slinging her arm around her mother's shoulder and giving her a little hug.
Just before Felicia disappeared into the backseat, she popped her head up over the roof of the car just to assure her mother one last time.
"I love you, Mom," she said.
And then they were gone.
Felicia did not know exactly where the party was, but she trusted Salazar despite his nickname "Trouble." Salazar drove them less than three miles from Ruiz's home to the Quail Creek Apartments where he lived and paid the stranger $20 — ten of which he borrowed from Felicia — for letting him use the car. As the stranger drove off, Salazar walked Ruiz toward the rear of the complex, through a gate, down the street and out into a vacant field.
It was unusually humid that night — even by Houston standards — as the two teens made their way across the grassy lot. Ruiz did not notice as Salazar began to lag a step or two behind. Off in the distance, Ruiz saw a familiar figure — it was Salazar's ex-girlfriend Lisa Huerta — standing next to a boy she did not recognize.
This was not the party she was expecting.
Suddenly, Salazar stepped forward and cracked Ruiz across the jaw with his fist. She never saw it coming. The blow shattered the bones in Ruiz's face, literally knocking the size 0, 112-pound girl off her feet.
Huerta and the other boy, Jay Ferrel, ran over to where Ruiz lay while Salazar barked out orders for them to hold Ruiz down. Huerta had already opened her folding buck knife, a gift from Salazar that she carried around in her purse and used to slice open cheap cigars before filling them with marijuana.
Ferrel straddled Ruiz's legs to keep her from kicking while Huerta hovered over her and pressed the blade against their victim's neck just as she and Salazar had rehearsed in a motel room earlier that day.
"I pushed it in," Huerta later testified in court. But the knife got "stuck."
Salazar then grabbed the dagger from Huerta's hand and began driving it into Ruiz's torso, some thrusts so powerful the knife ran completely through the slender girl into the dirt.
Fighting for her life, Ruiz struggled in vain to defend herself.
"Trouble, why are you doing this to me?" Ruiz managed to gasp in her baby voice.
Salazar did not respond and Huerta covered Ruiz's mouth to muffle her screams. According to Huerta, Ruiz's last word on earth was "Sorry."
After what seemed like forever, Salazar, now covered in blood, stopped and turned away.
But when he saw Ruiz was still alive and trying to turn over, Salazar returned and finished the job, knifing Ruiz several more times in her back. In all, he and Huerta stabbed Ruiz 26 times; they severed her jugular vein and punctured her heart and lungs.
Finally, when Ruiz could no longer move at all, Salazar, Huerta and Ferrel turned their back on Ruiz for the final time, leaving her all alone in the grass, bleeding to death.
Now, more than eight years later, both Huerta and Ferrel are serving lengthy prison sentences and have told police that Salazar was the ringleader. But Salazar has evaded any punishment.
A native of Venezuela, Salazar fled the United States to his home country shortly after the murder, and police believe he is still living there today. In Venezuela, Salazar is free, going to parties, dating girls and bragging about getting away with murder, according to what Carrie Ruiz says the FBI told her.
But Felicia Ruiz's parents are fighting to change that.
Despite frosty international relations between the United States and Venezuela and a political minefield of extradition issues, Venezuelan authorities have agreed in principle to send Salazar back to Houston to face murder charges.
The main catch, though, is that Venezuela wants written assurances from Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal that his office will not seek a sentence greater than 30 years in prison for the charge of murder and that Salazar will be prosecuted within ten years of the crime, both of which are in accordance with Venezuelan law.
And Rosenthal does not want to agree to that. Rather than set a precedent of accepting a reduced possible punishment, the Harris County DA would rather sit this one out.
Carrie and Lou Ruiz have 22 months left to change Rosenthal's mind and get Salazar back to a Harris County court. Tick-tock.
According to the U.S. State Department, there have been no successful extraditions between the United States and Venezuela in the last five years. Only two people were extradited from Venezuela to the United States between 1997 and 2001, according to a 2002 report by the U.S. Embassy in Venezuela.
South American and Latin American countries have a history of imposing lighter sentences for crimes than the United States. Several countries, including Venezuela and Mexico, have abolished the death penalty, and much of South America has done away with capital punishment except for special circumstances such as during times of war. Life sentences are also seldom imposed, if ever. Mexico, for instance, defines a life sentence as anywhere from 20 to 40 years in prison.
For nearly the first seven years after their daughter's murder, Carrie and Lou Ruiz wanted desperately to get Salazar back to the United States, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation kept telling them nothing could be done. Salazar was a Venezuelan national, agents told the family, and Venezuelan law prohibits the extradition of its citizens.
Making matters even stickier, U.S. President George Bush and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have been going at each other for years.
In 2002, Bush supported a short-lived two-day coup against Chavez, and for the past few years they have been battling over the extradition of Luis Posada Carriles.
Carriles escaped from a Venezuelan prison in 1985 while awaiting trial for his involvement in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner, killing 73 people. He then purportedly worked with the Central Intelligence Agency and was linked to an assassination attempt against Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Panama in 2000. In 2005, Carriles illegally sneaked into the United States and was arrested. In April, the 79-year-old was released on bond in Florida. Chavez has demanded that the United States extradite Carriles, calling him an international terrorist akin to Osama Bin Laden, but so far his requests have fallen on deaf ears.
Despite its statements about the near impossibility of extradition from Venezuela, the FBI maintained an informant there who fed it information on Salazar's whereabouts. One report indicated he even had a child, says Carrie Ruiz. But several years ago, the mole got scared of being found out and harmed, so she clammed up and disappeared.
"The FBI kept telling us they were trying to lure Salazar to Aruba or some other foreign country," says Carrie Ruiz, "but nothing ever came of that. Then in 2006, the agent told us he was busy working cases on the 'high seas,' and that he'd lost track of Salazar. I could feel my blood boiling. Then I hung up the phone and called Congressman Gene Green."
FBI spokeswoman Patricia Villafranca says the bureau does not comment on active cases.
Green was immediately sympathetic but understood the challenges that lay ahead. Still, he committed himself to doing all he could.
"The FBI said they'd rather I not do anything," Green recalls, "and I said, 'Well, I've got two parents here and they need to know someone is working for them.' I think everybody needs to think how they'd feel if this was their daughter who was killed this way."
Green began sending letters to Venezuelan Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez Herrera and to Chavez requesting assistance. Alvarez Herrera responded, saying he would try to help if he could.
With the aid of Andy Kahan, director of the Mayor's Crime Victims Office, Carrie and Lou Ruiz and Houston police detectives got a meeting with Alvarez Herrera and forwarded him crime scene pictures of their mutilated daughter. Soon, Venezuelan authorities gave the Ruizes a ray of hope. They told the parents that despite their country's law prohibiting the extradition of its citizens, such matters were up to the discretion of the government and they would in principle agree to send Salazar back to Texas. That is, so long as certain conditions were met, most notably that the prosecutor would not seek a sentence of more than 30 years, the maximum punishment for murder under Venezuelan law.
This offer was again extended to the Ruizes by the Venezuelan Consulate General in Houston as recently as early December, says Carrie Ruiz.
When contacted by the Houston Press, Venezuelan Embassy spokeswoman Marielba Alvarez in Washington, D.C., issued a statement saying that the Venezuelan Embassy "has once again expressed its willingness to support (the Ruiz family) in all it can to see that justice prevails."
Initially, Harris County prosecutor Julian Ramirez was willing to go along. But unfortunately for the Ruiz family, Rosenthal overruled Ramirez. He says he is unwilling to make a deal that limits the possible prison term.
"The deal is," he told the Press, "I'm not going to cap a crime just because someone fled to a foreign country. (Salazar) ran, and I'm not going to give him credit for running. I try to treat everybody exactly the same and I think it would be unjustifiable to treat him differently just because he fled the jurisdiction."
To Andy Kahan, this does not makesense.
"Deals are cut all the time," he says. "Lisa Huerta got one for 30 years for the same crime. So, from my perspective, all this is is basically an international plea deal. I don't think there is any favoritism or special treatment. If Salazar remains free, to me that sends a more horrific message to murderers that if you kill one of our citizens here and flee to a country without an extradition policy and as long as you can remain arrest-free and as long as we are not willing to cut any deals, you got away with murder. For Mr. and Mrs. Ruiz, to find out that they can actually get cooperation from Venezuelan officials and then have the buck stop right in your own backyard is almost like getting sucker-punched all over again."
Rosenthal says the fact that Huerta pleaded to a 30-year sentence does not affect his decision.
"I wish Chuck would just say yes, but that's his call," says Green.
According to the results of an open records request from the Administrative Office of the District Courts, 1,125 murder cases have been filed in Harris County district courts since Jan. 1, 1999, the year Felicia Ruiz was killed.
Only 33.4 percent of those cases either went to trial or were pled out. Of those cases, 46 percent of the defendants received a sentence less than 30 years while 46.8 percent of the defendants received a sentence equal to or greater than 30 years, and 7.1 percent of the defendants were acquitted.
More than 63 percent of the murder cases filed since 1999 were dismissed.
As for locating Salazar, says Carrie Ruiz, Venezuelan authorities have told her that they cannot arrest Salazar until a formal capture and extradition request has been submitted by the U.S. State Department and accepted by Venezuela.
However, "The Consulate told us they're ready to find him," says Carrie Ruiz. "They say finding him would not be that hard once the paperwork is all signed and agreed upon."
Houston police are looking for Salazar's mother to try to pin down where exactly her son is living, but are unable to find her. She works as a live-in maid, frequently switching families, and does not have a Social Security number, says Houston Police investigator Steven Straughter, making it difficult to track her. Carrie Ruiz says the woman's name is Estella Rosa Salazar, but she is rumored to be using the last name of Esquivel.
Even if Rosenthal agrees to take the deal, says Green, getting the State Department to act may not be easy.
"The State Department has not been very forthcoming," he says. "They don't want to ask anything of Venezuela."
But before the hope of an extradition request can even get to the federal level, it's up to the local district attorney.
"I've always heard that Rosenthal was a big victim's advocate," says Carrie Ruiz. "We're Felicia's parents and we don't like the idea of 30 years; hell, she had just as many stab wounds as that, but we've been waiting eight years to extradite this guy and if we have the chance to do that, we'd rather have him rotting in a Texas prison than free to live his life in Venezuela.
"We've got less than two years now because of the statute of limitations imposed by Venezuela, and if we wait like Rosenthal and the FBI want us to, we may never see justice for Felicia. We need the people of Harris County to put the pressure on Rosenthal and see that this gets done right now."
Jesus Gerardo Salazar did not make much of an impression on Carrie and Lou Ruiz when they first met him three months before their daughter's murder. He seemed nice enough and Felicia certainly liked him. Of course, Felicia liked just about everybody. She and Salazar would hang out sometimes, but mostly the two friends would talk by phone. Because he didn't visit their home often, Carrie and Lou Ruiz did not get to know him very well. Still today, not much is known about the fugitive, and what little the Ruiz family does know comes mostly from the FBI.
Salazar was born in Maracaibo, Venezuela, near the border with Colombia but moved to the United States with his mother when he was four. His father still lives in Venezuela and used to work for the state-owned oil company, PDVSA. Salazar is fairly handsome, with dark brown skin, full lips and a squat nose. His shoulders are rounded like a boxer's and he is described in court documents as quite muscular.
He was a member of the Latin Kings street gang, but unlike many gangsters he did not have a rap sheet of arrests. Felicia Ruiz was enchanted by the gangster life, which her parents believe accounted for her fascination with Salazar. Plus, it was all around her. Both Eisenhower High and her north Houston neighborhood were riddled with gangs, her parents say.
"Felicia kind of got infatuated by all the gang stuff and used to talk about it a lot," says Lou Ruiz. "I think a lot of her friendship with Jesus had to do with the fact he was in a gang. She showed me a book one time about gangs and said that 'Trouble' was telling her all about them. He kind of got her in this gang mentality and that it was a cool thing. I told her to stay away from all that, and she said she just liked hearing about it all but that she didn't want to ever join one."
Felicia Ruiz was an attractive, unassuming girl with golden-brown eyes and long black hair that she typically flung over to one side. She had a baby voice, and police later said she looked no older than 14. As a child, she dreamed of being a kindergarten teacher, but as she got older she wanted to be an ultrasound technician.
"She loved her family very much and was the kind of girl who always thought with her heart instead of her head," says Carrie Ruiz. "She saw the bad in no one."
Felicia Ruiz had always been an A/B student, but in 1997 after her sophomore year, her mother pulled her out of school. Carrie Ruiz says she began fearing for her daughter's life because a group of girls were continually threatening and picking on her. As a result, Felicia Ruiz was involved in several fights. She always fought back, just as her mother had taught her, but was never suspended or expelled, says Carrie Ruiz. The only reason Carrie Ruiz gives for why her daughter was tormented is that the other girls were simply jealous of Felicia's boyfriend, Casey Wild.
In one instance, a girl attacked Felicia Ruiz at a school bus stop. Ruiz defended herself, banging the girl's head against a nearby wall and sending her to the doctor for stitches. Carrie Ruiz says the girl who started the fight with her daughter was expelled.
"She did not want to be taken out of school," says Carrie Ruiz, "but I was worried about her safety. I did not trust all these little gangster girls who were going after her. I even had to change our phone number because they were calling all the time harassing Felicia."
Pulling Felicia from school did not end the trouble. According to court records, in June 1999, four months before her murder, Felicia and three friends went over to a girl's house in the middle of the day for a fight. Felicia never threw a punch, but after two others did, she called her older brother Jason Ruiz for a ride out of there. When Jason arrived, he became upset about how the girls were treating his sister and ended up getting arrested for aggravated assault, which ultimately resulted in him getting a lengthy prison sentence.
Despite all the chaos, Felicia Ruiz was studying to take the GED at Carver High School and planned on attending the University of Houston.
It is unclear exactly how Lisa Huerta entered everybody's life. Huerta testified at Ferrel's trial that she met Felicia Ruiz through a neighborhood kid, while Carrie and Lou Ruiz say Felicia met Huerta through Salazar. Regardless of who knew whom first, it was obvious to the Ruizes that Huerta was no good.
"She was very disrespectful and rude, unlike the rest of Felicia's friends," says Carrie Ruiz. "And very quickly Felicia did not care for her at all."
Huerta grew up in San Antonio, and joined the West Side Kings gang when she was 14. She was expelled from school in ninth grade but earned her GED. At 18, she and her mother moved to Houston. From prison, Huerta denied the Houston Press's request for an interview.
Salazar and Huerta dated briefly in the months leading up to Felicia Ruiz's murder. From time to time, Salazar would just show up at Ruiz's home with Huerta. On at least two occasions, Carrie Ruiz asked her daughter to get Huerta out of her home for being rude or acting inappropriately.
Unless Salazar is captured and interrogated, it may never be known exactly why Felicia Ruiz was killed.
There are several theories. One is that it was all over a boy.
Huerta testified in court that she and Felicia had a falling out about a month before the murder because Huerta was "messing around" with Ruiz's boyfriend, Casey Wild. Straughter describes Wild as a boy who wanted badly to join the Latin Kings but could not because he was white.
"Felicia and Casey dated about two years," says Carrie Ruiz, "but I never understood what she saw in him. He was a little gangster wannabe. Maybe it was just that whole first-love thing."
Wild was killed in a car accident three years after Ruiz's murder, says Carrie Ruiz.
Huerta claimed she was no longer dating Salazar when she was fooling around with Wild, but still Salazar wanted Huerta to stop. One day, Felicia Ruiz confronted Salazar about Huerta's behavior and criticized him for putting up with Huerta. Ruiz's comments got back to Salazar's friends and embarrassed him. Salazar later told Huerta that he "wanted to slice (Felicia's) throat for talking shit," said Huerta.
The versions offered by Straughter and Carrie Ruiz are far less convoluted.
Huerta "was jealous of Felicia's friendship with Salazar," says Carrie Ruiz. "Plus, Salazar was mad because Felicia did not like him as a boyfriend. We heard that Huerta told Salazar he could prove his love by killing Felicia."
Lou Ruiz also says that Salazar felt disrespected by Felicia when she told him in front of all his gangster friends that she didn't want to join his clique.
Straughter says police don't know the real reason Felicia was killed. He too believes it was a combination of factors, including Salazar's impression that Ruiz was trying to cause trouble between two rival gangs and because Huerta felt Ruiz posed a threat to Huerta's relationship with Salazar.
The final player in all of this was Jay Ferrel. He was a member of the 43rd Street Crips, another rival gang to the Latin Kings. However, he and Salazar lived in the same building and were friendly. Ferrel apparently owed Salazar a favor for ditching Salazar at a party one night when a fight broke out. Also, Ferrel was allegedly upset with Felicia Ruiz after she identified a pair of Ferrel's fellow gang members to police who had attacked one of Ruiz's friends.
With all this jealousy, animosity, twisted street pride and disrespect in swing, Salazar told Huerta two days before the murder that they were going to kill Felicia Ruiz.
At first "I laughed at him," Huerta testified. But the next day, Salazar phoned Huerta to say Ruiz had agreed to go to a Halloween party.
Only, of course, the party did not exist.
At 3 a.m., Carrie Ruiz was walking the walls. Her daughter hadn't come home yet and it didn't make sense. Felicia had never pulled an all-nighter like this and just disappeared after a party without so much as a phone call.
As parents, they had to do something, so Carrie and Lou Ruiz did the only thing they could think of: They jumped in the car and drove around the neighborhood looking for their daughter.
Exhausted and more worried than ever, Lou finally went to bed while his wife stayed up all night smoking cigarettes and hoping the phone would ring with good news. In the morning, Lou Ruiz headed off to his job as a meat-cutter at Food Town. Along the way, he unknowingly drove by the field where his daughter lay.
By late morning, Carrie Ruiz called the Houston police. She told an officer that her daughter had not come home and filed a missing persons report.
Then she waited. Finally, about 7 p.m. an officer called her back. The policewoman said that police had found Felicia Ruiz and that another officer would be back in touch with her shortly.
Earlier that afternoon, Baytown police officer Mike Liles was mowing his lawn in the 5300 block of Ted Street. It had rained that morning, and finally he could get outside to do his Saturday chores. He noticed something in the vacant field adjacent to his home. It only took him a second to recognize what he saw: a body, lying face-down. Liles immediately called the Houston Police Department.
It was dark outside by the time Investigator Steven Straughter parked his police cruiser in front of the Ruizes' residence.
"He told us that Felicia was dead," says Lou Ruiz. "Carrie went into shock and I wanted to go out and find whoever did it. It was chaos. We just didn't know what was going on."
Carrie Ruiz called her sister and started crying over and over into the phone, "They said Felicia's dead! They said Felicia's dead!"
The last thing she remembers hearing that night were her sister's screams.
"You feel yourself die in that very instant," says Carrie Ruiz, "and you don't ever feel the life come back into you again. You feel like you've gone totally insane in that moment. And you can't breathe and you keep telling yourself, 'It's not true, it's not true. Just go get her and bring her home.'"
For the rest of the night and the following day, waves of police officers and news reporters flooded the Ruizes' yard and home.
Felicia Ruiz's parents still have never seen the crime scene photographs taken of their daughter. Carrie Ruiz's brother-in-law identified Felicia's body by the tattoo she had of her name written across her back atop a thorny rose. For months afterwards, he would wake up screaming from the nightmares.
"He said Felicia didn't even look human, Salazar had messed her up so bad," says Carrie Ruiz.
At this point, no one knew who killed Felicia or why. All her parents knew was that they last saw her driving off to a party with Salazar. The thought that Huerta was involved did not even enter their minds.
It was a Tuesday, four days after the murder, when Carrie and Lou Ruiz were at the mortuary getting ready for the funeral service scheduled for the following day. They had not been allowed to see their daughter until then because she suffered so many deep wounds that the embalming fluid was still leaking out of her. The funeral home staff had asked Lou Ruiz the day before to bring along a shirt with a high neck and long sleeves to cover up the many cuts.
The Ruizes, accompanied by family members and police, noticed a car slowly driving past. Carrie Ruiz couldn't believe who was inside. It was Huerta and two other girls. When Carrie Ruiz looked more closely, she saw Huerta was waving Felicia's obituary out of the window, laughing. Carrie went to rush out toward the car, but family members held her back. Huerta drove off after police told her to leave.
"At the time," says Carrie Ruiz, "we just figured Huerta was making fun of Felicia as some kind of gang thing."
The next day at the funeral, the church was packed full of friends, family, police and well-wishers who had read or heard about the tragic death on the news.
In fact, there were so many people that Carrie and Lou Ruiz did not even notice at first that Huerta and Salazar were there too. But by the time the parents did realize it, both Huerta and Salazar had left the church and disappeared.
Now convinced that the two lovers were involved in their daughter's murder, Carrie and Lou Ruiz returned home after the burial feeling a vicious mix of anger and pain. Motivated by a need to do something, anything, they grabbed their gun, jumped in the car and lit out along Interstate 10 to San Antonio where they knew Huerta had grown up.
"I was going to look for Lisa and kill her," says Carrie Ruiz.
They drove around but did not find Huerta. Instead, they spent the night in San Antonio and returned home to Houston the next morning.
"I was so out of my mind with grief at that point that I just didn't care," says Carrie Ruiz. "I wanted them to hurt the same way I was hurting. In the end, though, thank God we didn't find her."
It would be months before anyone would find out where Huerta and Salazar had gone.
Covered in blood, Salazar and Huerta parted ways with Ferrel after stabbing Felicia Ruiz and walked over to a nearby motel.
The day before, Huerta had paid cash for a room at the Shoney's Inn on West Tidwell Road, just a few blocks from the murder scene. There, she, Salazar and Ferrel watched TV and Salazar taught Huerta how to make a person bleed to death faster by slitting his throat.
Now, safely back inside their room, Salazar and Huerta scrubbed their hands and washed off the knife. That night, Salazar slept in the bed while Huerta dozed off in a chair next to a window.
Salazar "acted like it was just another day," Huerta testified in court.
Saturday morning, the two teens checked out of the motel, ran a few errands and then went back to Salazar's apartment that he shared with his mother. That evening, testified Huerta, Salazar's mother told them that police had found a dead girl in a field behind their apartment complex. The mother then got rid of her son's blood-stained clothes and told him to leave.
On Sunday night, while Carrie and Lou Ruiz were dealing with police and reporters, Salazar and several friends stopped by the Ruizes' home. One of the TV news stations had broadcast an interview of Carrie Ruiz saying she thought Salazar was involved because he was the last person her daughter had been seen with. Salazar wanted to tell her he had nothing to do with it.
"It was a big confrontation," says Lou Ruiz. "Salazar said he didn't do anything and then Carrie went and hit him, calling him a liar. We had relatives in the house with guns and Salazar and his friends could have had guns and it all could have gotten real bad real fast."
Instead, Lou called over a police officer who then took Salazar in for questioning.
According to the police report, Salazar's right hand was swollen and bruised, but he denied ever going out with Felicia Ruiz that Friday night. Investigator Straughter says police did not have enough evidence at the time connecting Salazar to the murder, so they turned him loose.
That night, Salazar went over to Huerta's house to warn her that the police had just questioned him. Then on Monday morning, knowing Huerta and Salazar had dated, Straughter showed up at Huerta's home. Like Salazar, Huerta said she knew nothing about the murder. Straughter then drove her to the grassy lot, where Huerta dropped to her knees and broke down sobbing. Police detained Huerta for the night in jail on a misdemeanor warrant out of Bexar County, but on Tuesday Huerta paid a fine and was once again free.
"I get so angry," says Carrie Ruiz, "because they had Salazar in custody, they took a picture of his bruised hand where he hit our daughter, they knew he was with her that night and they just listened to his crap and let him go. They didn't bother to check and see if he was a citizen or not, so by the time the murder warrant came out, it was too late and he was gone."
By now, Salazar and Huerta knew it was only a matter of time before police caught up with them again, so they started making plans to get out of town.
Omar Medina, a former loss prevention officer for Fiesta supermarkets, testified in court that Salazar and Huerta came to see him one night during the week following Felicia Ruiz's murder. Medina lived in the same apartment complex as Salazar.
Salazar told Medina that he was involved in a drive-by shooting and that the cops were looking for him. While Huerta stood outside of Medina's doorway crying, Salazar asked Medina either for a ride to Mexico or for some money. Medina refused to help, and the two fugitives were once again on their own.
Huerta and Salazar were able to scrape up $200 by pawning some jewelry, and then headed out of town.
According to what Carrie Ruiz says the FBI told her, Huerta's mother drove the two fugitives to San Antonio. Huerta and Salazar then took a bus south to Laredo. There, according to Huerta's testimony, they spent two nights on the street. At some point, Salazar spoke to his mother over the phone, and she told her son he was now officially wanted for murder. Huerta testified that Salazar's mother gave up her rent money to buy a pair of bus tickets for them to Miami. Carrie Ruiz says that Salazar's mother also sent her son's passport to relatives living in Miami for Salazar to pick up.
The two fugitives spent a little more than a week in South Florida before Salazar's father flew from Venezuela to Miami on a private jet under the guise of a business trip. He then took Salazar back to the sanctuary of his homeland, Venezuela.
Unfortunately for Huerta, while her former lover's future was looking brighter than ever, her ride on the fugitive express was about to end. Salazar's father would not take her along because she was a U.S. citizen, so Huerta made the long and lonely bus trip back to her hometown of San Antonio. She hid out there for a couple of months before finally getting a lawyer and turning herself over to the police.
Meanwhile, back in Houston, Medina ran into Ferrel five days after Salazar had come by asking for money. Ferrel and Medina also lived in the same building. Medina testified that Ferrel told him Salazar and Huerta had killed Felicia Ruiz. When Medina told Ferrel he needed to tell the police, Ferrel said no and told Medina not to say anything to anyone. But Medina could not keep quiet. He called the Houston police and warrants were quickly issued for Salazar and Huerta.
Huerta eventually pleaded guilty to the charge of murder in November 2001 and received a 30-year prison sentence. Ferrel was charged with murder within weeks after Huerta entered her guilty plea. She testified at his trial. Ultimately, a jury found Ferrel guilty of murder, sentencing him to 20 years in prison.
Walking into Carrie and Lou Ruiz's quiet suburban home in Humble is like entering a shrine.
Pictures of their daughter Felicia line the hallway and fill up nearly every shelf of every bookcase in the one-story house. An entire wall is blanketed with hanging crosses, the first of which was given to them by their priest just after the murder. The parents have saved every shred of clothing, every toy, letter, poem and Mother's Day card she ever wrote. Stacks of albums burst with photos of Felicia's first boy-girl dance and first communion, and of her standing next to her first ten-speed bike. Carrie sometimes wears her daughter's jewelry and has kept Felicia's favorite Disney videos, sunglasses and even her elementary-school globe.
Since the time they buried their daughter, Carrie and Lou Ruiz have gone to the cemetery every single day, rain or shine. The funeral workers even placed a stone bench beside the grave to make their visits more comfortable.
"For the first couple of years after Felicia's death," says Carrie Ruiz, "I blamed God and was real suicidal. There were days when Lou would come home and literally peel me off of the floor. I broke every dish in the house, the telephone; I'd just get so angry I'd start breaking things. Finally one day about two years afterwards, Lou just picked me up and grabbed me and was crying, 'I can't do this all by myself. If we're going to get justice, we need to do this together. I can't do it alone.'"
Lou Ruiz still heads off every morning as a department manager for Wal-Mart, but his wife has been unable to return to her job as a receptionist. She says she'd like to start working part-time after the New Year, either helping the elderly or possibly working for her school district.
That doesn't mean Carrie Ruiz has been sitting around the house.
In addition to waging a full-time campaign to extradite her daughter's killer, she is active in the National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children and in 2006 testified before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Investigations alongside her husband concerning the Republican immigration reform bill.
Carrie Ruiz comes across as tougher than nails, but the veneer is only paper thin. Underneath is a woman who is just barely holding on.
"There's no such thing as closure," she says. "I don't believe in it."
Every day, says Lou Ruiz, he hears or sees something that reminds him of his daughter. When he spots a penny on the ground, he always makes sure to pocket it.
"We call them 'angel pennies,'" he says, "and Felicia is throwing them at us saying, 'Hey Dad, here I am.'"
They still have their bad days, but fewer than in years past. But the constant fighting to get Salazar back to Texas takes its toll.
"I have days where I just wish the Good Lord would take me," says Carrie Ruiz. "I'm tired, tired of struggling every day to get through each day without Felicia, without hearing her voice or seeing her long hair swinging over her shoulder as she comes up to hug me. And I'm tired of knowing this man who murdered her is still out there and that there are ways to get him, but because of the DA and politics we're still here at a standstill.
"We know who did this and where he is," says Carrie Ruiz, "and we're going to fight until the day we die because I'll be damned if I let Jesus Gerardo Salazar get away with murdering our daughter. There's no way. I will see him in hell."
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