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.
Patrizia Barretto says Paez is linked to a man whose family had a longtime feud with her brother. Alvaro Barretto's marriage to the man's sister ended in 1993 in divorce and disputed custody of their daughter. Patrizia says that a few years ago the man and a companion got drunk and began shooting guns outside Alvaro's home when he refused to let them in.
She says the man was connected with Paez through an area gang known as Alief B-Boyz. The family is convinced that Paez arrived at the Crystal with plans already in place to kill her brother. A private detective hired by the family told them Paez ran to a nearby topless club after the stabbings and had his girlfriend, who worked there, help him escape in her car.
Family members condemn the police for releasing Juan Paez and accuse officers of defaming Alvaro by making references about a drug deal gone bad at the club.
Houston police spokesman Fred King says officers had to let Juan Paez go after his interrogation. "The one who did the killing was Hector -- not Juan," King says. "There was no reason to hold him."
King says there is no indication whatsoever that drugs were involved in the killing. The private investigator, not police, was the one mentioning such rumors, King says.
"This seems like a disturbance that led to murder. Nothing points to a conspiracy," King says.
Fourteen months after the killing, the family's pursuit of both Paez and the case for a conspiracy is livelier than ever.
Patrizia Barretto even brings up the race card in dealing with the issue. "If my brother was white and we ran country bars, the police would be all over this town looking for his killer," she says. "Since he's Latino and was killed in a salsa club, they are just sitting on their asses." She also complains that it is only her private investigator, rather than the police, who keeps her informed on the progress.
Relatives and friends appeared before Houston City Council recently to press their demands for action. She was referred to police officials, who met with her personally to offer assurances that the department was doing all it could. They told her that police had maintained surveillance in key places in an effort to arrest Paez.
The Barrettos are relying on much more than police in their efforts. Thousands of wanted posters have been distributed with a photo of the suspect and related information about him and the case.
Viewers of the high-tech web site for the family's clubs can find a reference to "beloved Al" below the array of "planets" representing the Barretto enterprises. A click of the mouse brings up a full tribute to the slain man, as well as a wanted poster of his alleged slayer.
They are hoping that money makes a difference as well. The family is offering a $50,000 reward for the capture of Paez.
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Late last year, more than 200 relatives and friends gathered at Saint Anne Catholic Church for a memorial service on the first anniversary of the death. For 20 minutes, a slickly produced video extolled the life and times of Barretto. There were film and photo snippets of him all the way from his childhood to acting as czar of his club chain. One image was even that of the Statue of Liberty. Coupled with an inspirational musical score, the video left many in the audience openly crying.
One attendee said the production of the rags-to-riches tale of Barretto seemed almost like that of an earlier Latina's rise to stardom before being murdered -- a singer named Selena. Near the end of the tape, there they were together, in a picture, Alvaro and Selena, during happier times.
Another image was that of Paez. "If any of you find him, call us or call the police," Patrizia Barretto told the crowd. "He took away someone we loved dearly. He does not deserve to walk around free, with my brother's blood on his hands."
E-mail Russell Contreras at firstname.lastname@example.org.