World United States

Blood on the tracks

U.S. and Mexican police hunt the ‘railway killer’

Susan McClelland July 19 1999
World United States

Blood on the tracks

U.S. and Mexican police hunt the ‘railway killer’

Susan McClelland July 19 1999

Blood on the tracks

World United States

U.S. and Mexican police hunt the ‘railway killer’

Susan McClelland

Elvia Hernandez gazed uneasily towards the railway tracks near her home in Juarez, Mexico. Winds kicked up the desert dust and dumped it on the line that runs north towards Juarezs borders with New Mexico and El Paso, Tex. Once the 27-year-old factory worker and mother of two welcomed the trains that send vibrations through her modest brick and tarpaper house. She knew her city’s booming export-zone industries rely on the line. Now, Hernandez shivered as she stood little more than a stone’s throw from Sunland Park, N.M., for it is there that Angel Leoncio Reyes Recendis, better known by his alias, Rafael Resendez Ramirez, had last been seen by officials. Suspected of being the so-called railway killer, Ramirez was wanted in three U.S. states in connection with eight grisly murders, all committed near railway tracks. Now, too, he is being investigated in connection with one or more in a horrific string of killings in Juarez. “This man’s mother lives here,” said Hernandez, “so you know one day he’s coming back. How can you not be afraid?”

Hernandez’s fears have echoed through railway towns across the United States. Investigators say the eight known murder scenes are some of the worst they have seen—victims often bludgeoned to death or repeatedly stabbed, some raped. And officials fear there may be many more. Since the FBI office in Houston set up a 24-hour 1-800 hotline on June 8, people from across the country have called in reporting unsolved homicides with similar modus operandi to the railway killer. RCMP officials said they were watching for Ramirez, but have no evidence of links to Canada.

For Hernandez and her neighbours, the concerns are especially dramatic. Since 1993, nearly 200 Juarez girls and women have been murdered, 60 of whom are said to have been brutally raped. “We are investigating a possible connection between one of the victims and Ramirez,” said Suly Ponce, Chihuahua state’s special prosecutor overseeing the female homicide investigations. “From that case, we might derive other investigations.” Canadian Candice Skrapec, a professor of criminology at California State University in Fresno and noted for her profile of New York City’s

“Zodiac Killer,” is spending the summer in Juarez investigadng the murders.

While authorities know that Ramirez’s mother lives in Juarez and his wife, Julieta, lives with their four-monthold daughter, Liria, in the town of Rodeo, 700 km south, the main thing they know about Ramirez is that he is a master of disguise. He was born in Puebla, Mexico, around the beginning of August, I960, but the FBI has at least seven different birth dates for him and four social security numbers. Over the years, he has also laid claim to more than 30 aliases, including Jose Mangele, a Spanish variant of Joseph Mengele, the sadistic Nazi doctor at Auschwitz concentration camp.

As a young adult, Ramirez would often attempt to enter the United States as a migrant worker. His first border crossing is recorded as Aug. 31, 1976, when he was sent back to Mexico for having no proper identification. By 1979, he was in Miami, where he assaulted a man to get his car keys. Ramirez served five years of a 20-year sentence, then was deported to Mexico.

The horrific crimes the FBI suspect him of began with the 1997 slaying in Kentucky of 21-year-old Christopher Maier and the brutal sexual assault of his girlfriend. At the time of the attack, the couple were walking near a railway. Other victims include Claudia Benton, 39, a pediatric psychologist who was raped and stabbed to death in her home in an affluent Houston suburb; Noemi Dominguez, a 26-year-old Houston elementary schoolteacher; and 79-year-old George Morber Sr. and his daughter Carolyn Frederick, 51, who were killed in Gorham, 111., on June 15. Three murders occurred in tiny Weimar, Tex., 140 km west of Houston. The killer used a sevenkilogram sledgehammer to smash the heads of Rev. Norman Sirnic and his wife, Karen, both 47, on April 30. Then on June 4, 73-year-old grandmother Josephine Konvicka was murdered in her bed, also with a blow to the head. Evidence found at the crime scenes, includ-

ing DNA and fingerprints, links Ramirez to the murders. “The crime scenes have been extremely violent,” Don Clark, the FBI’s Houston-based special agent in charge of the investigation, told Macleans. “This is a very dangerous person.”

One of the biggest blunders in the nationwide hunt occurred on June 1. In New Mexico, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service detained Ramirez at Sunland Park—then returned him to Mexico for attempting to make an illegal border crossing. Because the FBI’s computer system is not yet linked to the INS database, INS officers were unaware Ramirez was wanted for the homicides. Ramirez has been detained and returned eight times by border officers since January, 1998.

In Juarez, his potential connections to the scores of murdered women are still being probed. Most of the victims were between 13 and 50 and were stabbed, strangled, bludgeoned to death or shot in the head at close range. Some of the bodies were found near railway tracks. Canadian Skrapec has declined to comment on the investigation, but former FBI profiler Robert Ressler last year concluded that “one or more serial killers” were involved in Juarez and suggested it was “someone taking advantage of the border.” Recently, Ressler said that based on the case files, he believes Ramirez is responsible for at least six to a dozen of the Juarez killings. Officials—and anyone living near a railway—could only hope the toll would not go higher.

Diana Valdez