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Death Rides the Rails

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The phone call came unexpectedly on June 10 to the modest bungalow in the rural town of Rodeo, Mexico. When he hung up, Angel Resendiz told his common-law wife, Julieta Dominguez Reyes, he would have to leave her and their 3-month-old daughter Liria. ” ‘I have a problem,’ ” Julieta recalls him telling her. “He embraced little Liria and cried and said, ‘Forgive me.’ ” Resendiz said he was being pursued, though he did not explain why or by whom. Nor did he say who had called. “If they find me, let them kill me,” he told her. With that he was gone, leaving his wife shaken. “I could not imagine how serious a problem he had,” says Julieta, “but it’s as if worms are consuming his spirit from inside.”

Whether the man who has since become known throughout the country as the Railroad Killer feels the slightest torment or remorse over the horrific crimes he is accused of committing is anybody’s guess. U.S. law enforcement officials have labeled him Public Enemy No. 1 and refer to him as Rafael Resendez Ramirez, a 39-year-old migrant farmworker who has a snake tattooed on his left arm and speaks fluent English. By any name he appears to be a highly mobile serial killer—in fact, he was in captivity briefly last month but was let go by immigration officers—who is believed to be responsible for at least eight murders in the past two years, six of them in the last nine weeks.

As authorities connected the dots between victims, what emerged was the portrait of a pure predator who travels the country by hopping rides on freight trains, murdering his victims without mercy. He has even seemed to taunt police by returning to areas where he knows he is being sought and killing again. For many jittery residents in the mid-and southwest, especially those living near freight tracks, the suspect has become almost a mythic figure, a brazen bogeyman able to move and strike at will.

In a sense the strange saga began in Weimar, Texas (pop. 2,050), a town that prides itself on being off the beaten track but really isn’t. Each day dozens of freight trains, mostly pulled by big black-and-yellow Union Pacific engines, lumber through, hauling cars, gravel and chemicals. On Sunday, May 2, Weimar Police Chief Bill Livingston was at church when his office beeped him. The dispatcher sent him to the parsonage for the local United Church of Christ, only a block from the rail line.

There, Livingston found other lawmen already surveying a ghastly scene: the church’s well-liked pastor, Rev. Norman “Skip” Sirnic, who would have turned 47 that day, and his wife, Karen, 47, lying in their blood-splattered bed with their heads smashed. The murder weapon, a 16-pound sledgehammer, was casually leaning against the wall. “We had a ton of information,” says Livingston. “But it was like a humongous puzzle. We were getting a lot of pieces, and they weren’t coming together.”

Within days, however, police had a lead. They learned of a homicide five months earlier in the affluent Houston suburb of West University Place, which also lies by the railroad tracks. In that case, Dr. Claudia Benton, 39, a pediatric neurologist at the Baylor College of Medicine, was found murdered by 19 blows to the head and stab wounds to the back on Dec. 17, 1998, while her husband, George, and 13-year-old twin daughters were away on a trip.

Local police say her killer is Rafael Resendez Ramirez, who turned out to have a long criminal record in this country dating back to 1976. He has spent at least 11 years in various jails and prisons for everything from burglary to aggravated assault. As investigators compared the Benton and Sirnic killings, they found many similarities. “The word that came out was ‘serial killer,’ ” says Livingston. “His motive is to kill, and that’s extremely scary.”

Even more so than anyone thought at the time. In the weeks after the Sirnic killing, Livingston laid on extra patrols around Weimar to calm fears, even though in his heart he was convinced that the killer was long gone from the area. Then in early June, while in Washington, D.C., to tape a segment of America’s Most Wanted, Livingston received another message: Josephine Konvicka, 73, a widowed grandmother of six, who spent her days gardening at her home outside Weimar, had been found dead in her bed from a blow to the head. Re-sendez Ramirez’s prints were found at the scene.

Officers with dogs tracked the killer’s scent to railroad tracks, only a mile away, where, police speculate, he jumped another train and headed back to Houston. The next day, June 5, he apparently claimed another victim, Noemi Dominguez, 26, an elementary school teacher who was studying for her master’s degree at Rice University and liked to write poetry in her spare time. Her body was found in her tidy apartment next to the rail line, a mere four miles from the Benton home.

From there, Resendez Ramirez evidently returned home to Mexico briefly before making his way to the vicinity of Gorham, Ill., where on June 15 he is believed to have killed retired prison guard George Morber, 79, and his daughter Carolyn Frederick, 51, and stolen a pickup truck. Once again his fingerprints were found at the scene. “If you look at the time frames between killings, they’re getting shorter and shorter,” says Livingston. “It’s almost like a dope user who needs to get a fix with greater frequency.”

Authorities say there is a distinct method to the killer’s madness. In almost every case he has attacked the victim only around the head. There is evidence that some of the women have been raped after death. The killer then typically puts a sheet or blanket over the victim. What also links the murders is the sheer wantonness of the crimes. The prosecutor in Harris County, Texas, Devon Anderson, told The Houston Chronicle, “He takes his time with [his victims]. It appears that he enjoys hurting these people.”

As the hunt for Resendez Ramirez has intensified, federal authorities, who were called in on June 8, have come under criticism for their sluggish handling of the case. The FBI was slow to release photographs of Resendez Ramirez and to request assistance from law enforcement officials in Mexico.

But the most serious slipup occurred on June 1, when Resendez Ramirez was arrested in Sunland Park, N. Mex., by Immigration and Naturalization Service officers for being an undocumented alien. At the time he was already a suspect in the Sirnic and Benton killings. Nevertheless, when the INS ran his fingerprints through its computers nothing unusual turned up, since that system is not linked to the files of other law enforcement agencies. As a result, the next day Resendez Ramirez was simply marched to the middle of one of the international bridges in El Paso and released into Ciudad Juárez, Mexico—freeing him to resume his alleged spree two days later with the murder of Josephine Konvicka. INS officials later pointed out that they had never gotten a red flag on the suspect. “If we had been given the information,” says Russ Bergeron, the chief spokesman for the INS, “we would have been looking specifically for him.”

In the Mexican town of Rodeo, which is about 300 miles from the Texas border, Resendez Ramirez’s wife, Julieta, who works as a lab technician in a public health clinic, says she finds it hard to accept that her husband could possibly harm anyone, much less be a notorious serial killer. “My Angel never showed any sign of violence with me,” she says. “He was a perfect gentleman. When I was pregnant, he would massage my legs and help me put shoes on my swollen feet before work.” She says that he once taught English at a convent school and had been crossing over into the United States since he was 16, ostensibly to work in tobacco, cotton or rice fields. Lately those sojourns had enabled him to send home $140 a month, a princely sum by local standards.

All the same, The Houston Chronicle reported that her husband also sometimes worked as a so-called coyote, helping smuggle illegal aliens across the border. But Julieta insisted that he did so at a generous discount, charging only $400 a head as opposed to the usual going rate of $2,500. She also concedes that while in the United States he fell in with a hate group opposed to gays and abortion doctors. “They were anti-everything,” she says. “It ate his soul.”

Others in Rodeo describe Resendez Ramirez as a slightly eccentric loner who liked to go for long bike rides accompanied by his dog Patol. “He is quiet and polite. He sometimes talks right-wing politics or about Christianity, but he keeps his voice sweet and soft,” says Elvira Marufo, a local shopkeeper. When returning for one of his regular visits to Rodeo, Resendez Ramirez often brought expensive late-model cars, which he would either sell or give to relatives. He evidently did not get into any legal difficulties in Rodeo. Indeed, adding to the confusion in the case, a local traffic cop, Roberto Gándara, says he was about to give Resendez Ramirez a ticket but instead let him off with a warning on June 13—three days after he supposedly left his home and only two days before he was allegedly in Illinois killing Morber and Frederick.

According to Julieta, any dark streak her husband had stemmed from his troubled background. “When I met Angel, he struck me as a lonely man without the support of his family,” she says. Born in Puebia, Mexico, in 1959, his birth certificate lists his name as Angel Leoncio Reyes Recendis. His mother, Virginia Resendiz de Maturino, never married the boy’s father and raised him alone until he was 6, when she sent him to live with his uncle Rafael Resendiz Ramirez. Now living in Ciudad Juarez, Virginia told the Chicago Tribune that six years later the young boy reluctantly returned to her. “He did not want to leave my brother’s home,” Virginia said. “He saw him as his father.” Virginia also told the Tribune that at the age of 13 or 14, while going for a swim at a river, her son was sexually assaulted by a group of older boys. “I have failed him as a mother,” she lamented.

At this point much about Resendez Ramirez’s background is still open to question. Authorities have yet to tally all the aliases he has used, but there are at least 30. His arrest in 1988 in St. Louis on charges of document fraud provides a telling glimpse of how he operated. When an INS officer opened his locker at a downtown bus station, he found a 380 semiautomatic pistol and a large knife, as well as a cache of bogus IDs, including five copies of a birth certificate, three voter registration documents from different states, a Michigan driver’s license and auto insurance papers. When asked for a formal statement by INS officials it may have been no coincidence that he gave his name as Jose Mengele, the Spanish variant of the in-famous Nazi doctor at Auschwitz.

By some accounts, Resendez Ramirez is a creature of habit. Each summer he would go to Kentucky, where police say he has some relatives, to join in the tobacco harvest. Starting in 1996 he worked on Hollis Stephens’s farm in Russell County. Stephens thought so highly of Resendez Ramirez that he put him in charge of other workers. “He stayed at my house,” says Stephens. “And he ate at my table most of the time.”

But police now believe that Resendez Ramirez was responsible for the brutal attack on two University of Kentucky students in August 1997. Junior Christopher Maier, 21, a theater major, and his girlfriend were walking late one night near the railroad tracks in Lexington when a man jumped them. Even though Maier readily agreed to turn over all his money, the man killed him with a 50-pound rock, then raped the woman, who was left for dead but survived with severe head injuries. DNA samples reportedly tie the assailant to the murder of Dr. Benton in Houston.

The fears generated by his rampage have at times seemed almost epidemic. On June 22, after a witness saw a Hispanic man on board a freight train near Columbus, Ohio, police stopped the train, combed through all 75 cars and used bloodhounds to search the surrounding neighborhood. The next day in Cape Girardeau, Mo., a man living near the tracks shot his neighbor to death after she mistakenly pounded on his door late at night. He explained he was frightened that it was Resendez Ramirez.

The FBI was hoping that public awareness and the huge dragnet would soon ensnare their suspect. But it might not be as easy as that, given his seemingly eerie coolness. One of the most credible sightings occurred on June 21 in Louisville. A drug abuse counselor was out watering flowers at a local homeless. shelter when a bedraggled Hispanic man stopped for a few moments to chat. He mentioned he was heading for California. It was not until later that the woman realized who it was. PP The problem, she now says, was that all the wanted posters depict a glowering, sinister Resendez Ramirez, while in person he can evidently look far different. “He was kind of wide-eyed and alert,” says the woman. “He seemed really happy and cheerful.” Which raises the urgent question of what could bring a smile to such a man’s lips.

Bill Hewitt

Jan McGirk in Rodeo, Michael Haederle in Weimar, Bob Stewart in Houston, Carlton Stowers in Dallas, Mary Green in Kentucky, Mary M. Harrison in Gorham and bureau reports