The Faces Of A Fugitive

About 3 a.m. on June 2, U.S. Border Patrol officers stopped a small Hispanic man walking along the railroad tracks near El Paso, Texas. Discovering he had no ID, they concluded he was an illegal alien and took him to a federal lockup in Santa Theresa, N.M. There, a fingerprint check quickly produced a name, Rafael Resendez-Ramirez, and a 23-year history of illegal border-crossing. The records did not show an outstanding warrant for burglary or that Resendez-Ramirez was wanted for questioning in connection with as many as four homicides. He was routinely deported to Mexico, and a golden opportunity was lost.

According to investigators, Resendez-Ramirez quickly re-entered the United States and, on June 4, killed a 73-year-old woman in Fayette County, Texas. Since then, using freight trains to get around, he has allegedly killed another woman in Texas and two people in Illinois, then vanished into the scruffy world of hobos and migrant camps. He is now the prime suspect in eight random and apparently motiveless murders--the classic pattern of a serial killer. Police describe Resendez-Ramirez as an opportunistic criminal who kills with whatever weapons are at hand--the victim's own gun, even a rock.

Last week the FBI put him on its Ten Most Wanted list and set up a Houston-based task force, called Operation Train Stop, to coordinate a nationwide dragnet. But the manhunt could take time--for like many suspected serial killers, Resendez-Ramirez is remarkably elusive. He has spent more than 20 years riding freight trains, living in homeless shelters and supporting himself as a migrant laborer. As an illegal alien, he knows how to survive in the underground economy. As a convicted felon--he has served time in three states for burglary and illegal weapons possession--he knows the criminal-justice system inside out. The FBI says he uses false Social Security numbers, false dates of birth and 30 different aliases.

The suspect's real name, NEWSWEEK has learned, is Angel Leoncio Reyes-Resendiz, and he was born on Aug. 1, 1959, in the town of Izucar de Matamoros in the state of Puebla. "Rafael Resendez-Ramirez" is just an alias--the name he gave when he was arrested as an illegal alien for the first time, back in 1976. The original Rafael Resendiz Ramirez is his uncle, a 67-year-old sugar-cane farmer in the village of San Nicolas Tolentino, also in Puebla. Interviewed by NEWSWEEK, Rafael Resendiz and his wife, Augustina, said they had informally adopted Angel as a boy of 6 or 7 and raised him until his early teens. Then, they said, he went to live with his mother and her new husband in a nearby town, Atlixco. They said they were stunned when they saw his face on television, their nephew identified as a suspected serial killer. "When he left here, he was good," said one of his aunts, Maria Rios Rivera, 75. "Now he is a murderer. We're not that kind of family." His uncle, remembering the bright little boy he once regarded as a son, said, "I'm confused. I keep asking, 'How is this possible?' "

Angel's mother, Virginia Resendiz de Maturino, told NEWSWEEK that he was always her favorite child--the "little one, my beautiful baby." But when he was 13, she said, he came home saying he had been raped by some other boys down by the river in Atlixco. "When he told me that, he cried a lot," she said. "I didn't know what to tell him. The only thing I could say was that Christ loves him." He left home at 13 and went to the United States and came home for a visit a year or two later. The next time she heard from him he was in jail, and she said he told her he had been raped in prison. Now they see each other only occasionally, she said, although she knows he has a girlfriend and a daughter in Durango. She lives in Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, and she, too, is dismayed by the trouble he faces. "What happened, little one?" she said. "What have you done?"

The answer, if investigators are right, is murder--at least eight homicides, all of them close to railroad lines, in a pattern of escalating violence. The first was on Aug. 29, 1997, when Reyes-Resendiz allegedly met a University of Kentucky student, Christopher Maier, and his girlfriend as they were walking along the tracks in Lexington, Ky. Maier's skull was crushed with a rock, and his girlfriend was beaten and raped; so far, she is the only victim to survive. The next killing was on Dec. 17, 1998, when Dr. Claudia Benton, 39, was raped, beaten and stabbed to death in her home in West University Place, a Houston suburb. Police believe that Benton, a faculty member at Baylor College of Medicine, fought hard to fend off her killer; one arm was dislocated and she suffered a number of defensive wounds. But her assailant stabbed her in the back three times with a kitchen knife, then clubbed her in the head 19 times with a bronze statue taken from the mantel. Reyes-Resendiz has not been charged in Benton's murder--but Sgt. Ken Macha of the West University Place Police said investigators have matched the DNA from semen taken from Benton's body to DNA samples in the Kentucky case.

The pace now seems to be accelerating. On April 30, the Rev. Norman J. Sirnic, 46, and his wife, Karen, 47, were murdered in their home in Weimar, Texas, by a killer who wielded a sledgehammer taken from their garage. Their house is close to a siding used by westbound freights, and Weimar Police Chief Bill Livingston says he thinks Reyes-Resendiz got off a train there. On June 4, Josephine Kovnicka, 73, was murdered with a garden tool in her home, which is only about three miles from the Sirnics'. On June 5, schoolteacher Noemi Dominguez, 26, was clubbed to death in her apartment in Houston. When police later found her white Honda Civic, investigative sources say, Reyes-Resendiz's fingerprints were in it.

By mid-June, investigators say, Reyes-Resendiz had moved on to Illinois, probably by train. On June 15, authorities in Gorham, near Carbondale, found the bodies of George Morber, 80, and his daughter Carolyn Frederick, 52. Morber had been killed with a blast from his own shotgun and his daughter had been beaten to death with the gun butt. Morber's pickup truck turned up in Cairo, Ill., 60 miles away, with what cops say were the suspect's fingerprints on it. Morber's mobile home sits less than 100 yards from the Union Pacific tracks, and railroad officials say they are working with the FBI task force to improve surveillance on the nation's freight trains.

But Reyes-Resendiz has once again vanished. He was last seen on June 16 or 17 in a homeless shelter in Louisville, and last week the FBI was chasing down tips that he might be hiding in a migrant camp in rural Kentucky. He is known to have relatives in Kentucky, Texas, New Mexico and, of course, Mexico--and that's a lot of ground to cover. If he's still hopping freights, as the FBI thinks, the Union Pacific alone has more than 33,000 miles of track in the 23 states west of Chicago. "Leopards don't change their spots," says Special Agent Brian Loader, who runs the task-force command center. "He will continue to ride the rails. He will continue to visit hobo shops and shelters." In Columbus, Ohio, last week, police got a tip that a Hispanic man had been seen on a freight train. They searched all 75 cars, but found no one.

Much of Mid-America, meanwhile, is looking over its shoulder for the phantom railroad killer. The Houston FBI task force logged several thousand calls, and other FBI offices are similarly under siege. Sightings have been reported from Wisconsin to Texas. "Obviously, he can't be in all these places at the same time," an FBI official said. "Once they put him on the Most Wanted list and posted that $250,000 reward, people have been seeing him everywhere." In Round Rock, Texas, police were sure they had their man last week--until someone pointed out that the snake tattoo was on the wrong arm. (Reyes-Resendiz's snake tattoo is on his left arm.) On June 23, a man in Cape Girardeau, Mo., shot the person pounding on his front door because, he told police, he thought it was the railway killer. It turned out to be a neighbor, and she died.

The worst-case scenario, of course, is that there will be another railroad murder and that the combined forces of the FBI and all the state and local cops will still be unable to nab the suspect. Nonsense, says the FBI's Brian Loader. "We were running a few weeks behind him, and now it's just a few days," he says. But the killer is out there somewhere and no one knows quite where.