Terror Near TracksOne of the more romantic elements of American folklore has been the crisscrossing rail system of this country — steel rails carrying Americans to new territories across desert and mountain, through wheat fields and over great rivers. Carl Sandburg has flavored the mighty steam engine in elegant prose and Arlo Guthrie has made the roundhouse a sturdy emblem of America's commerce.
But, even the most colorful dreams have their dark sides.
For nearly two years, a killer literally followed Wheatfield America's railroad tracks to slay unsuspecting victims before disappearing back into the pre-lit dawn. His modus operandi was always the same — he struck near the rail lines he illegally rode, then stowed away on the next freight train to come his way. Always ahead of the law.
Angel Maturino Resendiz, 39 years old, was apprehended early this month (July, 1999) after eluding state police for two years and slipping through a two-month FBI net until, after nine alleged murders, he was finally traced and captured by a determined Texas Ranger.
Known, for apparent reasons, as "The Railroad Killer," Angel Resendiz (who was known throughout much of the manhunt by the alias Rafael Resendez-Ramirez) has been called "a man with a grudge," "confused," hostile" and "angry" by the police, the news media and psychiatrists. He is an illegal immigrant from Mexico who crossed the international border at will. Most of his crimes took place in central Texas, but he is suspected of having killed as far north as Kentucky and Illinois.
While his travels might best be described as spontaneous, and his slayings as combustive, that is not to say that the Railroad Killer didn't have his own particular signature. He pretty much followed a routine. For one, the murders all occurred "in close proximity to train track locations," to quote Clark.
Late last month, in the heat of the intensive manhunt for the murderer, John Douglas described what appeared to be the killer's simple but deadly agenda:
"When he hitches a ride on the freight train, he doesn't necessarily know where the train is going. But when he gets off, having background as a burglar, he's able to scope out the area, do a little surveillance, make sure he breaks into the right house where there won't be anyone to give him a run for his money. He can enter a home complete with cutting glass and reaching in and undoing the locks.
"He'll look through the windows and see who's occupying it. The guy's only 5 foot-7, very small. In fact...the early weapons were primarily blunt-force trauma weapons, weapons of opportunity found at the scenes. He has to case them out, make sure he can put himself in a win-win situation."
Where he came from, what spurred his crime spree, what kind of man was Resendiz —these will be examined in the succeeding chapters. For now, let's pause to examine his list of victims.
Following is a list of the nine serial murders attributed to Resendiz:
- Victim 1: August 29, 1997/Lexington. Ky.: Christopher Maier, 21, a University of Kentucky student, and his girlfriend are attacked while walking along the tracks near the college. Maier is bludgeoned to death and she is raped and beaten, almost to the point of death. She miraculously survives.
- Victim 2: October 4, 1998/Hughes Spring, Texas: On this cool Fall evening, 87-year-old Leafie Mason is hammered to death by a tire iron by someone who enters her home through a window. Her front door faces the Kansas City-Southern Rail Line tracks only 50 yards away.
- Victim 3: December 17, 1998/Houston, Texas: An invader breaks into the home of Dr. Claudia Benton, 39, of the Baylor College of Medicine, when she arrives home, the intruder rapes, stabs and bludgeons her repeatedly with a blunt instrument. Her home is near the rail lines that run through suburban West University Place. When the police recover her stolen Jeep Cherokee in San Antonio. TX, they find fingerprints on the steering column that match those of drifter Resendiz, a known illegal alien. Three weeks later, a county judge signs a warrant for Resendiz' arrest for burglary — but, strangely enough, not for murder. There is not enough evidence, says he!
- Victims 4 & 5: May 2, 1999 Weimar, Texas: Late at night, the Reverend Norman J. "Skip" Sirnic, 46, and wife Karen, 47, are struck to death by a sledgehammer in the parsonage of the United Church of Christ — located adjacent to the town's railroad. The couple's red Mazda is found in San Antonio three weeks later. Forensic evidence matches the killing of Dr. Benton in Houston
- Victim 6: June 4, 1999: Houston, Texas: Schoolteacher Noemi Dominguez, 26, is clubbed to death in her apartment, located near rail tracks. Seven days later, troopers find Dominguez' 1993 white Honda Civic abandoned at the international bridge at Del Rio, Texas.
- Victim 7: June 4, 1999/Fayette County, Texas: Seventy-three-year-old Josephine Konvicka is killed in bed by a blow of a pointed garden tool to the head. She lived in a frame farmhouse not far from Weimar, where a month prior Rev. and Mrs. Simic were killed, and within shadows of a rail yard. Her car has been tampered with, but the killer is unable to find the keys.
- Victims 8 & 9: June 15, 1999/Gorham, Ill.: An intruder breaks into a mobile home to kill its two occupants, After shooting George Morber, Sr.,80, in the head with a shotgun, he then clubs to death Morber's daughter, Carolyn Frederick, 52. Their house sits only 100 yards from the a railroad track. The next day, a passerby spots Fredericks' red pickup truck in Cairo, IL, sixty miles south of Gorham, being driven by a man matching Resendiz' description.
Sentiments throughout pretty much echoed the words of Mayor Bernie Kosler of Weimar, the little Texas burgh where the Simics and Mrs. Konvicka were slain. "The stores around here," he said, "have sold out of pistols."
ManhuntState and city law enforcement agencies did what little they could to find the will-o'-the-wisp maniac. Freight yard security was steeped up and hobos by the boxcar loads were hauled into local jails for positive identification and questioning. Sometimes freight trains were paused — to hell with time schedules! — and searched engine to caboose. Hispanics, even those who worked in the yards, complained to their bosses about the dirty looks they got from townspeople and what they felt was harassment from the police.
Hangouts for transients became targets for raids; policemen marched through homeless shelters, blood centers and soup kitchens where men earning money as migrant workers were known to frequent. Loiterers about town were hustled into police stations for questioning, but quickly released when it was proven they were not Angel Resendiz.
In June of 1999, the Federal Bureau of Investigation placed the Railroad Killer on its Top Ten Most Wanted list. The Bureau's Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (VICAP) compared the elements of the alleged Resendiz killings to come up with matches linking the same man to all of them. The FBI's initial reward of $50,000 for information leading to Resendiz' capture escalated within days to $125,000 as affected municipalities anted up.
Wanted posters described Resendiz as 5'7" tall, weighing 140-150 pounds; black hair, brown eyes and dark complexion; scars on right ring finger, left arm and forehead; a snake tattoo on his left forearm and a flower tattoo on his left wrist; has been known to employ any one of dozens of aliases, social security numbers and birth dates (although the certified date seemed to be August 1, 1960); has worked as a day laborer, migrant worker or auto mechanic.
In the meantime, Jackson County, IL officially charged Resendiz with the murder of the Gorham killings after his fingerprints are documented. Officials in Louisville, KY did likewise. Angry authorities in the latter city, where Christopher Maier became the first of the Railroad Killer's nine known victims, disseminated wallet-size photos of the murderer, urging citizens to notify the police immediately if they even think they have spotted him.
On July 1, authorities in Fayette County, TX, identified DNA from Noemi Dominguez in Josephine Konvicka's home, indicating that after Resendiz killed the younger woman, he drove her car to other woman's home for more bloodletting.
Don K. Clark, special agent in charge of the FBI's Houston office, coordinating the nationwide manhunt, called Resendiz "a very dangerous and violent person," explaining why the Mexican national and border jumper was placed on the infamous Top Ten list. "He's demonstrated he can use almost any kind of object to take a human life in a very violent manner and we've got to try to catch him." Two hundred agents, he said, were assigned round-the-clock assignments in locations where Resendiz was known to have struck and where he might strike next. Of course, areas of concentration included freight yards and rail depots. "We have the train tracks," Clark summarized.
Agents soon received more than 1,000 phone tips from people who claimed they had either seen the fugitive, who knew the victims, or thought they might have something new or novel to add to the strategy of the manhunt or psychology of the fugitive. Most of the leads were blind, but some of them proved solid, as was the call that came in from vacationing acquaintances of Resendiz who spotted him in Louisville. This occurred about the same time that John Matilda, director of the Wayside Christian Mission in that city, advised the police that he, too, had seen the runaway.
On July 7, the FBI felt they had made a good move in recruiting the help of Resendiz' common-law wife, Julietta Reyes, whom they brought into Houston from her hometown of Rodeo, Mexico, 250 miles below the border. "She would like to do everything she can to get (her husband) to turn himself in to the appropriate authorities," reported Clark.
A Fatal Slip-Up
For all the spent efficiency, Angel Resendiz continued to elude the law at every turn. John Douglas, who had been with the FBI for 25 years, rued the fact that, "the manhunt for the accused killer (had) been hampered by the lack of a coordinated computer system that would allow law enforcement officials to compare notes instantly and determine patterns."
The lack of such a system proved to be more injurious to the manhunt than Douglas could have predicted at the time.
On June 2, the Border Patrol apprehended Angel Resendiz near El Paso as he was attempting to cross the border illegally. While he was in its custody, the United States Immigration & Naturalization Service (INS) performed a computer search on him, checking his fingerprints and photo against a possible fugitives list. Because the system failed to identify him as a wanted man, the INS deported him to Mexico.
The slip-up proved to be much more than an embarrassment — it wound up to be a crucial blunder. After his release, Resendiz immediately found his way back into the States where, within 48 hours, he killed both Dominguez and Konvicka near Houston, then Morber and his daughter in Illinois. Four innocent people murdered over a computer glitch.
"Our computers told us that he was nothing of lookout material," explained C.G. Almengor, a supervisor at the border. His words were too anti-climactic. "We really wish he had been in the system so we could have caught him."
But, the error could not be totally blamed on modern technology. On July 1, a month after the mistake, a Justice Department representative admitted that the West University Place Police Department had notified the INS about Resendiz back in December right after the death of Dr. Benton, INS Commissioner Doris Meissner announced an internal investigation into the matter.
Suspicious AngelThe manhunt for Resendiz involved more than the physical knocking on locked doors and pacing through dusty freight yards. As with any manhunt the FBI conducts, a lot of time is spent getting to know the type of man or woman for whom it is searching. This includes studying the culprit's criminal background, social history and psychoses.
Resendiz had a long record of criminal enterprises before the series of known murders began in 1997 "He probably started killing somewhere in his late 20s," remarks John Douglas, who as a former FBI agent, spent many hours pursuing other Resendezes (Resendiz was listed as Resendez-Ramirez on the wanted poster). "He may have killed people like himself initially — males, transients." Continuously being sent back to Mexico by U.S. deportation officers who found him in this country illegally, he "became angry at the population at large. What America represents here is this wealthy country where he keeps getting kicked out...(he) just can't make ends meet. Coupled with these feelings, these inadequacies, fueled by the fact that he's known to take alcohol, take drugs, lowers his inhibitions now to go out and kill."
Virtually an orphan, Resendiz roamed the streets as a child, without a real family role model. The FBI has identified a sister in Albuquerque, New Mexico and other relatives both south and north of the border. Relatives in the U.S. have migrated as far north as the Great Lakes and as far east as Vermont.
Angel Resendiz first came to the attention of the U.S. Justice Department at age 16 when he was caught in Brownsville, TX, trying to cross the border from Mexico in 1976. "He was deported two months later," says the Dallas/Forth Worth Internet Service, "the first of...numerous run-ins with U.S. authorities." In 1988, he briefly lived in St. Louis where "he registered with a temporary agency and worked a half-day at a manufacturing company (and) voted in two elections under an assumed name".
Resendiz' criminal life in the United States, as well as his ability to escape long-term punishment here, reads like a bad novel. After his first deportation in August 1976, he returned to the U.S. a month later where INS agents located him in Sterling Heights, MI., and yet again in October, this time in McAllen, Texas. Then he quieted for a spell.
No one knows when he slipped back into this country, but in September of 1979, he was sentenced to a 20-year prison term for auto theft and assault in Miami, Florida. Luck on his side, he was paroled within six years and released onto Mexican soil.
But, the drifter drifted quite actively. Over the next decade, Resendiz was
- apprehended and tried in Texas for falsely claiming citizenship, for which he did an 18-month prison stint (1986);
- was arrested for possessing a concealed weapon in New Orleans, receiving an 18-month sentence, but paroled after a year (1988);
- earned a 30-month sentence for attempting to defraud Social Security in St. Louis (1988);
- pleaded guilty to burglary charges in New Mexico, a crime that gained him an 18-month prison term, though again he was paroled after a year (1992); and
- was apprehended in a Santa Fe rail yard for trespassing and carrying a firearm (1995).
Two years after the last recorded deportation, he materialized in Kentucky to kill Christopher Maier.
SurrenderSometime in early June, a young Texas Ranger by the name of Drew Carter conceived the notion that perhaps Resendiz' sister, Manuela, whom Resendiz is said to idolize, might be instrumental in affecting her brother's surrender. He contacted Manuela, who lived in Albuquerque, to assess the practicality of his plan. The woman, who feared that her brother might eventually be killed by the FBI, or might kill again in the meantime, promised Carter that she would do everything humanly possible to help.
In his easy-going, unforced rapport with Manuela, Sgt. Carter explained that he was working with the FBI and legal prosecutors in Harris County (TX) to offer the fairest deal he could to her brother, the Railroad Killer, under the circumstances. If he surrendered himself, Carter told her, Resendiz would be assured of three things: 1) his personal safety while in jail; 2) regular visiting rights so that his wife, sister and others could visit him; and 3) a psychological evaluation. In effect, Carter's weeks-long relationship-building effort created solid steps toward working a miracle — that is, getting a serial killer to turn himself in."
Carter, who had been a Texas Ranger less than a year, believed in being straightforward. Says he, "Honesty's never hard. Sincerity is something people sense. That's what I did. I was honest with the family."
On Monday, July12, Manuela received a fax from the district attorney's office in Harris County, putting into writing the agreement that Carter had stated. The offer was then passed on to another relative who acted as emissary between his sister in Albuquerque and brother Angel in Mexico. That evening, word came from Ciudad Juarez that the Railroad Killer would, based on the Carter's word, surrender. The long-awaited moment was scheduled for 9 A.M. the following morning.
Tuesday, July 13. Carter was there ahead of time, accompanied by Manuela and her pastor to act as spiritual guide. They met on a bridge connecting Zaragosa, Mexico, with El Paso.
"When I saw that face there was a little bit of excitement there because I finally said, 'This is going to happen,'" Carter recalls. He watched Resendiz alight from the truck in dirty jeans and muddy boots. As he neared him, "He stuck out his hand, I stuck out my hand, and we shook hands."
With the timidity of a true hero, Carter, who pulled off one of the greatest arrests in Texas Ranger history, refuses to take full credit for his coup; he cited the support of the FBI and other law enforcement and county representatives who helped establish the terms of agreement that convinced the dreaded Railroad Killer to cross that bridge.
Whoever gets the credit, the event pleased many and brought relief, especially to the victims' families and friends. The Dallas/Fort Worth Internet Service reports, "Several hundred people in Weimar attended a ceremony to pray and give thanks for the suspect's capture. As the sun set and a train whistle blew in the background, residents of the South Texas town hugged and cried."
But, sometimes anger dies hard. "I wish (Resendiz) the worst," says murder victim Josephine Konvicka's daughter. "He's destroyed so much of our lives."
IncarcerationLaw enforcement officials remain perplexed as to why the Railroad Killer surrendered so freely to a state that has executed more people than any other. Surely, Resendiz must know that, if convicted of any of the murders in Texas, which seems very likely, he will face the death penalty. More so, prosecutors in Harris County — where on Thursday, July 22, he was indicted for the murder of Dr. Benton — hold the national record for sending murderers to the electric chair.
Texas Ranger Carter's surrender agreement was very concise in detail. In no way was the verbiage misleading as to confuse Resendiz into believing he would be spared due punishment. One possible speculation for Resendiz' easy surrender was that he feared bounty hunters who, it was known, had gathered in Mexico to collect the reward.
An editorial in The Dallas Morning News reads thus: "Mr. Resendiz faces a long legal process. Some questions surrounding the surrender itself need to be answered — why did he not merely 'lose himself' in Mexico? Or, given Mexico's policy against extraditing alleged murderers to the United States because of the death penalty here, why did he not simply surrender to Mexican authorities? Once those questions are answered, (his) surrender may turn out to be as interesting as the manhunt itself."
In the meantime, his world of endless railroad tracks has constricted to a 60-square-foot cell at the maximum-security Harris County Jail. A cot, a toilet and a wash basin are his life's accessories. "Because of the high profile of the case, he's under administrative segregation...A deputy has constant visual observation of him," explains facility spokesperson Celeste Spaugh. Four murder charges are filed against him and he faces other possible charges in Kentucky and Illinois. Maybe, Florida, too. That state is in the process of comparing blood samplesfound in a 1997 Marion County murder — a body found beside rail tracks.
Mexico Has Questions
There may be a good reason why Angel Resendiz chose not to surrender to Mexican authorities. Perhaps, our neighbors south of the border want to talk to him, also, about some killings in Ciudad Juarez.
"We are looking at the homicides we haven't cleared that appear to fit his method," states Steve Slater, an advisor to the Chihuahua State Public Safety Department...He has family in Juarez, including his mother. He's been through here a lot. We certainly have railroad tracks and bodies found by railroad tracks, and most are women."
Before this case rounds out, Angel Maturino Resendiz may be shown to have taken part in any one of another 200 cases the FBI says fit his modus operandi. He may turn out to be one of the greatest — or perhaps a better word is infamous — serial killers of all time.
In any event, the Railroad Killer will no longer be riding any box cars, so Arlo Guthrie may return to glorifying the wheat fields of America and the clack-clack-clack of the train riding mighty iron rails of folklore.
Sentenced to DeathAngel Maturino Resendiz has been found guilty of capital murder and today sits on death row in Livingston, Texas. All he has to look forward to is a lethal injection that will send him to God's judgment.
Jury selection for what would eventually lead to the eight-day trial of the Railroad Killer began late March 1999, in Houston, Harris County. The latest chapter of the Resendiz drama began tumultuously with his refusal to play ball even with his own lawyers. First, he refused to be tested by a court-appointed psychiatrist (although he eventually conceded), and then he chose not to accept a change of venue despite his attorneys' claims that he might not get a fair trial in Houston.
Even though Resendiz has been formally charged with the murders of seven people in total, he has only been tried and convicted of one of those killings, that of Dr. Claudia Benton, whom he slew in her home in 1998. Her body had been found a couple of weeks before Christmas, battered and broken. Several items stolen from Benton's home — including fragments of a steering column from Benton's Jeep — were later recovered by police in the house of Resendiz's girlfriend. As well, Resendiz's fingerprints were found in that same automobile
Presiding over the trial was District Judge William Harmon; chief prosecutor for the state was County District Attorney John Holmes, Jr., assisted by Devon Anderson. Court-appointed defense lawyers Allen Tanner and Rudy Duarte, aware that the state's case against their client was air tight, fought to have Resendiz committed on insanity.
The trial faced several postponements. One was caused by a delay in procuring the findings of several psychiatrists, to whose examinations Resendiz at first would not submit. Another was generated by the defense council's action to move the trial from Harris County to a place where, they felt, sentiment was less harsh against the headline-making serial killer.
A segment of the motion read, "Publicity (here) has been inflammatory and unfair and has created such hostility towards the defendant, and prejudiced the opinions of members of the community to such a degree, that it is unlikely that a verdict can be solely reached on the evidence presented at the trial."
That the court might have decided in favor of the motion was thwarted when the defendant himself refused to abide with the request. Opposed to a local trial in the outset, he changed his mind afterwards stating that he believed that no matter where he went the public mindset was already poisoned against him. Despite his attorneys' pleas, Resendiz would not consent.
After the pre-trial upsets were finally settled, the session commenced to a packed courtroom on May 8, 1999. Judge Harmon issued a gag order that muzzled lawyers from talking freely to the press, but the explosion of emotions behind the courtroom doors was pyrotechnical. Over the next week, a jury equally divided by male and female members heard a series of witnesses from both sides.
The thrust of the trial seemed to center on whether or not Resendiz was sane or insane when he committed his crimes, particularly the murder of Dr. Benton. The defense brought forth forensic psychiatrist Dr. Bruce Cohen who diagnosed the defendant as schizophrenic. Cohen claimed that "(Resendiz) did not know his conduct was wrong." Because of a mental delusion that had him believing his victims were evil, said Cohen, "(the defendant) thought he was justified in his behaviors."
However, a psychiatrist testifying in behalf of the prosecution presented an altogether different summary. Dr. Ramon Laval, while agreeing that Resendiz did have unhealthy views of women and of mankind in general, and suffered from misguided fixations, attested that Resendiz "knew what he was doing" when he murdered Dr. Benton and the others. With that, Prosecutor Holmes again reminded the jurors of the Railroad Killer's savagery unleashed upon his victims — and, before detailing Dr. Benton's murder, warned the court that it is "one of the most horrible that you will ever have the misfortune to hear."
Of the twenty-plus witnesses for the prosecution, the last and most impacting was the 23-year-old girlfriend of victim Christopher Maier. Maier and she were attacked while strolling home from a function at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Raped, bludgeoned and left for dead, she recovered to identify Resendiz as the Railroad Killer. In court, she detailed the bloody assault, which took place on August 27, 1997, near local railway tracks.
According to the witness, after Resendiz killed Maier and before he pummeled her, he sardonically told her, "You don't have to worry about him anymore."
In closing arguments, the prosecution pointed to the heinous nature of Resendiz's crimes, the premeditative nature of each, the heartlessness displayed and, especially, to the inescapable evidence of his guilt: fingerprints, palm prints and, most damaging, DNA evidence collected from the scenes of the crime.
With little weight in their favor, the defense team merely begged for the mercy of the jurors to spare the life of the murderer. Meekly, almost pathetically, attorney Rudy Duarte recalled to the jury, "(Our client) recognized he had a problem, and he turned himself in. That is something."
The jurors felt no sympathy. On May 17, 1999, after 10 hours of deliberation, the panel pronounced Angel Maturino Resendiz guilty of first-degree, premeditated murder. Despite his lawyers' pleas, the Railroad Killer was sentenced to death.
A half-hearted appeals process awash, Resendiz now awaits his fate in silence.
George Benton cannot easily forgive his wife Claudia's murderer. "It's been hard," he confesses, and remembers the day he had to tell his daughters that their mother was killed in fury.
One victim's mother summed up her life since the murder of her kin, including the terrible memories disinterred at the trial: "It was like watching a horror movie."
Angel Maturino Resendiz was executed in Huntsville, Texas, on June 27, 2006, by lethal injection.