Bill Salazar is haunted by his memories. He can’t let go of a series of small, otherwise insignificant events that happened in the winter of 2002, before he lost his son.
Esteban Salazar, 17 years old, was tall and athletic and handsome, with dark hair and eyes and a complexion that hinted at his father’s Costa Rican roots. His intellect came from both parents, Bill and Beth, and the semester he’d just completed at Naaman Forest High School in Garland had produced a flawless report card. He was a good kid, the sort who didn’t need a curfew, who surprised his mother with the CDs he made for her, who did his own laundry.
Christmas Day, Esteban told his girlfriend he had committed an “unforgivable sin.” Huong Nguyen was a 16-year-old honor student whose adult beauty lay just beneath her baby fat. Huong pressed Esteban on what he meant by “unforgivable sin,” but he wouldn’t say what he’d done.
On December 28, Esteban stayed in bed all day, his face ashen. “He had this terrified look on his face,” Bill says. No one could draw him from his room. Esteban had spent the night before with Paul Le, a kid he hadn’t mentioned in nine months and one the family is now convinced has ties to the Asian mafia. The family didn’t know what to think about Esteban’s lethargy. At one point, Bill asked Esteban if Huong was pregnant. Esteban said no; he was still a virgin. That night, when Esteban finally left his room, his mother Beth noticed how red his eyes were.
On December 30, Esteban stayed out all night with Paul Le and worried his parents sick. He had never done that before, not called to check in. More surprising, records later showed Esteban and Paul Le phoning, at midnight on the 31st, Lae Phoxayvong, a 51-year-old man who in the 1990s took a plea of deferred adjudication to charges of gambling, which the court classifies as organized crime. (Lae Phoxayvong and Paul Le did not return D’s phone calls. Le has no criminal history.)
Then, finally, on Saturday, January 4, 2003, Huong called Esteban and said she wanted to hang out. He said he couldn’t. He didn’t have a car. (This wasn’t true.) He then asked her, “What if I don’t see you for a month?” Huong thought the comment strange but left it alone. Sometimes his moodiness caused the couple fights. The phone call ended moments later.
At 1:58 that afternoon, the Salazars received a call from an unidentified number. Esteban answered, and the Salazars would later find out the call lasted 38 seconds. Moments later, Esteban kicked his bedroom wall, leaving a footprint beneath the light switch. Then he walked out of the house. He wore jogging pants, running shoes, and a t-shirt.
It was the last time Bill would see his son.
|BROKEN HOME: Nina, Bill, and Beth Salazar (top) have all suffered in their own way since losing Esteban. The entire family (bottom), before the tragedy.|
Today, Bill Salazar’s hair is white. His sister, his neighbors, they all say he is a man distracted, besieged by hindsight and the what ifs. On the second floor of his house, he keeps on office. A blown-up poster of Esteban advertising a $100,000 reward rests behind his desk. Behind Bill and on each side of him are shelves holding 26 three-ring binders dedicated to his investigation into Esteban’s death. He maintains a web site, www.4esteban.com, where more information is stored. A white dry-erase board keeps track of Bill’s correspondence with government officials. The clock in the room is stuck at 11:17. It hasn’t been wound in nearly four years. Outside the office, a calendar from 2003 hangs on a bathroom wall.
Bill works out to deal with his stress. At 56, he is trim, fit. But he had to give up his job in real estate after Esteban disappeared. It has cost the family roughly $300,000, he says. Beth still works at a travel agency, and the family lives simply, but Bill says he has nevertheless had to sell property to compensate. Then there’s Nina Salazar, Esteban’s older sister. After Esteban’s disappearance, Bill says, “She just went off the deep end.” In his soft, halting Caribbean accent, Bill describes how Nina was hospitalized at a clinic in Houston for nearly eight months during the past two years. Nina suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and was diagnosed bipolar in 2006. She lives at home now, a shell of the young woman who won a scholarship to SMU in 2001.
“One of the things that I know really upsets her,” Bill says, his eyes darting back and forth across the room, as if she might be listening, “and I’ve been told this also by the psychologist, is to see us having to deal with this every single day. I pretty much try to keep her from coming upstairs here.”
Beth helps some with the clerical work of the investigation, but she admits it is”Bill’s main focus. It is all-consuming.” He sleeps, even today, only a few hours a night. “Every day you are involved, it really takes a lot out of you,” Bill says. So much of the case upsets him. The way police failed to follow the leads Bill found, failed to share their findings. The way the courts blocked Bill’s efforts to gather all the facts to open a new investigation. Bill believes Esteban’s killers remain at large. So now, almost four years later, he presses on. And the more he digs, the more reluctant police are to help him. The more evidence he finds to support his conclusions, the more his sanity is tested. But a grieving father does not—cannot—stop.
They knew something was wrong the next morning, Sunday, January 5, 2003. Esteban had left behind his wallet, his keys, his cell phone, “even his contact solution,” Beth says. She noticed, too, that he’d turned a photo of Huong on his dresser face down. Beth began working the phones. No one, including Huong, knew where Esteban was. Beth was the more anxious parent that day; Bill thought maybe Esteban had stayed at a friend’s house and had been, well, extremely inconsiderate not to contact his parents. So twice that morning, Bill went to Paul Le’s house. No one answered the door either time. Bill and Beth made phone call after phone call. Beth went to the Les in the afternoon and spoke with Paul’s father, Minh Le. He didn’t know Esteban’s whereabouts, and he said Paul wouldn’t know them either. He was at his uncle’s house for the weekend.
Minh Le told Beth, perhaps trying to reassure her, “I have three boys, and sometimes they do this.”
“Maybe your boys do,” Beth said, “but mine doesn’t.”
That afternoon, around 5, still without any word from Esteban, Bill and his sister Ginny LeBlanc joined neighbors in searching the path along the creek, which was behind the house. Esteban liked to run there. They didn’t find anything.
Meanwhile, Beth and Bryan LeBlanc, Ginny’s husband, went to the Garland police. Going to the police meant something was officially wrong. Her anxiety slowly turned to fear. She told the officers, repeatedly, adamantly, that Esteban was not a runaway. He had never been gone this long before, she said. He had left everything, all of his belongings, in his room. Nevertheless, records show the police listed Esteban, at 6:42 pm, as a runaway.
That night, Beth talked with Huong. Huong said the last time she spoke with Esteban, “he sounded kind of sad.” Bill thought afterward, “We’ve got a serious problem here.”
January 6 took forever to dawn. The family expected bloodhounds and detectives at the front door. Instead, no word came from the cops. Later that day, more troubling news: Bill couldn’t find his pistol, a .357 Ruger he kept sometimes beneath the bathroom sink, but lately he kept it in the attic. He tried at first to reason that he had simply hidden it too well. But, no, that wasn’t it. He could not find it. He told the police his gun was missing. Even so, it wasn’t until the following day, three days after Esteban’s disappearance, when Detective Matt Myers returned from his day off, that the police opened an investigation. The family was furious.
A helicopter flew over the creek behind the Salazars’ home on the 7th. Bill was getting no sleep now. Instead, he called Esteban’s friends, or he called the cops, or he searched the school grounds or drove the roads winding all over Garland and through suburban shopping centers, looking for his son.
On January 8, Detective Myers led three two-man crews that scoured the area around the Salazars’ home. Still nothing. Something was definitely wrong now.
That’s when Bill’s thoughts first turned to the strange events that winter break, the way Esteban had acted, the friends he’d started hanging out with. Who were these guys? Were they involved in a gang? Did Esteban take the gun as some sort of initiation? Was he a witness to a crime? Or, worse, was he involved in one? On his searches, Bill began carrying in the backseat of the car a suitcase and a passport. He was sure Esteban would need to get out of the country, for his own protection, once he was found.
On January 18, the police finally brought in the dogs. Two weeks after Esteban had disappeared, they used a bloodhound and five cadaver dogs to search the neighborhood. Garland police spokesman Joe Harn says that the department doesn’t normally use dogs in missing-person cases. In any case, the bloodhound picked up Esteban’s scent at the Brandon Walk apartment complex, near Brand and Apollo roads, not far from the Salazars’ house. “The handler said he was 99.99 percent sure of the trail that led to the apartments,” the police report said. But it’s unclear if police interviewed anyone at the Brandon Walk complex. Records don’t indicate they did. Harn says “more than likely” people were questioned. “There were lots of people interviewed in this case,” he says.
Still, lots of people say they weren’t. Cindy and Larry Kelley have lived next door to the Salazars since 1991. They were surprised they never received a call. So, too, A.J. Anderson, whom Esteban drove to school every day. There’s no public record of Paul Le being questioned, either, and Harn couldn’t say if he was, though Paul purportedly told Huong in an instant message shortly after Esteban’s disappearance: “Esteban was a Drug Lord, got into trouble and had to run away into hiding.” In fact, the only people the police seemed to be interested in were the Salazars. The police indicated at one point that Nina Salazar told them Bill abused his kids. But there’s no police record to support this. Harn says, “I don’t know what was said.” And, anyway, Nina later signed an affidavit saying she never said that. Bill calls the allegation “outrageous” and says, as a result, he had to submit to three polygraphs. Beth took one. The Salazars say no one else took any.
The relationship between the Salazars and the police only grew more contentious. Bill sent e-mails and memos daily, impatient and increasingly frustrated. The police were frustrated, too. “As I have said many, many times during your ordeal,” Captain Jody Lay wrote to Bill in a typical e-mail, “trust us to do our jobs.” But the Salazars didn’t. They organized volunteers, plastered photos all over town, pleaded on television news for leads. Bill noticed a call Esteban had made on December 17 to someone in New Iberia, Louisiana. The family knew no one in Louisiana. So Bill drove there to interview people and appeared on even more newscasts. He contacted Texas Equusearch, a nonprofit search group based in Dickinson, an hour outside of Houston. He asked its volunteers to help find Esteban. Tim Miller, the group’s director, phoned the Garland Police Department for approval. “I remember the detective was not friendly with us at all,” Miller says. The detective he spoke with, Captain Lay, who oversaw the investigation, referred all questions to Harn.
What’s surprising here is that the Salazars aren’t the sort of people who normally distrust authority. They’re cop people. Both of Beth’s parents were cops in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Bill’s father led Costa Rica’s detective bureau. But their son’s investigation taught the Salazars to be suspicious, they say.
On February 28, there was a break in the case. A femur bone was found in the woods behind the homes near Woodland Park Drive, about a mile and a half from the Salazars’ home. Soon, 12 investigators and a nine-man, two-dog crew were searching the woods. They found 29 pieces of evidence. In the morning, the bones were identified as human. Then more remains were found: a New Balance running shoe, boxers, socks, a t-shirt. Bill’s Ruger pistol. And a human skull with a bullet hole in it.
On March 5, 2003, dental records showed the remains belonged to Esteban Salazar.
They would have preferred an intimate service, but so many of Esteban’s friends and teachers wanted to attend his memorial that the family booked the biggest place it could find, the Restland Memorial Park in Dallas. Esteban’s cousin and friends from school spoke. There were some people there even the family didn’t know. Bill doesn’t remember much. “I was kind of hoping no one would show up,” he says. But, then again, he did monitor everyone who walked through the door.
Everyone, in his mind, was now a suspect. He had hired a private investigator, Desirick Duncan, of Dallas, shortly after Esteban’s remains were found. Bill asked him to run surveillance on everyone at the memorial. See who signed the guest book. Get everybody’s license plate. Watch for facial expressions. Who was crying? Who wasn’t? And the surveillance didn’t end there. Bill recruited volunteers to help him monitor A.J. Anderson, the kid Esteban drove to school. Long before Esteban’s disappearance, Anderson had been busted for selling fake drugs at Naaman Forest High. Bill followed him to and from school, and whenever he drove by his house—Anderson lived a couple blocks from the Salazars—he tried to see who was inside. Bill watched Paul Le, too. (Perhaps as a result, the family moved to Wylie in 2004.) Bill got the phone records of Huong Nguyen’s family from his PI, and he began to record the conversations he had with Huong. And, on Saturday, March 15, one day after Esteban’s memorial, Bill got Texas Equusearch to do its own investigation.
On the first day they looked, the group found the other shoe. And this one was not like the New Balance sneaker police recovered maybe 500 feet away, not at all chewed up or muddy or showing the wear and tear from two months of exposure. This shoe was pristine. “It was interesting because it looked like it had been set there,” says Joanne Beaton, the Equusearch member who found the shoe. “It had snowed that winter, and you could see the area with the runoff snow around it. And I thought, ’How come this shoe isn’t muddy?’ I mean, it didn’t have any leaves on it. Nothing.” Just as surprising, she had searched in an area a few hundred feet from where the police had looked. She could still see the crime scene tape. “My first thought was, ’They didn’t search this area too well,’” Beaton says.
Tim Miller was there that day. He founded Texas Equusearch in 2000 because, in 1984, his daughter Laura was abducted and later murdered, and he felt the police’s search had been inadequate. He didn’t want that to happen again. He saw in Esteban’s case similarities to his daughter’s. About the shoe he says, “It was like someone was trying to hide it.” His group has worked hundreds of cases and searched for Natalee Holloway in Aruba and people in New Orleans trapped in Katrina’s wake. “But I still think about Esteban’s case,” he says.
Bill felt the second shoe vindicated him. His skepticism could produce new evidence, despite all the people who kept it from him. Like Esteban’s girlfriend. Yes, after Bill found that spotless shoe, he was certain Huong knew more than she was letting on. Maybe Esteban did have a “dark side,” as his friends wondered. Maybe he belonged to an Asian gang, the same one Paul Le was rumored to belong to. Maybe Bill should embrace this new reality, in which his son was not the fine, happy young man his teachers and neighbors and friends said he was, but a budding criminal killed for—for what?
Huong knew. She had to.
The police questioned her Thursday, March 20. The day before, Bill had asked Detective Myers to include some queries from the family. Myers did, and when Huong found out—that Bill had wanted to know, among other things, if her family was involved in a gang—she was furious. “I can not comprehend why you would suspect me,” Huong wrote to Bill in a letter. It was the last contact Bill would have with her or her family. This drove him to suspect her more.
Bill believed other people were trying to keep the truth from him, too. The PI, Desirick Duncan, wasn’t finding any useful information; Bill let him go. The police refused to acknowledge the significance of the second shoe. Even the Dallas County Medical Examiner’s Office was part of the conspiracy. Bill says that on March 12 Dr. Jill Urban of the medical examiner’s office told him she did not have enough evidence to conclude a cause of death. Yet she still performed the autopsy. (She would not comment on the matter.) Before its results were known, on April 7, Bill sent an e-mail to Captain Lay saying he would like, in addition to the autopsy, a forensic anthropology examination performed by Dr. Harrell Gill-King of the University of North Texas, renowned in his field and, more important, independent of the Garland Police Department and the Dallas County Medical Examiner’s Office. Urban wrote Bill back that afternoon saying a forensic anthropologist would indeed look at Esteban’s remains, but not the one the family requested. Dallas County’s consulting anthropologist was Dr. Anthony Falsetti of the C.A. POUND Human Identification Laboratory in Gainesville, Florida. Urban said in an e-mail to Bill that using Falsetti was her office’s “standard operating procedure.” But Bill didn’t buy it.
By June 2003, Falsetti had completed his examination and its results coincided with Urban’s: Esteban Salazar had committed suicide.
Bill snapped. Leaving aside the shoe, which by itself should have tipped the investigation toward murder, how could Esteban’s death have been ruled a suicide? The bullet hole was in the back of the skull, behind the right ear. Who shoots himself in the back of his head? It didn’t make any sense. And Bill thought the medical examiner’s report was far from conclusive. “Because of decomposition, range of fire cannot be determined,” Urban noted. And: “This examination is limited by the lack of soft tissue and the general condition of the body.” The report from the forensic anthropologist was just as confounding. Falsetti noted that Esteban “left the house with a revolver, which was found with his remains.” That wasn’t true. No one saw him leave the house with a revolver. So how could Falsetti know that if Bill didn’t?
In his grief, though, Bill was overlooking some important details in that autopsy report. The bullet entered just above and behind the right ear—not the back of the head—then exited the left side, slightly above and behind where it had entered. The strange entry point, Urban told D in a brief interview, could be explained this way: some people who commit suicide hold the gun to their temple but flinch when they squeeze the trigger. The bullet’s trajectory, then, begins farther back, toward the ear. It is entirely possible that’s what happened here.
As for Falsetti’s report, yes, it said Esteban left the house with a revolver, but it also said the location of the wound “is consistent with self-infliction,” that none of the bones suffered any blunt force trauma, as one would find with an attack before Esteban’s death, and, after his death, “the evidence is against postmortem interference with the deceased by human agents.” As Falsetti wrote in an e-mail to Bill, “I don’t understand why you chose to suggest I have done anything untoward or inaccurate. As before, I am sorry for your loss.” (He didn’t respond to D’s messages.)
For the family, though, it wasn’t enough. In the days after the reports were released, with as many new questions as answered ones, the Salazars turned once again to the Garland police. Bill wanted access to all its material. He still hadn’t seen the pistol or the clothes gathered at the site (something spokesman Harn refutes). Captain Lay wrote in a June 23 e-mail to Bill: “When we are finished with our investigation, we will meet with you and your wife to inform you of our findings. As far as getting access to our files, records, etc., my recommendation would be an open records request.” Ten months passed. The gun was swabbed for DNA. Esteban’s was found, but so was the DNA of a second, unidentified party. Bill says only he and his son ever handled the gun. So maybe the gun had been stolen in the week before Esteban’s death, as Bill had long suspected. He knew the suicide ruling was bunk.
Another month passed and still no word of the police closing their investigation—and, really, little word from the police, period. So Bill filed an open records request April 9, 2004, asking the department for everything, all information, materials, evidence, and reports. He sent out another open records request on the 30th, this one seeking all phone records relevant to the case. The City Attorney’s Office sought an opinion from the Texas Attorney General on what it had to hand over. Bill filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, saying the police didn’t properly investigate his son’s death. The Dallas Morning News picked up the story, and it was from the News, in July 2004, that Bill learned the Garland police had closed Esteban’s case. Not only that, police spokesman Harn told the paper the Dallas County District Attorney’s office had reviewed the department’s conduct in the investigation and found no wrongdoing.
This was all news to Bill. What did everyone have to hide? He began an inquiry into this DA report, all the while staying abreast of his open records request and his Department of Justice complaint. In September, Bill heard from the Attorney General’s Office. It told the city it had to turn over the phone records, but nothing else. Texas law says that in a case like this, one that doesn’t end in a conviction or deferred adjudication, the police department gets a discretionary exception from the open records laws. In other words, the department didn’t have to turn over its files—but it could if it wanted to. So who benefited from withholding the information on Esteban’s case?
The police department, Bill says. But police spokesman Harn says because Bill insisted his son was killed, “the decision was made to keep those records closed unless anything came up to suggest murder.” So the battle Bill waged to find the truth now kept him from it. Proving that Esteban was murdered would be impossible unless Bill could find evidence and persuade the cops to reopen the case. It inspired him to dig even deeper. But he wouldn’t have much help.
The Garland police even challenged the Attorney General’s ruling to hand over all phone records to Bill. On April 13, 2005, the City of Garland and the Attorney General’s Office agreed Bill could have access to the phone records—but only his own. No one else’s.
So even the Attorney General was in on the conspiracy. How else to explain an agreement in which the details of the case were kept secret? Same with the DA’s office. It wouldn’t release the report on the investigation it had conducted, saying it fell under the same law that allowed the Garland police to keep their files out of Bill’s hands. Same with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. It never got back to Bill on its investigation. Same, of course, with the City of Garland. Bill never received all his own phone records. (Assistant City Attorney Mark Mann says Bill did. Mann sent them twice in 2004. In 2005, when Bill complained about never getting them, Mann wrote in memo: “Based upon my previous encounters with Mr. Salazar, I thought it prudent to send them a second time to avoid accusations similar to the one being presently lodged. … In the third paragraph of [a 2004] letter I specifically reference the fact that the records were again being sent to him.”) The police were hiding something, too. Why didn’t they follow up on the second-party DNA? Why did they plant evidence to support their own findings? (Dr. Jeffrey Barnard, the director of the Dallas County Medical Examiner’s Office, wrote to Bill in 2004: “[T]he profile … is consistent with a degraded mixed sample of DNA from you and your son.” Says Harn: “He’s got a right to feel what he wants to feel. What we’ve got to deal with are the facts. All the facts point to [Esteban] committing suicide.”) Same with Huong and her family. They were covering something up. Why didn’t Huong call after 1:52 the day Esteban went missing? What calls was she making to her older sister, Thu, at 9:58 that evening? And at 10:01, 10:09, 11:22? Why did Thu, shortly after Esteban disappeared, quit her job in finance, move back in with her parents, change her cell phone number, enroll in cosmetology school, and visit a Garland residence with an older man, where one week later a hysterical young Asian woman was escorted into the residence by two Asian males?
Bill saw leads and conspiracies everywhere. So why didn’t anyone else?
“I think Bill is insane,” says huong, now a junior at the University of Texas. “I don’t know why he’s targeting us and other families. … It’s upsetting to be grieving like that and have someone making up these ludicrous rumors about you.”
On Bill’s web site, he cites 11 reasons Huong knew more about Esteban’s death than she let on. For instance, the couple was not visually compatible—she was short, he was tall—so the relationship may have been arranged. But what that has to do with Esteban’s death is anyone’s guess.
“It seems like he just needed someone to blame, and he just picked me,” Huong says. “He assumed I would know everything. Yes, I was dating him. Yes, I thought we were close. But he’s lived with Esteban his whole life, and he didn’t know.
“I used to feel I was really connected to them,” she says, “because we both lost something that we loved so much.”
But Bill’s behavior severed that connection. The Xanga site is a good example. Esteban created a web site a couple days before his disappearance. On it, he kept a journal of sorts, writing that he liked to hang out with his friends and his girlfriend. He said he wanted to read more books. Sometime after his disappearance, though, Bill edited the site’s content. In one post Esteban had written, “TODAY I WAS TOLD: by my girlfriend hey if u love someone, u gotta love the whole package. I’ll still like you even if you were bad.” Under this Bill wrote, in the voice of his dead son, “Sorry, I liked you, but not as much as you loved me.” Another post written 16 months after Esteban’s funeral encourages his friends to tell the truth. It then says, “Yes I died a very slow and painful death but the worst was knowing that I was leaving my loved ones.” A third post, written two months after that, includes a photo of Huong and Esteban and is signed, simply, “E.”
Bill’s surveillance of the Nguyen family has continued over the years. He filed a complaint against Huong’s mother’s nail salon, alleging she didn’t have a license to operate. She did, though. And in the weeks leading up to the complaint, someone had spray-painted her mother’s shop twice and on a third occasion spilled transmission fluid on the ground before the entryway. Other shops were left untouched. Shortly thereafter, Huong contacted police. She felt threatened by Bill but, ultimately, never filed a restraining order.
Today, Bill is still chasing leads. He recently found that the phone call to his house minutes before Esteban disappeared was not a fax blast from efax.com, as the police had said. It had come from a Coppell number that has since been disconnected.
In small, everyday details, he sees evidence of criminal activity that might be connected to Esteban’s death. Bill has taken pictures of a pair of shoes thrown over a telephone wire near where Esteban’s body was found. He read on the Internet that it was a gang sign. Graffiti with the letters “ABZ 1226” spray-painted onto a van. Bill believes that the letters have something to do with the West Coast Asian gang ABZ. Grains of rice left on Esteban’s memorial bench at Breckenridge Park in Richardson. Bill asks reporters: “Any symbolic meaning you all can think of?” He says this is the first year he had noticed anything “unusual” at the memorial.
He runs background checks on everyone who enters his life. Bill told a reporter for this story, moments after meeting her, that the tags on her car had expired. He has hired a psychic detective from Arkansas. And he’s taken to wearing Esteban’s clothes: his shoes, his pants, his t-shirts. “It makes me feel closer to him,” Bill says, holding back the tears. He says he can sense Esteban leading him to the killers. Sometimes, when Bill can’t sleep at night, he gets up, puts on his son’s clothes, and drives around, letting Esteban’s presence guide him.
He thinks it will lead him to the truth.