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The Mysterious Disappearance of Javier’s Restaurant Manager

The case of Jose 'Pepe' Ayala might not be so mysterious after all.
illustration by Richard Mia

When news broke in early May that Jose “Pepe” Ayala had vanished, something didn’t add up. The beloved general manager of Javier’s Gourmet Mexicano had been missing since April 20, when he didn’t show up for work, the first such absence in his 30 years at the Knox-Henderson restaurant.
His daughter, Carmen Ayala-Heritage, told NBC Channel 5 she was so worried that she couldn’t eat or sleep. Her 56-year-old father had dropped out of sight, leaving behind his diabetes medicine, his car keys, and his passport. His bank account hadn’t been touched, she said.

But then there was the curious statement from police. Missing persons unit Lt. Robert Hinton told the Dallas Morning News, “The case is not closed. We will continue to take leads and follow them up until we find out where he disappeared to. He is an adult and free to leave on his own.”

And, most telling, Javier Gutierrez wasn’t talking. One might expect the owner of Javier’s to offer a reward, perhaps, to help find his longtime friend and employee. But Gutierrez was nowhere in the press coverage.

“There was this story out there,” Gutierrez now says. “And there was what people close to Pepe know. It’s not the kind of thing you say about a friend, so how could I put that out there?”

What the public wasn’t told was that four days before Ayala disappeared, Dallas police arrested him for drunken driving in an early morning traffic stop north of downtown. Records show it was Ayala’s eighth DWI arrest—and it came while he was still on probation for a felony DWI he picked up in July 2000, putting him at risk of going to prison for the first time. “He’s facing some sort of prison time,” says defense lawyer and former Dallas prosecutor Toby Shook, who is not involved with the case. Shook says Ayala is looking at six months in jail at the very least and maybe much more, up to 10 years in state prison for the broken probation and 10 more years for the new case.

The DWI arrest takes a lot of the mystery out of Ayala’s sudden disappearance. As the timeline runs, he was arrested early on a Friday morning, April 16, and posted $100,000 bail through Maverick Bail Bonds later that day. He worked the weekend and was off that Monday. Gutierrez says Ayala agreed to visit a lawyer the restaurateur recommended but didn’t show for that appointment. The next day, he didn’t come to work.

“People get the idea that if you have an alcohol problem, you get up in the morning and you need a drink. That wasn’t Pepe at all,” Gutierrez says. In the three decades since Ayala went to work at the restaurant—first as a waiter, then as a bartender, an assistant manager, and for the last 23 years as general manager—he never drank at work or had alcohol on his breath. His problem, in Gutierrez’s opinion, is that once he takes a drink, he just gets thirstier, and his tolerance for alcohol is low due to his diabetic condition.

Gutierrez says Ayala had not long ago gotten out of a long-term relationship and had begun dating again. It was during one of those nights out that he was pulled over. Ayala was more than nine years into the 10-year probation he received for his last DWI conviction, and court records show that nearly all of the myriad requirements imposed by the court had been loosened. Back in 2000, he had been at the wheel of a red Mercedes 280SL at 2:43 am when he hit another car on Mockingbird Lane. In court, he agreed to a long list of conditions in return for his freedom. He was ordered to pay a $2,500 fine, to attend Alcoholics Anonymous sessions five times a week, and to complete a counseling course for repeat DWI offenders. The judge also ordered the installation of an interlock device in his car, a breathalyzer that forced him to blow into a tube before he could start the engine. In 2006, however, his probation officer agreed the interlock device should be removed because Ayala had successfully completed half his probation term. Records show that Ayala had a driver’s license at the time of his latest arrest.

The sum of his record may be that of a habitual DWI offender, but most of his cases came more than 20 years ago and long before the push, beginning in the mid-1980s, that made driving while intoxicated a serious offense. Ayala’s record serves as a case study in how DWIs have been handled over the years when the defendant is a respected member of the community with a full-time job and a good lawyer.

For his first three convictions, two in 1975 and another in 1979, Ayala received at most one year probation and a $250 fine. In 1981, for his fourth DWI in less than six years, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and was given a $400 fine and five days in jail. He was allowed to keep his license but restricted to driving to and from work.

It wasn’t until his sixth case, in 1990, that he was considered a potential felon. A plea bargain had him accepting a felony conviction, but he was sentenced to just a three-year probation and assessed a $500 fine. He wasn’t arrested again for a full decade.

When Ayala wasn’t enmeshed with the law—which was most of the time—he was raising a daughter, working a sideline business renovating houses, and keeping up his own white brick ranch-style house on a well-tended street in Northeast Dallas. At Javier’s, customers such as Allan McBee saw him as the trusted right-hand man. “He was someone who would take care of you even if you didn’t have a reservation,” says McBee, an oil and gas executive who has been going to Javier’s since the ’80s.

Gutierrez, who opened the restaurant in 1977, says Ayala has a knack for putting names with faces. “He was better at that than I am, so he’d help me out when I needed it,” the owner says. He calls Ayala “a natural” at the business because of his gracious hospitality.

At press time in early June, Ayala’s disappearance had not yet begun to intersect with his criminal case. After his indictment for third-degree felony DWI on May 17, a judge set June 30 for his first court appearance. According to Shook, if Ayala were to miss that date, a warrant would be issued for his arrest, and his bail would be forfeited. In other words, he would become a fugitive. Then it will be his spurned bail bondsman offering the reward to find Ayala and bring him back to Dallas.

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