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Published: 4/17/2005

The 30-year fugitive

BY JOE MAHR
BLADE STAFF WRITER

McQUEENEY, Texas - Outside one of south Texas' most popular resort lakes, a Texas ranger and local detective were delighted as they peered through their binoculars.

They didn't expect it to be this easy.

Just a few minutes into their stakeout, the pair spotted one of Toledo's longest-sought fugitives easing his old pickup past their unmarked Ford Expedition and into his driveway on Hideaway Lane.

In an action that would make news across the country, the ranger and detective soon cornered the 61-year-old murder suspect and finally served a warrant that had laid dormant for 30 years.

The past - and the law - had finally caught up to David Delacruz.

In what became one of the coldest "cold" cases in Toledo to result in an arrest, the balding, diabetic grandfather didn't resist as he was handcuffed and led away last fall, his wife weeping in the driveway.

It had been nearly 30 years to the day that, police said, the ex-con drove to Toledo to confront a relative's abusive boyfriend.

Nearly 30 years to the day he allegedly pulled out a 38-caliber "Titan Tiger" and shot the boyfriend once in the chest.

Nearly 30 years to the day Toledo police began a manhunt that soon sputtered and was largely forgotten.

Delacruz didn't change his name. He didn't lie about his birth date or Social Security number.

He didn't have to.

That's because Toledo police made a critical error: They never entered his name into the FBI's national database for fugitives - routinely used by police across the country to check the backgrounds of people stopped for crimes ranging from murder to speeding.

Police in Texas stopped Delacruz a half-dozen times over the past three decades for traffic citations - even jailing him once on warrants for not paying traffic fines.

But without his name and birth date in the fugitive database, Texas police had no way of knowing he was wanted for aggravated murder.

Delacruz would not be captured until a veteran Toledo police detective happened upon a list of fugitives and resumed the search by turning to the Internet. Typing Delacruz's name and birth date into private information databases, two agencies in two time zones teamed up to track the suspect to an old RV trailer in his stepson's backyard.

In a case set for trial next week, his arrest has left his family reeling - a family of six stepchildren he helped raise while working long days as a carpenter in south Texas.

"It's like a nightmare and you can't wake up," said his stepdaughter, Betty Benavides. "It's torn our hearts apart."

The arrest left the victim's family with some answers - and more questions.

They never knew the details of how their relative, James "Ronnie" Hendricks, died that cold October day in 1974 - and thought they were the only ones who still cared that the killer be caught.

"We just thought it was thrown in the trash," said his mother, Louise Harper, who also lives in south Texas.

But the victim's family is also confused.

They've only now learned new details of their fallen relative's secret life - a life steeped in Toledo's emerging gay scene of the early 1970s and a relationship that led to his death in an old apartment building amid one of Toledo's worst murder waves.

Roberto Martinez needed help.

A young bartender at a popular Toledo gay bar, the cross-dressing Mr. Martinez had moved to Toledo from Saginaw, Mich., at a time the gay-rights movement was just emerging.

By October, 1974, it had been only two years since Ohio erased a law making homosexuality a crime. It had been only 13 months since the end of a Toledo ordinance banning cross-dressing for "any homosexual, lesbian, or perverted person." It had been only 10 months since U.S. psychiatrists declared that homosexuality wasn't a mental illness.

But that October, the chief complaint of the 22-year-old Mr. Martinez didn't involve discrimination or even a problem strictly found in the gay community.

Mr. Martinez complained of an abusive lover.

His boyfriend, "Tex" Hendricks, 28, was a truck driver from Texas who had spent the past decade drifting across the country, living a double life.

To his family and friends in Texas, the 6-foot-6, 240-pound son of a Pentecostal preacher talked of wild times roaming the country, old girlfriends, and a child he fathered in 1970.

The former Army soldier ate razor blades in bars to win free drinks. While he didn't start fights, he didn't back down from them either.

"He worked hard, and he liked to have a good time," recalled Bill Fregia, who worked on oil pipelines with Mr. Hendricks in the late 1960s.

But Mr. Hendricks did not share his secret life with them. He confided only in a girlfriend, Wanda Hanks, in 1970 - and only after she told him she was pregnant with his child.

Their relationship ended months later, she recalled, not because of his sexuality, but because of a temper that led to violent streaks and a jail stint for assault. Ms. Hanks blamed the temper, in part, on Mr. Hendricks' inability to cope with being gay.

"He was struggling with himself," she said. "He didn't want to be gay."

It was the same temper that Mr. Martinez would cite when he called for help in 1974.

Mr. Martinez told detectives that he tried to break up with Mr. Hendricks, but the trucker became abusive. So, the morning of Oct. 3, 1974, Mr. Martinez phoned his mother in Saginaw, and asked her to send someone immediately to Toledo to help protect him while he packed his belongings to return to Saginaw.

A protector was promptly dispatched: his brother-in-law, David Delacruz.

Three years older than Mr. Hendricks, Delacruz had a lot in common with the man he'd be accused of killing. He was the son of a Texas preacher. He lacked a high school diploma. He had a wild streak.

Records show that Delacruz had been arrested twice for burglary in Texas, serving two stints in prison there before briefly moving to Ohio.

At 28, he spent six months in the Williams County jail for having sex with a 14-year-old girl. He then moved to Michigan, married his second wife, and had a son in July, 1973.

Fifteen months later, the carpenter returned to Ohio to help his new brother-in-law and, witnesses said, he brought a 38-caliber handgun.

That fall day in 1974, the Watergate cover-up trial was under way in Washington.

The newly created Ohio Lottery held one of its first big-money drawings in a West Toledo parking lot.

And less than a block from then-Mercy Hospital, David Delacruz held vigil in a living- room chair, witnesses later told police. As Mr. Martinez's friends helped him pack, Delacruz calmly awaited the appearance of Mr. Hendricks.

About 3 p.m. that chilly afternoon, an angry Mr. Hendricks walked through the 22nd Street apartment's rear door toward the living room, witnesses said.

The 5-foot-10 Delacruz arose and told 6-foot-6 Mr. Hendricks that if he wanted to push someone around, "try me." The pair began a shoving match.

Delacruz then pulled out the gun, and Mr. Hendricks dared Delacruz to shoot him, one witness said. Delacruz fired once, hitting Mr. Hendricks in the abdomen, and the trucker fell to the dining room floor.

"It was like he floated down and hit the ground," another witness, Joe Bochen, told The Blade.

Delacruz ran out of the rear of the apartment - the last, witnesses claimed, they saw of him.

Within a half-hour, Mr. Hendricks died at Mercy Hospital.

It became one of 55 slayings that year in Toledo - one of the city's worst homicide tallies ever, nearly twice as many as common today and more than Toledo faced during heavy days of gang warfare and crack cocaine.

And the killing occurred during a tough recession and a 24 percent jump in crimes that had residents frightened, politicians demanding solutions, and a downsized detective bureau struggling to keep up.

Within days, Toledo detectives had coaxed reluctant witnesses to finger Delacruz as the killer, and the manhunt began.

Detectives contacted Saginaw police, who recovered the weapon used in the killing. And after learning Delacruz may have fled to Texas, Toledo police sent a message to the Houston police and Texas Highway Patrol asking for their help in finding him.

But it did no good.

In his three decades in Texas, Delacruz was stopped for traffic offenses at least six times in the 1980s and 1990s, in Houston, suburban Dallas, and the Seguin area.

Records show that, each time, he provided police his real name and birth date, which officers could cross-check with known fugitives in state and national databases.

Nothing came up, and he was always free to leave.

Delacruz underwent state and national background checks five times when he renewed his driver's license - a practice in Texas since 1985.

And one of those checks, in 1989, led a license clerk to phone a highway patrol officer, who arrived in minutes to take Delacruz to jail.

But that was for skipping traffic court and not paying a traffic fine. Delacruz spent one night in a small county jail, paid off the outstanding fine, and was released.

Texas law enforcement agents say they routinely check for warrants when they release an inmate, but in this case, it wouldn't have mattered.

By the time of the 1974 murder, the FBI's National Crime Information Center had been running for seven years, keeping separate databases on such things as stolen cars, stolen guns, criminal backgrounds, and fugitives.

Records show that Toledo detectives utilized the FBI databases three times in the early days of the murder case. They checked one database for background information on the victim and another to see if the recovered murder weapon had been stolen. And, into a third database, they entered information on the car they believed Delacruz was driving.

But they didn't enter information on Delacruz into the fugitive database.

Toledo police say they don't know why the department failed to enter the suspect's name in the system. Sgt. Steve Forrester, who wasn't on the force in 1974, speculated that police lacked a Social Security number and didn't want to enter what they may have viewed as an incomplete entry.

But the FBI database didn't require a Social Security number then - or even now, said Venetia King, who helps run the FBI database.

Additionally, most police departments - then and now - check the database for only a suspect's name and birth date, said retired Seattle-area Detective Robert Keppel, chief investigator for the Ted Bundy killings and now a criminal justice professor in Texas.

"It's hard to believe that somebody would use an excuse of not having a Social Security number [to not enter a warrant]."

Regardless, Delacruz would not question his luck. Instead, he would lead a life far different from the one he led before the killing.

For Delacruz, the son of a Church of God preacher, his new life in Texas was a "second chance," and he would not waste the opportunity.

Delacruz left his wife and young son in Michigan shortly after the killing, moving to Houston and immediately dating a single mother of six named Isavel Ledesma.

Recalling it as "love at first sight," Delacruz said he quickly moved in with her and reformed his lifestyle.

"I stopped drinking. I stopped smoking," he said in an interview from the Lucas County jail. "I didn't swear no more, because I had a family."

Delacruz held a steady job as a union carpenter, and he said he was soon dispatched to NASA's nearby Johnson Space Center.

He eventually set up his own construction businesses in Houston and, later, in Seguin, where he had moved with his stepson's family in 1990.

The extended family soon settled near Lake McQueeney, a popular spot with boaters and water skiers, lined by a mix of pricey homes and modest cottages. His stepson Ray bought a small ranch house on a short, unnamed street, and Delacruz and his wife moved into an old RV trailer in the backyard.

In a few years, the county insisted the short street be given a name. A neighbor suggested "Hideaway Lane."

No one objected.

And Delacruz went on with his own life, unaware that Toledo Detective Dennis Richardson had begun trying to track him down.

Formally assigned to the Northwest Ohio Violent Crimes Fugitive Task Force, Detective Richardson said he came across a list of old warrants, picked out the 1974 case, and worked it in his spare time between more current manhunts.

Using a new generation of technology, his efforts would - eventually - pay off.

Seguin Detective Juan San Miguel picked up his phone one Monday morning to hear a strange request.

A fugitive killer was living in his area, and Toledo police needed his help.

Mr. Richardson had tracked Delacruz through an Internet search of a private database of personal data, from phone records to land sales.

Detective San Miguel searched a similar, private database, which found a David Delacruz of the same age living on Hideaway Lane. Toledo detectives sent an old criminal card with a thumb print of the fugitive Delacruz to Texas, where it matched the thumb print Delacruz gave to get his Texas driver's license.

And on Oct. 4, 2004 - one day beyond the 30-year anniversary of the Hendricks slaying - Detective San Miguel and Texas Ranger Dewayne Goll staked out a corner near Delacruz's home. Within minutes - before even a sheriff's deputy could arrive to join the stakeout - the pair spotted Delacruz and his wife driving past. They followed his 1993 Chevy pickup onto Hideaway Lane, stopped behind it, and approached the couple.

Delacruz confirmed his identity, and Ranger Goll ordered him out of the truck. Delacruz didn't express anger or surprise. As the detectives drove Delacruz to jail last fall, the report noted that he told them: "I did not know the guy had died."

In January, Delacruz was shipped to the Lucas County jail to face a charge of first-degree murder.

A crinkled forehead anchoring a weathered face, Delacruz offered an easy smile when he talked to The Blade about the past three decades in Texas.

"I'm very grateful for this life, this second chance that I've had," he said in a thick Spanish accent.

But his attorney, David Klucas, wouldn't let him say what happened 30 years ago or talk about his emotions of being a fugitive.

All Delacruz would say was that he wasn't surprised to be arrested last fall: "No, no, no."

Shirley Ann Barr thumbed through a photo album recently, showing her grown daughter the pictures of her mother's youth.

And there, Ms. Barr came across the old black-and-white pictures of a brother who went by the nickname Ronnie. The memories returned of his short life. His violent death. And questions left unanswered for 30 years.

"There's not many weeks or months that go by that I don't think of him," said the grandmother from suburban Dallas.

For 30 years, the family said, they knew very little about what happened to Mr. Hendricks.

Mr. Hendricks' mother remembers living "in a fog" for months.

"For the longest time afterwards, every man that I'd see, the back of his head would look like him," Mrs. Harper said.

Still, the family wasn't told of the circumstances or that a suspect was being sought.

"We weren't told anything," said Mr. Hendricks' stepsister, Patti Rhoades.

Only in the past month did they find out a man had been arrested for the crime - news they said that finally brought some form of closure.

There is a different reaction on the front steps of a ranch house only an afternoon's drive away. There, Isavel Delacruz starts to talk about the case, only to cry.

She said she never knew about the killing. And unable to come up money to travel to Toledo, she hasn't seen her husband since he was sent to Ohio.

"I really miss him," she said, in broken English as she wiped away tears. "I don't know what I would do without him."

The scene of the crime has long been demolished, since replaced by the county's 911 dispatch center. But what happened in that old apartment is set to be replayed during a trial slated to begin on April 26. Delacruz has pleaded not guilty to a crime that could result in him spending the rest of his life in prison.

His family prays for his return - to fill the void in their lives.

"It's like someone has died in our family," said Irene Ledesma, Delacruz's daughter-in-law.

Another Texas family knows the feeling. Now they want justice - even if it's 30 years late.

"My fear is that they will find a way to get him off," Ms. Barr said. "My prayer is that he will have to serve the time that he should have to serve for a murder. That's all there is to it."

Contact Joe Mahr at: jmahr@theblade.com or 419-724-6180.



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