CHERCHEZ LA FEMME

Time is running out. Unless attorney Steve Mitchell finds the woman, the murder charge against Dan Willoughby must be dropped.

Without her testimony, there is no case.
Yesenia Patino is her name. For months she has been on the run in Mexico since allegedly collaborating with Willoughby in the brutal killing of his wife, Trish, on February 23, 1991, in a Rocky Point beach house.

Yesenia is a happy-go-lucky transsexual who works the men and the bars from town to town. It's impossible for men to tell she has had a sex-change operation. They are attracted to her because she knows how to work a barroom. She laughs at jokes. She is friendly. And she is obviously easy.

But she is also a sociopath. There is no spark of conscience that will cry out from within her and force her to turn herself in to the Mexican police.

All night long, Mitchell has been hunting for Yesenia in the bars along the beach at Mazatlan.

Only a prosecuting attorney with Mitchell's background can solve a case like this. Before going to law school, he was a Chicago cop. He knows how to hunt down suspects in seedy places.

But even Mitchell has put himself way out on the edge. Only so many trips to Mexico can be approved.

And Mitchell has been following up tips on Yesenia for months. But she keeps eluding him. She is always just one Mexican town ahead of him.

I know the woman of whom you speak," the bartenders always say. For a while, she was in here every night. The men like her very much. But now I have not seen her since last week." But the calls keep coming to the Arizona Attorney General's Office because the Willoughby murder case has been shown on a segment of the national television show Hard Copy. There is a sinister and malevolent fascination about a case like this. No one can learn enough details about deviant sex combined with murder. It is so sick, it cannot be resisted.

Yesenia had lived as a man until age 25. Since then she has been married twice and boasts of having slept with 1,000 men.

But she does not boast of the part she played on the day that Willoughby is suspected of bludgeoning his wife to death. She does not tell prospective lovers that after Willoughby crushed in his wife's head with a 12-pound weight she took a kitchen knife and jammed it into the cavity in Trish Willoughby's head.

And she does not glance down at her own fingers and say that the diamond and pearl rings she now has on were torn from the dead woman's fingers.

Mitchell walks up to the crowded bar and orders one last round of beers for the police officers who are with him. He feels depressed.

I have never seen her," he says to himself. All I have is a picture of her. Suppose I see her someplace. How will I know it's actually her?" Just then, off to his right, Mitchell spots a vivacious woman with orange hair and a deeply tanned face. She is laughing. Her hand is placed affectionately on a man's shoulder.

That's her," Mitchell says to himself. He rushes back to the table where Kay Lines, his investigator, and the others are waiting.

They are gone.
What will I do?" Mitchell wonders. Suppose I make a move on her and she breaks away. She can make it to the beach out the back door of this place. Can I catch her then?" He moves toward the bar. But then he sees that the police officers with him have spotted Yesenia, too.

Without hesitation, they rush her out of the bar and into a van.
Tell me your name," one of the officers asks the woman. She looks strangely relieved.

I am Yesenia," she says.

Minutes before she appears in court to testify, Attorney General Grant Woods walks over to press row.

If he weren't in politics, Woods would be an outstanding actor. Dressed in a pink shirt and light-colored slacks, he looks now like a character in an Orson Welles drama. Before going into politics, Woods was an outstanding trial lawyer. He knows the tension that builds at these moments.

I don't envy Steve," Woods says, referring to the prosecutor who had found Yesenia. For days now he has had to keep reassuring this transsexual how good she looks in a short skirt."

He laughs.
But it's what you have to do when you're a trial lawyer. This makes me remember all those jurors I had to make goo-goo eyes at to win cases." Woods walks over to Steve Mitchell and talks to him briefly. Then he takes a seat far off to the side, out of the spotlight.

Judge Joe Howe takes the bench. Surprisingly, he thinks it necessary to tell the jurors that the riots taking place in Los Angeles should have nothing to do with their verdict.

Decide on what evidence is presented in this court," Howe says, not on the outrage over there. Don't think you have to convict Dan Willoughby to make up for what that jury did." As Howe talks, I remember what he was like as a defense attorney. Years ago he defended a seemingly exemplary high school coach named Alan Just, who stabbed his wife to death with a butcher knife.

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