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.

Howe offered the incredible defense that the woman had fallen out of bed while sleeping and impaled herself in the chest with the ten-inch blade.

The trial lasted for weeks. When Just testified, the courtroom was so packed that the center aisles were filled and the rear doors were left open.

In that case, the prosecution wanted the extra spectators removed, saying the added spectators created extra pressure on the jurors.

Howe reportedly argued against their removal, saying it was an open court and that the spectators had a right to remain. He won. They remained.

But in this case, Judge Howe makes no complaint when all spectators without seats are ordered to leave.

The only spectators he makes special provision for are the crew manning the pool television cameras.

Does the fact that their presence will assure that the judge's picture appears on the nightly news have anything to do with the decision?

All eyes turn toward the door at the rear. Yesenia Patino, tiny in a short, flowing skirt, walks slowly down the aisle toward the witness stand.

Yesenia wears a geometrically patterned blouse. Her hair is orange. Her dark skin is covered with a thick layer of pancake makeup.

As she passes by Dan Willoughby, her former lover, Yesenia flinches involuntarily. Willoughby, pale from all the time he has spent in jail, wears a blue business suit. He has lost a lot of weight, and his suit hangs on him.

Willoughby does not betray any emotion. He stares blankly at the woman he sent flowers to every week for a year and whom he once promised to marry.

And you wonder. Is he asking himself why he never realized all that time that she was a transsexual?

Yesenia takes her seat in the witness box. She stares wide-eyed toward Mitchell. It is as though she is holding on to him for support in this room packed with strange faces.

The family of the woman Yesenia helped murder is sitting in the front row, right behind where Mitchell stands.

Are you okay?" Mitchell asks.
Yesenia shakes her head.
Are you a little afraid?" Yes," she says.

How old are you?" Thirty-five." Where were you born?" Sonora, Mexico." Mitchell nods his head. He now must get to all the embarrassing things about Yesenia's life. The things she has been afraid to talk about before others.

Were you once known as Victoria Milke? ...as Victoria Guzman? ...as Victoria Rascon? ...as Victoria McDonald?" ²The answer is yes to all of the above.

Were you called Alfredo before your operation?" Yes." Why did you have the operation?" I needed to have surgery so I could lead a normal life," she says.

Yesenia explains that she met a man named Jack Milke who paid for the operation and then became her husband when it was over.

Later, she married another man named Abel Rascon, and he is now serving time in prison on drug charges.

She tells how she met Dan Willoughby.
Yesenia and a friend were taking the bus on a shopping trip to Fiesta Mall. While they were waiting to make a transfer, Willoughby drove by in his Jaguar. He stopped to give them a ride.

Willoughby handed Yesenia his business card and asked her to call so they could go out to lunch. Before long they were involved in what Willoughby believed was a torrid love affair.

Did you love him?" Mitchell asks.
No, I didn't love him. But he was doing a lot for me. He was paying my rent and my food. If I would have married him, I would have left him and gone back with my husband, Abel, when he got out of jail." As Yesenia speaks these words, she looks at Willoughby for the only time during her testimony. Willoughby does not look back.

She tells how Willoughby brought up the idea of killing his wife, Trish. He boasted to Yesenia that there were millions of dollars in insurance to be had.

They began making trips to Rocky Point to plan the murder. Willoughby showed Yesenia the cottage in which he planned to do the deed.

He had constructed a medieval macelike weapon for the task. It was a heavy metal ball attached to a rope about 18 inches long. Willoughby would swing it at his wife's head from behind and crush her skull. It would be a quick death.

Yesenia speaks of it now.
He said he was going to do the killing.
`Let me take the satisfaction,' he said. But he needed me.

He would kill her and leave the house unlocked and then I would come in and steal her rings and mess up the place so police would think it was a robbery." ²The tricky part of the prosecution's case for Mitchell is that there are no witnesses to the crime.

Willoughby arranged to bring his three children along with his wife to spend a vacation in the Rocky Point cottage.

On the day of the crime, he took the three children out for an afternoon of sightseeing. Just as he was about to drive the kids away, he excused himself to go back in the cottage.

The theory of the case is that he bludgeoned his wife at this point and left her body on the bed. Yesenia was parked a block away, waiting for Willoughby to leave with the kids.

She saw him go back into the house to commit the murder while leaving his unsuspecting kids waiting outside in the van.

It didn't take long," Yesenia says. I would say three to five minutes and he comes out and they all drive off." Yesenia went up to the place and entered through the rear door, which he had left opened.

She was lying on the bed covered with towels and napkins...not breathing...she kind of sounded like a chicken with its neck cut off." Yesenia admits she began stabbing Trish Willoughby but didn't want to break her skin. She tried to strangle her, too, but couldn't do it because the bed was too soft.

I take off the rings and I take about $13 from her purse. I take papers and scatter them around the house." She shrugs.

Dan told me to make it look like a robbery." When this was done, Yesenia got back in a pickup truck with her brother and drove back to Mesa.

A couple of hours later, Willoughby returned with his children.
To make it look better, Willoughby allowed his children to enter the house first. They burst into her room, eager to tell about their trip.

They found the mutilated body of their mother on the bed. She was covered in blood. There was a knife sticking out of her head.

Yesenia had actually met Trish once before the killing. She talked of it on the witness stand.

She came to my place in the Windemere apartments," Yesenia tells Mitchell.
Dan called me to warn that she was coming. He told me to tell her that I am his Spanish teacher.

When she came, she accused me of sleeping with her husband. She was a tall, conservative woman. I invited her into my apartment because I didn't like her screaming at me at the pool where everyone could hear.

`All I am is his Spanish teacher,' I told her. `I'm not interested in him.'
²ÔShe told me she had all kinds of problems and warned me against getting involved. After a while, I asked her to give me a ride to Fiesta Mall so I could go shopping." Was she a nice lady?" Mitchell asks.

Yesenia shrugs.
At first when she came on to me shouting like that, I didn't like her. But once she stopped screaming, she seemed pleasant enough." ²When Yesenia was finished testifying, a police officer led her out of court through the back door. She was headed back to the Mexican jail where she faces a 40-year sentence.

Willoughby stared at her as she left. It was probably the last time he would ever see Yesenia Patino.

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