The Case of the Wily Coyote

Getting smuggled into the U.S. is a dangerous game, even when the smuggler's just like family

Someone wonders aloud how the woman's face will look, having been submerged in the water for hours.

The guys from the Medical Examiner's Office carefully lay the body onto the tarp, where her soaked black hair splays out on the white cloth.

Hauntingly, the dead girl's eyes are half-open, staring into the void. But her strikingly beautiful facial features are unmarred.

Luckily for the Phoenix detectives, this ID turned out to be legitimate.
Luckily for the Phoenix detectives, this ID turned out to be legitimate.
Margarita's daughter, Esmeralda, is now 4 years old.
Margarita's daughter, Esmeralda, is now 4 years old.

"What a sweet little face," Jason Schechterle says.

Everyone agrees that it seems to be Margarita, the girl depicted on the Mexican ID and photographs found in the backpack.

But police won't make that official until they compare the fingerprint on the Mexican ID with those of the deceased girl. That won't happen until after her autopsy, a few days from now.

"I don't see any obvious visible injuries," the medical investigator says, kneeling on the floor close to the body.

"What about that knife in her chest? That still there?" Jack Ballentine says, trying to lighten things for a moment.

The lack of apparent injuries to the young woman raises a question of whose blood is on the towels and linen.

By 9 p.m., the girl's body is on its way to the downtown Phoenix morgue. Her autopsy may answer important questions, including the big one: Is this a murder?

Detective Ballentine takes stock when he gets to work at the downtown Phoenix police station at 6 the next morning, April 21.

"Let's see," he says, wryly. "No for-sure identification yet, no cause or manner of death, no suspects, no nothing. Just a girl dead in a motel bathtub."

What Ballentine does have is a possible identification, a significant plus. He and his peers know of many cases involving murdered illegal aliens who never are identified, much less their killers brought to justice.

Many of these anonymous victims are buried in Maricopa County's potter's field, located at the White Tanks Cemetery in the far West Valley.

The new case takes an unexpected turn at 10 a.m.

A New Jersey man phones the Phoenix PD wanting to speak about a recent case involving illegal aliens in a motel off Interstate 17.

The call is routed to Jack Ballentine.

Jerry Embarger says he's speaking on behalf of an employee of his who speaks little English. That employee is Sal Jarquin-Lopez.

Through Embarger, Sal says he's been contacted by an unidentified man using a cell phone belonging to Abelardo Jarquin-Lopez, one of Sal's brothers.

Sal says Abelardo and another brother, Alfonso, recently sneaked into Arizona from the Oaxaca area with the help of coyotes. Also along on the trip was Abelardo's sister-in-law, whose name escapes him at the moment.

Sal claims the coyotes had "kidnapped" his brothers in Phoenix. He says Alfonso has been telling him they'd been held captive at a La Quinta motel at 2725 North Black Canyon Highway.

They've released Alfonso, Sal says, but are demanding $10,000 in exchange for Abelardo, who's being held somewhere in Phoenix.

Ballentine instructs Embarger to ask Sal not to transfer the $10,000 quite yet. He collects the Mexican phone number of Abelardo's common-law wife Eugenia Parada, and also says he needs to speak with Alfonso right away.

Minutes later, Alfonso Jarquin-Lopez calls the detective. One of Ballentine's Spanish-speaking squad mates, Steve Orona, takes the call.

Alfonso tells him he'd recently arrived in Arizona with Abelardo and Abelardo's sister-in-law, whose name he also can't recall. They each had paid $600 to coyotes who took them to the La Quinta.

Abelardo and the girl had been held captive in one room, and Alfonso had been kept in Room 203. Alfonso says he hadn't seen or spoken to Abelardo or the girl since then, two or three days ago.

Alfonso has provided promising leads, including the first mention of Room 203 (not 149 or 304).

After hanging up, Ballentine soon learns that a woman named Vilma had rented Room 203 at the La Quinta for one day, April 19. The detective wonders aloud if Vilma, who listed a Phoenix address when paying for her room, may be a conduit for incoming coyotes.

Surveillance tapes from the motel lobby show Vilma kissing an unidentified Hispanic man when they'd checked in on the morning of the 19th.

Ballentine also asks fellow detective John Shallue to assist him as his investigation proceeds. Shallue is a Spanish-speaking member of the department's Foreign Prosecution team.

Shallue soon finds out that, contrary to Alfonso's portrayal of himself as a victim of coyotes, both he and his brother Abelardo are well-known to border authorities as coyotes.

The next morning, April 22, the detectives attend the autopsy of the girl in the bathtub, as she's come to be known.

Dr. Robert Lyon works briskly under the bright lights at the county's Forensic Science Center.

Lyon discovers fingernail etchings on the young woman's face, and pronounced marks on her neck, around the outside of her mouth, and on her upper arms. He notes the bruising and abrasions inside her mouth.

As Dr. Lyon continues his grisly work, Jack Ballentine reveals that he used to enjoy autopsies, both as a learning experience and as an investigative tool.

No more.

"There's nothing enjoyable about this, nothing at all," he says. "This is going to turn out to be a homicide, I can feel it. Now all we can do is see if we can get enough evidence so a prosecutor can convict someone of something someday."

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