The Case of the Fatal Femme

Gabe Cruz was pumped as he left work at 3 a.m. on the morning of March 3, 2005, a Thursday.

Gabe had put in a long shift as a "bar back" at Graham Central Station, a popular Tempe establishment. He'd hustled all night, cleaning tables and stocking the bar at the sprawling joint.

The 24-year-old had been working there for four years, a few years after he sneaked across the border into the States from his native Oaxaca, Mexico.

Though Gabe's English was imperfect, his outgoing nature and attentive service consistently won him generous tips. His fellow employees also enjoyed his company, and he'd made dear friends there.

Gabe left the bar with a roll of about 140 $1 bills (tip money), but that's not why he was so stoked.

His girlfriend, 22-year-old Araceli Brigado, still lived with her parents in west Phoenix. Gabe lived with two of his cousins in a Mesa apartment. But Araceli's folks had left town for a long weekend. Gabe didn't have to work again until Friday night, and the couple really were looking forward to their time together.

First, though, Gabe had to make a few stops in the white 1999 Chevy Cavalier convertible he was driving (the car was owned by his cousin Omar).

He dropped off a co-worker in Mesa and then took another cousin to the apartment they shared. Still in his work outfit of red shirt, black pants and black shoes, Gabe finally headed to Phoenix sometime after 4 a.m.

Famously dependable, he called Araceli on his cell phone, and told her he'd be there soon. An hour later, Gabe hadn't arrived.

Worried, Araceli phoned him at 5:12 a.m. Gabe said his cell phone battery was low, so he couldn't stay on long. He then hung up without saying exactly where he was.

It was the last time Araceli ever spoke to her novio.

At 6:40 that chilly morning, a farmworker was driving down a dirt road that runs parallel to Lower Buckeye Road in far southwest Phoenix.

The once-rural area is being developed by the minute, but tracts of arable land still remain, and the narrow road cuts through cornfields around 100th Avenue.

The sun was about to rise, and it already was light enough for the farmworker to see a man on the ground just below the south side of the road.

He stopped and took a hard look out of his window. The man was lying on his right side with one arm curled under him, as if he were sleeping.

But the large amount of blood visible around the man and up on the road strongly suggested he'd met a violent end. So did three expended 12-gauge shotgun casings and one unused shell on the road.

The worker raced down the road to the offices of Rosseau Farms, his employer. He ran in and told his boss, who called 911.

Phoenix police and the Avondale Fire Department responded just before 7 a.m. A paramedic pronounced the man dead, and covered his body with a blanket as a news helicopter flew overhead.

Besides the shotgun casings and the shell, the first cops at the scene saw what looked like a cover to an automobile fuse box on the road, and nine $1 bills.

They secured the area and awaited the arrival of Phoenix homicide detectives.

Detective Jack Ballentine has caught an unusual case for a big-city cop.

He and his colleagues usually investigate killings on busy city streets and in drug-ravaged neighborhoods, not out on lonely dirt roads amid cornfields.

But this cornfield happens to fall within Phoenix's city limits, so the investigation of the apparent shotgun slaying falls to the C-32 homicide squad, one of four such units that work new murder cases.

Ballentine gets word of the homicide about 7:45 a.m., and prepares for the drive out west. He's wearing a white dress shirt, dark slacks and a full-length gray wool overcoat.

"I like to dress up when I'm on call," the detective says. "It's like a death watch, and you want to be respectful."

At the scene, Ballentine meets his supervisor, Sergeant Patrick Kotecki, fellow homicide Detective Alex Femenia and his co-case agent Jason Schechterle.

"This is definitely a whodunit," Femenia says, surveying the stark scene. "But with Jack's luck, the guy will have a note stuck on him saying who killed him."

Unfortunately, this victim's corpse possesses nothing of the sort. Ballentine obviously doesn't know it now, but he is in for 19 days of memorable twists and turns.

"This is where it all starts," Ballentine tells Detective Schechterle, after briefly perusing the crime scene.

Schechterle manages a smile for his mentor. Getting assigned to work with Ballentine is a thrill for the 32-year-old, and it's his first as a co-case agent.

Not so long ago, even the thought of Schechterle in this position seemed implausible.

In March 2001, his police cruiser had burst into flames after a speeding taxi rear-ended it. The officer suffered near-fatal burns over 40 percent of his body, especially to his face and torso. Schechterle survived, but only after undergoing dozens of surgeries. Through it all, he remained unwavering in his desire to return to police work.

But the father of three knew he never could be a street cop again, in part because he'd lost several fingers in the fire and couldn't grip a gun correctly. A job in community relations seemed the best that the department could do for him.

Jack Ballentine had another idea.

Before the accident, Schechterle had aced a class for aspiring detectives that Ballentine teaches. Ballentine had always liked the younger cop, and the two became close after the terrible accident.

In early 2004, Ballentine persuaded the department to give Schechterle a chance with the homicide unit. His first assignment was to shadow the detectives of C-32, and do whatever they asked him to do. In early March 2005, with Ballentine extolling his virtues, homicide Lieutenant Benny Pina increased the greenhorn detective's responsibilities.

The large amount of blood inside the murder scene leads Ballentine to suspect that someone gunned down the victim on the road and then pushed him down the small embankment.

But the man probably hadn't died immediately, as finger marks on the small slope suggest he tried to claw his way back up to the road before slipping back.

The gray fuse-box cover is spattered with blood, presumably the victim's, and Ballentine knows its identification number will probably reveal the kind of car the victim had driven to the scene.

The detectives note that the dead man was wearing a red shirt and black pants, and a belt buckle engraved with the letter K.

A quick examination of the body reveals he had been shot in the torso, more than once. But the victim lacks identification, which means police will have to see if his fingerprints provide them with a name.

As Jack Ballentine is checking out the grisly crime scene, a white Chevy Cavalier pulls into a driveway on the Gila River Indian Reservation, about seven miles away.

Sixty-year-old Mildred Davis lives in a home on Sundust Circle there, just north of Pecos Road. She shares the residence with her daughter, Lolita Carlisle.

Though the house sits in the town of Laveen, its location on the reservation means it falls under tribal jurisdiction, inside what amounts to a foreign nation.

It's 9 in the morning, and Carlisle's daughter, 21-year-old Samantha Somegustava, walks into the house with a guy a few years younger than she.

Samantha tells her mother and grandmother that she's been given the Cavalier in their driveway by a friend.

But Mildred Davis is suspicious. Her granddaughter has brought stolen cars to the residence in the past. The previous November, Samantha had been convicted in Maricopa County Superior Court of felony car theft, and served a short jail term.

Her pre-sentence report lists Samantha as a ninth-grade dropout last employed in 2002 at a casino. A single mother of a young son, she then was collecting $1,000 a month in welfare from her tribe.

Lolita Carlisle later says Samantha and her younger male friend had taken her in the Cavalier that morning to the nearby Vee Quiva casino, where she'd gambled for an hour or two.

When Carlisle is done gambling, Samantha -- who is alone by then -- picks her up and drives her back home. Mother and daughter soon leave again, this time in Mildred Davis' van, ostensibly to put gas in the vehicle at a nearby Shell station on the reservation.

But Davis gets irate when the pair doesn't return immediately, as promised. About 1 p.m., she calls the Gila River tribal police to report that the Cavalier -- still in the driveway -- is possibly stolen.

Shortly after Davis phones the police, Samantha and her mother return in the van. Samantha is rummaging around in the back seat of the Cavalier when an officer from the Gila River department shows up.

She flees on foot, tossing the car keys into a field behind a neighbor's home as she runs away.

The cop soon corrals Samantha, and arrests her for interfering with a police investigation. She remains in jail for one night before the Gila River police release her.

The Gila River officer notes that the Cavalier had women's clothing in the back seat and trunk. But he apparently doesn't notice the blood spatter on the interior panel of the driver's door and on the dashboard panel.

He also doesn't see the dark-red stains on the front seats.

Tribal authorities learn that the car is registered to an Omar Cruz of Mesa. Someone contacts Cruz later that day to tell him that his Cavalier has been found on the reservation, and that a tow truck already has moved it to a storage lot.

Lolita Carlisle goes through her daughter's purse after the arrest and finds what she was looking for -- a Visa credit card.

Earlier that day, she and Samantha had bought gas with the card at the Shell station -- a $24 purchase at 11:53 a.m. and a $26 purchase at 12:36 p.m.

The name on the card was Araceli Brigado, Gabe Cruz's girlfriend.

At 6:30 that night, Carlisle again uses Araceli's credit card three times in succession at an ATM machine inside the Vee Quiva casino. The total charges amount to $181, and the transactions are videotaped.

Gabe Cruz's cousins and his girlfriend aren't sure how to proceed after learning about the Cavalier's being found on the reservation. None of them sees local media reports on the evening of March 3 about an unidentified murder victim in the cornfield, described as a Latino male in his early 20s.

Back at Phoenix Police Department headquarters, about all Detective Ballentine knows after his first day of investigation is that the victim's fingerprints haven't shown up in law enforcement computer files. This means he was never arrested in the United States.

Detective Schechterle, meanwhile, has learned that the fuse box on the road is from a 1999 Chevy Cavalier.

An autopsy the following morning reveals that the murder victim died of three shotgun wounds to his neck and torso from close range. He also suffered numerous bruises and cuts.

"They shot the piss out of him," Jack Ballentine says. "This guy's a real victim."

Assistant medical examiner Kevin Horn notes in his postmortem report that testing of the victim's blood "did not reveal the presence of alcohol, other drugs of abuse, or significant medications."

Chris Ferschke considered Gabe Cruz one of his very best friends.

Ferschke had known Gabe for about four years, having met him while dating a waitress at a Denny's in Tempe. Gabe then was a cook at the restaurant, and Ferschke says he marveled at the Mexican immigrant's work ethic and upbeat attitude.

Ferschke, 32, a native of a Boston suburb, knew little Spanish. And Gabe knew just enough English to get by.

Yet the two men bonded.

"Gabe started inviting me over to his place after work, and we really got to know each other," Ferschke says. "He'd pull out a chess board, and we'd play for hours. He'd gone through a lot, and was really wise for his age. He was cultured and charismatic. Very old-school. We all loved him."

By "we," Ferschke is referring to the 100-person staff at Graham Central Station, where he's a bartender. In 2001, Ferschke persuaded his employers to hire Gabe Cruz as a bar back.

On Friday, March 4, Ferschke gets to work about 5 p.m., not knowing anything about his friend's disappearance until Gabe's panic-stricken cousin Rene starts calling the bar.

"Rene asked me if I'd spoken to Gabe," Ferschke recalls. "I said no. The minute I heard he was gone, I knew something was wrong. Rene said they'd found the car on the Gila River. At first I thought he meant they'd found it in the river."

Panic-stricken, Rene Cruz and Araceli Brigado show up at Graham Central during Ferschke's shift. Ferschke urges them to file a missing-persons report with the Mesa Police Department, since Gabe resides in that city.

Rene calls Mesa police at 11 p.m., and is told that his cousin's disappearance would be checked out.

From Rene, Ferschke gets the phone number of the company that had towed Gabe's car hours earlier and calls it after Graham Central closes at 2 a.m. But an employee won't tell him exactly where on the reservation the car had been picked up.

Next, Ferschke phones the Gila River police and informs an officer that he and his co-workers are strongly considering coming out to the reservation at that moment -- about 2:30 a.m. -- to search for their missing friend.

"I get told how dangerous it is for us to come out on the reservation," Ferschke says now. "Then [the reservation cop] says it doesn't look good for my friend, which really hits me hard. He asks us to give them time to do their job before we go out there. So we disband for the night."

Araceli Brigado calls Ferschke the next morning and says she'd just checked on a Wells Fargo Visa credit card of hers that Gabe had with him when he vanished.

Bank authorities tell her that someone already had used the card several times since Gabe's disappearance. Because her English is shaky, Araceli authorizes Ferschke to call the bank back to cancel the card, which he does.

During that call, Ferschke learns specifically that someone had used the card on March 3 at a Shell gas station on West Pecos Road, and at an ATM somewhere in Laveen.

He suspects the station might be on the reservation, and calls the Gila River police with the new information. A dispatcher reveals to him that tribal police had located Gabe's Cavalier at a residence in a nearby housing project.

Early that Saturday afternoon, March 5, Ferschke drives out to the Shell station with three other people to post missing-person fliers and to start poking around.

At the same time, Jack Ballentine is meeting with a distraught Latino man at the Phoenix police station. The man has heard media reports about the unidentified murder victim, and fears it might be his son.

He says his boy has been missing since March 3, when Gabe Cruz disappeared. He shows the detective a snapshot of his son, and the resemblance to the victim is obvious.

In turn, Ballentine shows the man a photo taken of the victim's face during the autopsy conducted the previous day. The father almost falls out of his chair in anguish. It's him, he says, pointing to the dead man's chipped front tooth and slightly droopy eye.

Ballentine asks him if his son has ever been in trouble with the law. Yes, the man replies, he served time in county jail.

Ballentine pauses. His search for fingerprint identification of the murder victim had come up dry. He tells the father that he wants to run a print comparison before he goes any further.

"Can I stay here and pray?" the father asks.

"Sure," Ballentine says.

The detective returns about 20 minutes later.

"Your prayers have been answered," he says, touching the father's arm gently. "It's not him."

Another night passes.

On the morning of Sunday, March 6, Chris Ferschke decides to take action.

He and about 40 other employees of Graham Central Station meet at the bar, and drive en masse to the Gila River Reservation.

They gather at the Shell station on Pecos Road, and then start going door-to-door in the oddly named Squawberry Subdivision.

Ferschke walks over to a basketball court on Sundust Circle, where some kids are playing with an older gentleman.

He asks them if they know where the cops had found the white Cavalier. To his surprise, they point to a home right next to the court.

Ferschke knocks on the door of 101 Sundust Circle. A woman answers, and says testily she knows nothing about a stolen car. Though Ferschke doesn't know it yet, the woman is Samantha Somegustava's mother, Lolita Carlisle.

But a neighbor soon comes out of her house and tells Ferschke that the police arrested a girl when they recovered the white car, and that a young man's body recently was recovered on the reservation.

The next morning, March 7, Ferschke asks the media and other law enforcement agencies for help in finding Gabe.

A few TV stations ask Ferschke and his makeshift posse to meet them at the reservation for a live broadcast during the 5 p.m. news.

The group meets again at the Shell station, does the news shows, and then returns to the neighborhood with more fliers.

As they walk the streets, the volunteers learn that the arrested girl's name is Samantha, and that she has a long history of gang-related violence and illegal drug use.

That evening, they also hear that a murder victim's body has been found near 91st Avenue and Baseline Road.

One of the sources of the information hands Ferschke a set of car keys, claiming that Samantha tossed them near her residence on Sundust Circle as Gila River police chased her.

By now, the simmering animosity between Gabe's co-workers and the Gila River police has become overt.

"I tell them that two people have info about where Gabe's body was," Chris Ferschke says. "They try to make it like I'm retarded, that I'm over the top. One officer tells me that if something like that happened, they'd know all about it. I'm not happy."

Though it is dark and getting late, several of the Graham Central employees drive out to 91st Avenue and Baseline Road to search for their friend. When they realize they are in Phoenix, Ferschke calls the Phoenix PD.

An officer responds promptly, takes down their information, and asks them to return during daylight hours.

The next morning, Tuesday, March 8, Chris Ferschke speaks with an investigator with the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office.

He asks her if any "John Does" have come into the morgue since the previous Thursday. The investigator tells him that two young Latino men do fit Gabe Cruz's description.

She asks him to e-mail photos of Gabe.

The investigator calls Jack Ballentine, who in turn contacts Ferschke.

"I know I'm a nothing," Ferschke says, "but Detective Ballentine immediately commands my respect and makes me feel like I have something to contribute. I feel that we finally are on the right track."

Ferschke provides Ballentine with a potentially crucial new lead: Gabe Cruz had been in a traffic accident in April 2004, and his fingerprint might be on file at a Mesa courthouse.

The Phoenix detectives contact members of the other agencies already involved with the case and schedule a 1 p.m. briefing in downtown Phoenix.

By now, they're very confident that, finally, they have a name for their homicide victim.

Just before that meeting, the detectives run over to the police impound lot, where the Cavalier already has been towed.

The detectives can't search the car until they get a search warrant from a judge. But Schechterle peers through the driver's window to see if the bloody fuse cover is missing.

It is.

At the 1 p.m. briefing, Ballentine asks to assume all aspects of the investigation, with the necessary assistance of the Gila River police.

The tribal police warn the Phoenix detectives about Gabe's pal Chris Ferschke, whom they depict as a potentially dangerous vigilante who's caused them nothing but grief. Ballentine has no such worries about Ferschke, with whom he's already communicated.

Gila River police Detective Mike Lancaster says he'd spoken just that morning with a tribal member who suspects her daughter's involvement in the murder.

The woman said her daughter, Melissa Milda, had been dating a guy named "Gabe," an employee at the Wild Horse Pass casino, which is one of three owned by the Gila River tribe.

She'd also told Lancaster that tribal member Ed Pasquali may have killed "Gabe" out of jealousy over Melissa's relationship. The detective says Melissa Milda currently is living on the reservation with her father, Joe Milda, and that Samantha Somegustava often stays at their residence.

The most pressing order of business for Phoenix detectives is to formally confirm Gabe Cruz as their murder victim. Late that afternoon, a Mesa cop locates Gabe's file at the Mesa courthouse. As Chris Ferschke had suspected, it does have a print from one of Gabe's index fingers.

Ballentine makes arrangements to pick up the print from the officer the next morning, which he does. He immediately takes the print to the police department's crime lab for comparison with their unidentified murder victim's.

On the morning of Wednesday, March 9, Jack Ballentine meets at the Phoenix police station with Chris Ferschke. He asks the bartender to write down everything he's experienced since Gabe Cruz's March 3 disappearance.

The detective promises to keep Ferschke in close touch with his investigation, and he keeps that promise.

"It often causes us problems when citizens turn into amateur detectives," Ballentine explains later. "But Chris really advanced the investigation with what he'd done."

Just after noon on March 9, Phoenix police analysts positively match Gabe Cruz's fingerprints.

Detectives Ballentine and Schechterle drive to Mesa to inform Gabe's cousin, Rene. Though the news has been expected, Rene Cruz takes it hard.

Later that afternoon, for the first time in their investigation, the detectives enter foreign soil -- the sovereign nation of the Gila River Indian Reservation.

They go directly to the Vee Quiva casino to study videotape of the three ATM transactions on the evening of March 3 when someone used Araceli Brigado's credit card.

One of the casino's security people recognizes the woman on the tape as the daughter of Mildred Davis, Lolita Carlisle. Davis owns the home where the cops confiscated the Cavalier.

Turns out Davis works security at the casino, and happens to be on duty. She's asked to come into the gaming inspector's office, which includes a few small rooms usually used to question wayward patrons. It's 7 p.m.

Davis identifies her daughter Lolita from still photos made from the videotape at the ATM machine. She then tells Jack Ballentine about the events of March 3 -- the suspicious white convertible in her driveway, calling Gila River police, the chase scene involving her granddaughter, Samantha Somegustava.

As Ballentine is interviewing Davis, helpful casino security official Darren Rhodes tells Jason Schechterle, "You're not going to believe this. Lolita is playing the slots on the floor right now."

The tribal police soon detain Lolita Carlisle in the casino parking lot.

"I didn't do anything," Lolita says, as she's led into the interview room. "I just took the [credit] card."

She admits to Ballentine that she and Samantha had used a stolen credit card to buy gas, and that she'd used or tried to use the card after Samantha's arrest.

She says she tossed the card into a storage room at her house after it stopped working (investigators never found it).

Ballentine wants to know much more about the Mildas and about Ed Pasquali, names that keep popping up.

Lolita describes Joe Milda as her ex-best friend, but says little more about him. But she has much to say about Ed Pasquali -- and about her own daughter, Samantha.

Lolita says she was smoking meth with Pasquali a few days after the murder when a certain subject came up. Pasquali told her that Samantha recently had revealed to him and others "that the dude was no longer breathing."

After the interview, Ballentine asks the Gila River police to find Joe and Melissa Milda for him, and see if they'll come over to the casino for a chat. He wants to hold off on interviewing Ed Pasquali for the time being. Within the hour, the Mildas are waiting their turn inside the casino's interview rooms.

Seventeen-year-old Melissa Milda tells Ballentine that she knows nothing about any murder. She concedes that she once dated a man named Gabe who works at the Wild Horse Pass casino, but says that the relationship long has been over. (The detectives later confirm Melissa's account with that Gabe.)

Melissa says Ed Pasquali is a friend of her father's whom she'd never date.

Ballentine's subsequent interview of Melissa's father, Joe Milda, proves fruitful.

Joe says he, too, had spoken with Samantha Somegustava shortly before tribal police arrested her March 3. She told him that she and another person had "jacked" the owner of a white convertible, as in robbed him:

"[She said] they were cruising together and they jacked that fool and jacked his ride," Joe tells investigators. "They just left that fool in Tolleson."

Joe says he's also certain that Ed Pasquali had nothing to do with the murder.

Afterward, Jack Ballentine says he's pretty comfortable that Joe Milda has been straight with him.

He and Schechterle leave the casino that night thinking that Samantha Somegustava and a still-unidentified man robbed and murdered Gabe Cruz.

The Phoenix detectives arrive at work at 6 a.m. Thursday, March 10, and take stock. One week has passed since Gabe's body was discovered, and so much has happened.

They authorize the release of a photograph of Samantha to the media, dubbing her a "very important investigative lead" in the murder.

The media release notes that Samantha has a tattoo on her neck that says "R.I.P.," as well as something illegible on her upper chest.

Later that day, the detectives collect their warrant to search the Cavalier. The following morning, crime-scene tech Jerry Yarbrough starts to scour the car, inch by inch, item by item.

Among other things, he sees blood spatterings and stains on the front seat and interior driver's side door panel. He also recovers receipts from the Shell station for the gas purchased with the stolen credit card after Gabe's murder.

Yarbrough finds a tee shirt silk-screened with the words, "In Memory of Macido Davis -- Uncle Joe. 1977-2003."

The presence of two pairs of rubber vampire teeth in the back seat will remain a mystery.

Jason Schechterle is delighted with how this topsy-turvy murder investigation is moving. On March 13, he holds court with some young patrol officers, loudly regaling them with tales of the ongoing case.

In the next-door office he shares with Jack Ballentine, Detective Alex Femenia has heard enough. With Ballentine looking on, he shuts their door and telephones Schechterle.

Femenia mumbles into the receiver that his name is Johnny Running Bear and that he actually witnessed the Cruz murder. He says he needs to meet Detective Schechterle at a Circle K in downtown Phoenix.

Hanging up his cell phone, Schechterle bites hard for the practical joke.

He rushes to tell Jack Ballentine that something has come up that needs their immediate attention. Feigning disinterest, the senior detective turns back to his computer.

Exasperated, Schechterle decides to go by himself to the convenience store. He grabs a notebook and is about to leave the office when Femenia hollers after him.

"Hey, Jason," the detective says. "When you're at the Circle K, say hi to Johnny Running Bear for me, okay?"

The Phoenix detectives return to the reservation late on the afternoon of March 14 to tie up some loose ends.

Samantha Somegustava is still at large, but Jack Ballentine remains confident that her time is running short.

At 5:30 p.m., Gila River police officers Mike Lancaster and Hilario Tanakeyoma pull into the ubiquitous Shell station where Somegustava and her mother had bought gas, to meet the Phoenix detectives. They ask what they can do to help.

Ballentine asks if they'll accompany him and Schechterle into the housing project where the convertible had been found. They want to interview one of Mildred Davis' neighbors.

Once inside the project, the detectives interview a boy who seems to know nothing, and start driving out of the reservation about 6:30 p.m.

But they take a wrong turn, and Schechterle has to turn around to return to where they started.

As he and Ballentine reach the original intersection, they see two tribal police cars rush up and surround a red Jeep Cherokee.

Their guns drawn, the cops rush up to the Cherokee.

"Go!" Ballentine tells Schechterle. "That's our gal right there."

"Shit, it's Samantha!" Schechterle replies.

Other Gila River squad cars race into the suddenly chaotic scene. People are pouring out of their homes to see what's going on.

An officer yanks a young woman wearing a pink shirt and blue jeans from the passenger side and handcuffs her. Another cop pulls out the driver, a young Latino man whose eyes are bulging in disbelief and fear.

"What did I do, what did I do?" he keeps asking.

The woman says loudly to no one in particular, "I already called last night to say I was going to turn myself in."

Then she yells over to her friend, "I'm sorry I didn't tell you nothing. I'm sorry."

"I love you, baby," he responds as tribal officers place the suspects in separate patrol cars.

Ballentine walks over to the car holding the woman and opens the back door. He recognizes her from photographs as Samantha Somegustava.

She's crying, and the light-blue mascara caked onto her eyelids is smearing on her face.

"I'm scared," she says.

"You gotta hang in there with me, Samantha," Ballentine tells her, placing one of his large hands paternally on her right shoulder. "Don't get all upset. You'll be dealing with me, and you just need to relax."

He wants to interview Samantha and her friend as soon as possible at the Vee Quiva casino.

"Fuckin' poetic," Jason Schechterle says. "She gets to get arrested right in front of her family."

"God bless the neighborhood," Jack Ballentine says, referring to the anonymous caller who tipped off the Gila River police to Samantha's presence.

He calls his sergeant, Patrick Kotecki, to inform him about the wild developments.

As they ride over to Vee Quiva, Schechterle asks Ballentine about his first impressions of Samantha.

"I think she's gonna break," Ballentine tells him.

Inside the noisy, smoky casino, the patrons continue to funnel their money into the gaming machines, oblivious to the drama a few feet away.

Ballentine plans to speak first with Samantha, who's waiting for him in one of the interview rooms, still sobbing.

The driver of the Cherokee is Mario Mendoza, a 25-year-old Phoenix man. He waits in another part of the gaming inspector's office, guarded by a Gila River cop.

Before Ballentine starts his interview, he asks Samantha on videotape if she's hungry. She says she is. A tribal officer goes into the casino to fetch her and Mendoza some fast food.

After she's done eating, Samantha Somegustava has Jack Ballentine's complete attention.

The detective has a Gila River officer remove her handcuffs as he goes to fetch her some tissue.

In a relaxed, almost convivial tone of voice, Ballentine asks the suspect about the garish tattoo on her neck.

She says that "R.I.P." is short for Rest In Peace. The word inked into her skin on her upper chest is Macido, a murdered uncle of hers.

The detective remembers the tee shirt found in Gabe's car, which had on it the words "R.I.P. Macido."

Samantha explains that the three tattooed dots under her right eye stand for "peace, love and happiness."

But there's none of that in the interview room as Ballentine ups the ante:

"I can help you, in that I am able to understand your story, I am able to tell your story for you and I can answer any questions that you've got. If you lie to me, there's not a damned thing I'm gonna do for you.

"I want you to know this -- it's very important for everybody to be honest. I'm a cop who's been around for 30 years. Before you got picked up, I did my homework. I've got my case done. The only thing that's gonna help this for you is your honesty. I'm already done. But let's start when you got the car."

Samantha contends that Gabe Cruz kidnapped her in the Cavalier and drove to the cornfields at 99th Avenue with the intent of raping her. But she'd found a shotgun in his car and shot him three times in self-defense.

Then she'd left his body behind and split in the car.

Samantha explains that she'd been hanging at a Circle K parking lot at 21st Avenue and Van Buren Street, probably after 4 a.m. Gabe, who was a stranger to her, drove into the lot in the Cavalier convertible.

Gabe started chatting with her and she got into his car, though she doesn't specify why:

"He's going, 'Let's party, party,' and I said no. I told him I had a boyfriend. I was crying, begging him to stop. I tried to tell him I'm pregnant."

She says Gabe drove out to 99th Avenue and turned down a dirt road. She says she was "traumatized."

"I said, 'If you're trying to rape me, just let me know.' I said, 'Don't you have a girlfriend or something?' And he said no."

Samantha says Gabe slapped her in the mouth and scratched her face, and then pulled out a "big old gun" from the front passenger seat.

Ballentine asks Samantha if she thought she was going to die.

"If I didn't do what he wanted me to do," she responds.

Still inside the car, Samantha tried to grab his gun from him, she says, kicking and screaming.

Finally, he released it, she says.

In a panic, she says she shot Gabe in his left side as he sat at the wheel.

Though he was badly injured, Gabe started to choke her, Samantha says. She says she racked another round into the chamber and shot him again.

Gabe opened the door and managed to get out of the car, she says, after which she also got out and, she recalls, dropped the weapon by a back tire.

Somehow, the wounded man picked up the shotgun and told her he was going to kill her baby, Samantha tells the detective. (She actually wasn't pregnant.) He was bleeding profusely all over her, she claims.

She kicked him in the crotch, she says, and the gun again discharged, this time by accident.

Samantha says she jumped into the driver's seat and took off, leaving her "attacker" on the ground.

"I couldn't believe myself that I did it," she tells Ballentine.

Samantha says she later threw the gun out of the car somewhere on the reservation.

"Somewhere in there you did the credit card," Ballentine tosses in, to no response.

"All right, here's the deal," he says. "I'm taking it that you feel sorry for what you did . . . I want you to pay close attention to me. You weren't in this by yourself. I can tell you, how you're saying it went down is impossible."

"It's exactly what happened," Samantha insists.

"You're taking the heat for someone else being with you. Whoever it was, they'll tell me because I know a lot of things already . . . I'm fine with charging you with murder. I'm fine with that."

Samantha says, "Well, the only part I left out . . ."

Ballentine won't let her finish:

"Don't go with that. You weren't by yourself, and you were going to take all the heat. That doesn't say nothing. What's right is standing up and telling the truth.

"I've got my entire team working on that car. They'll spit me back who's involved. You've got enough issues over this -- that's why I told you in the very beginning, 'Let me help you.' . . . The only thing that's going to make it right for you right now is your telling the truth."

"I'm scared," is all Samantha can muster. "I have a fear of dying."

"Don't we all?" Ballentine responds. "I sympathize with that, I understand that."

"You want a name?" Samantha says. "His name is Richard. He's not my boyfriend, I can guarantee you that! Okay, I gave you a name."

Ballentine has moved in for his own kind of kill.

In her second account, Samantha says she was with a friend named Audrey at the Circle K when Gabe pulled in and solicited sex from them.

She says Audrey (last name unknown) persuaded Gabe to take her to buy drugs at a nearby hotel, the Oasis. Samantha joined them in the car only because she didn't want Audrey to be alone.

At the hotel, Samantha says, Audrey had gone into a room by herself, but never returned.

Samantha says Gabe tried to yank off her top as he left the area.

She claims she'd gotten him to drive her out to 91st Avenue in Tolleson by claiming she needed to use a bathroom at a friend's apartment.

The friend was Richard Enos -- giving up the surname this time.

As Gabe waited in the car, Samantha roused Enos in the apartment, telling him that a guy had been disrespecting her. She says she told Enos she needed his help in kicking Gabe out of his car and then dumping it somewhere.

Samantha says Enos had a shotgun down his right leg when he walked out with her. She'd pleaded with him not to use it because she just wanted to teach Gabe a lesson, not to commit murder.

Without saying how she got behind the wheel, Samantha says she drove the Cavalier southwest, stopped somewhere and told Gabe to get out of the car. But she says he wouldn't obey her. Then she ordered him into the back seat.

Enos got back there with Gabe for some reason, she tells Ballentine, and a struggle ensued. The shotgun sat on the right front passenger seat.

She says she stopped on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. There, she says, Enos grabbed the weapon and inexplicably ordered everyone out of the car.

Samantha says she'd become frightened of Enos by this time.

The shotgun somehow ended up in her hands, and Enos ordered her to shoot Gabe, which she did. She says she shot him again as he tried to climb back into his car.

Samantha says she'd mistakenly extracted a live shotgun shell from the gun during the clash, and had looked in vain for it after the killing. She adds that some dollar bills on the driver's seat probably also ended up on the ground outside the car.

Samantha admits that she fired a third shot into Gabe and left him dying or dead in the dirt.

She then drove Gabe's stolen car onto the Gila River Reservation.

Samantha says she'd thought of burning the Cavalier in the desert, but decided not to. Instead, she relates, she tried to remove the blood inside the vehicle with a fabric cleaner.

She admits to "slanging" gas at the Shell station -- that is, buying it with a stolen credit card and selling it half-price to friends.

Ballentine's interview with Samantha Somegustava is over at 9 p.m.

She has tried to lay the blame for the murder on the two men in the car, first on victim Gabe Cruz and then on Richard Enos.

But Samantha's statements to Ballentine have amounted to a chilling confession of first-degree robbery-murder -- the stuff of death penalties in Arizona.

He's feeling exhilarated at the moment, but Ballentine worries aloud about how he's going to get his murder suspect off the reservation legally.

"We've got to figure out if we're not kidnapping her from this other fucking country if we take her downtown," he says outside the interview room.

But Gila River Sergeant Tanakeyoma persuades Somegustava to sign a waiver of extradition.

The Phoenix detectives have no such issues with Mario Mendoza, who's not Native American. Ballentine asks a Phoenix patrol officer to pick up Mendoza from custody at the casino and deliver him to the downtown police station for an interview.

Ballentine already is fairly certain that Mendoza had nothing to do with Gabe Cruz's demise. He suspects Samantha's boyfriend just had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong woman.

Just before 10 p.m., Samantha is whisked out of a casino back door and put into a tribal police car.

The Gila River cops drive her off the reservation to a Circle K at 35th Avenue and Baseline Road. A Phoenix squad car is waiting in the dimly lighted parking lot. Now, Samantha Somegustava is a prisoner of the Phoenix Police Department, subject to the legal authority of Arizona.

Ballentine calls Sergeant Kotecki as he and Schechterle return to police headquarters in downtown Phoenix.

"This is the most unbelievable thing I've ever experienced," he tells his sergeant. "She laid out every piece of evidence at the scene, even to the live shotgun shell and money on the ground. She's done."

As they ride back into town, the detectives speculate on how Samantha Somegustava possibly could have talked her way into Gabe Cruz's car.

Ballentine says the notion of a quick sexual interlude by Gabe with a stranger seems improbable, since Gabe's girlfriend was expecting him momentarily for the start of their weekend.

Ballentine says it's far more likely that Gabe had stopped in an area where smalltime drug dealers proliferate, perhaps hoping to score a little cocaine for his weekend.

Or maybe she'd just pleaded with Gabe, known as the trusting sort, to help her out by giving her a ride.

By 10:30 p.m., Samantha Somegustava and Mario Mendoza are in interview rooms across from each other at the police station.

Jason Schechterle observes the pair on separate television monitors in a nearby room.

"If you believe Jack, this guy is just an investigative lead and didn't have anything to do with the murder," he says, gesturing toward Mendoza. "That's the only place I'm not with Jack. I think Samantha made up Enos' name to protect this guy."

Schechterle's best friend, night detective Bryan Chapman, chuckles at that one.

"Just so you know, Jason," he says, "I'm going with Jack's version."

"Why?" Schechterle asks, slightly miffed.

"Well, for starters, he's got about 25 years' experience on you," Chapman says. "Got to run with the vet."

Ballentine speaks only briefly to Samantha, who adds little to what she's already said.

He moves across the hall to interview Mendoza, who was released from prison in August 2004, after serving almost four years on a robbery rap.

Mendoza says politely that his gang-banging days are behind him, and that he's been earning a little money by cleaning yards.

He says he last did illegal drugs just a few days ago, but adds proudly that he doesn't do meth.

"Cocaine, that's my drug of choice," he tells the detective.

Mendoza says he's been "dating" Samantha Somegustava for about a month, though they hadn't seen each other for four days before today.

"She'd told me something bad happened, but she never told me nothing [specific]," he tells Ballentine.

"She never told you she was wanted for murder?" Ballentine asks him.

"No, she never did. She don't tell me her business."

Mario Mendoza's analysis of his girlfriend's character is precise: "She has a hard heart, know what I mean?"

He volunteers to provide police with blood and DNA samples to help prove his innocence. Ballentine takes him up on that offer, even though the detective now is certain that Mendoza had no part in the murder.

At 11:08 p.m., Mendoza hears the best six words he may ever hear:

"Okay, man. You're free to go."

The detectives are exhausted, but Ballentine has one more task to complete before he calls it a night.

At 11:30, he calls Gabe Cruz's cousin, Rene.

"We've arrested her and charged her with first-degree murder," he says. "There's another guy involved, and we're going to get him soon."

He also calls Chris Ferschke, the bartender whose love for his missing friend was the catalyst for this sad case's successful resolution.

During the late morning of March 22, Phoenix police officer Bobby Madeira sees a young man near 29th Avenue and Buckeye Road who fits the description of murder suspect Richard Enos.

Madeira has been alerted that Enos' mother lives in the neighborhood, and he's been keeping an eye out for the youth.

Enos takes off running as the officer turns his squad car around, hopping fences and running through yards.

Madeira gives chase on foot, and eventually subdues the 17-year-old at a wall that the youngster is about to scale.

He won't give his name at first, but soon concedes he is Enos.

Word quickly gets to Jack Ballentine, who drives to the scene and introduces himself to Enos. He also speaks by phone to Enos' mother and says she can attend her son's interview at the police station if she wishes. She doesn't show up.

Richard Enos, known as "Troll" on the street, is wearing a dark-blue hooded sweatshirt and dirty jeans. A sleepy-eyed kid with a distracted demeanor, Enos is no stranger to the criminal-justice system. At 14, he'd been detained for stabbing a stranger several times during a robbery in south Phoenix.

He's spent a majority of his teenage years locked up someplace.

Back at the police station, Enos tells Ballentine that he's recently been sleeping in an alley near his mother's home.

"You obviously know why I'm here," the detective tells him. "I'm not passing judgment on anything. My job is basically to be your voice . . . because I already know everything. The finger's been pointed all over you."

One of Enos' knees begins to twitch uncontrollably.

"[Samantha] told her story," Ballentine continues, "and there are issues with that story. If you think I'm a bullshitter, look me right in the eye and listen to me. I'm not bullshitting you."

Enos pipes up, "I'm not sure why my name was brought up."

Ballentine says, "Not just by her, but everyone. It sounds to me like it was a heck of a night, heck of a morning."

Enos tells the detective that he'd run into Samantha at the Oasis Hotel "the day before whatever went down with her."

She owed his brother about $50, Enos says, and "I was trying to collect."

Enos says Samantha awoke him the next morning at his apartment at 91st Avenue. She told him she had a car, and that they could go get the money she owed his brother.

No one else was in the car, he says, as he and Samantha went to an unspecified location to pick up that money.

Enos says they parted company after this. But Samantha had returned to his apartment in the wee hours a few days later. This time, he says, she told him she'd stolen some guy's car and identification.

At that point, Enos says, he told her to stay away from him.

He tells Ballentine that's all he knows.

"Here's the deal," Ballentine responds. "That's a pretty good start, but it ain't all. . . . I'm not saying you shot the man, but I know you were there."

Enos swears he wasn't.

The detective says he has serious evidence from the murder scene.

"You understand what DNA is?" he asks Enos.

"Yeah," the young man says.

Ballentine says he's going to take the hooded sweatshirt that Enos is wearing, "and we're going to find that guy's DNA on it."

Enos asks, "Just from the sweatshirt?"

Ballentine says, "No, no, trust me," adding that eyewitnesses will testify he was holding a shotgun at the murder scene.

"Eyewitnesses say I had a shotgun?" Enos replies, smiling briefly. "That's crazy."

"I'm trying to help you is what I'm trying to do," the detective says. "I got all Samantha's involvement -- what I need is her involvement coming from your own mouth. Are you gonna take the chance of her taking you down?"

Enos shakes his head no.

"Or," Ballentine says, "are you gonna stand up for yourself?"

"Stand up for myself."

Ballentine's got him.

"She brought the guy out there to you, then what happened after that?"

Enos pauses for what seems like a minute.

Then, he relates to Ballentine that he'd gotten into the back seat of the Cavalier at his apartment on 91st Avenue early in the morning of March 3. He says a man he didn't know was behind the wheel, and Samantha was in the front passenger's seat.

Ballentine asks what happened after the three of them drove away from the apartment complex.

"I don't know what went down," Enos says.

"When did you take him to the field?"

"I don't remember any field."

Enos claims the driver dropped him off at his aunt's home on the reservation before anything bad happened.

"What did I tell you?" Ballentine says, sounding perturbed for the first time. "I'm not being an asshole with you, so don't be an asshole with me."

"You're gonna get me involved in a homicide."

"You're already involved in it," the detective says. "I'm not gonna bullshit you. For me, I [wouldn't] want nobody talking for me. [I'd] do my own talking."

That seems to resonate with the suspect.

He now says Samantha had a sawed-off shotgun down her pants when he saw her on the morning of March 3.

"I was yelling at her to take all his money, not the car," Enos says.

Enos tells Ballentine it went down like this:

At gunpoint, the man drove away from the apartment, with Samantha in the passenger seat and Enos in the back. Samantha demanded the man's cash -- mostly the $1 bills he'd earned at Graham Central Station just hours earlier.

She ordered the man to pull over on the side of a road. After he complied, she told him to get in the back seat. She took over behind the wheel, and Enos moved into the front passenger seat.

Samantha drove down a dirt road as the morning sky lightened. The man grabbed at her hair, and tried to choke her. Enos says he jumped into the back seat and fought with the man. Somehow, the fisticuffs continued on the road outside the car.

Samantha ran around the back of the car and, Enos says, "all of a sudden, I heard three shots."

He says he was close enough to the victim to be spattered with his blood when Samantha discharged the weapon. Later, he destroyed his blood-soaked Levi's, but not his sweatshirt.

"Why not?" Ballentine asks.

"It's the only one I own," Enos says.

The magnitude of what he has just revealed hits the suspect --in the bowels -- at 2:04 p.m.

"Number two is coming right now," he tells the detective, who has an officer escort the youth to a bathroom.

When Enos returns four minutes later, he immediately invokes his Miranda rights against self-incrimination.

Exactly one hour has passed from the start of the interview.

Like Samantha Somegustava, Richard Enos will be booked on a charge of first-degree murder.

Ballentine theorizes after the interview that longtime car thief Samantha had conned her way into Gabe's Cavalier intending, at least, to rob him of his money and his car. She'd gotten Enos involved both as muscle (Enos was a street tough who owned a shotgun) and because she saw an opportunity to repay Enos' brother the money she owed him.

Though he's a juvenile, Enos will be treated as an adult under the law, except for an important detail: Under current case law, juveniles cannot face the death penalty.

Ballentine is jazzed, but bone tired. He and Jason Schechterle have been working the case almost nonstop for 19 days straight.

"The gods were with us on this one," he says of the investigation. "I think I just might get a good night's sleep tonight."

Gabe Cruz is remembered at two memorial services in Mesa, one for his friends at Graham Central Station and the other for the members of his family who live in the Valley.

His girlfriend Araceli and his cousins accompany the body on its last trip home, for burial in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Like most real-life homicide investigations, this one leaves behind nagging questions -- not necessarily about the guilt of Somegustava or Enos, but about what truly did happen from the moment Gabe pulled into the Circle K until he died an hour or so later.

"Gabe was such a sweet guy, and he trusted people," says his buddy Chris Ferschke. "Maybe that evil woman or that kid will say someday what really happened that morning, and maybe they won't. All I know is they killed a great human being for his money and his car."

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Samantha Somegustava, who has pleaded not guilty. Her trial with co-defendant Richard Enos -- who also says he's innocent -- is scheduled for later this year in Maricopa County Superior Court.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin