The Case of the Fatal Femme

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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."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin