The Case of the Wily Coyote

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Jason Schechterle stands outside Room 121 with Sergeant Kotecki for a moment as the search inside steadily proceeds. The eager new homicide detective is as jacked up as a little kid on his first day of school.

He blurts out, "I love everything about death! Looking at it, smelling it, seeing it, solving it."

The remark momentarily renders Kotecki speechless.

Schechterle's mentor, Jack Ballentine, overhears the comment but says nothing. He loves the junior detective, but the concept of loving the smell of death is something he'll be addressing with Schechterle later.

Sure enough, the sickening smell begins to waft from the bathroom about 7 p.m.

"She's not decomposed yet, but she's working on it," Ballentine says.

Two members of the county Medical Examiner's Office arrive at 8 p.m. Their grim task is to lift the woman's lifeless body out of the tub, examine it briefly at the scene, bag it, and deliver it to the morgue for an autopsy.

The men spread a white tarp on the floor at the foot of the beds. Then the pair lift the body out of the tub, creating an eerie splashing sound that stops everyone in the room short.

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.

"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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin