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.