Collage by Scott Ball / Rivard Report / Materials Courtesy / Patteson Family
The killer wore a black shirt to dinner, the woman he left fatherless a colorful blouse. He waited for her on a red chair at his favorite table, one in the back with a yellow cloth and white napkins neatly folded. When she walked through the door, he recognized her right away – a stranger who looked as lovely as he’d imagined. She had asked to meet him and he had picked the place – an Italian grill on South Alamo, 2.5 miles and 42 years down the road from three bullets and a pool of blood.
On Oct. 2, 1973, two vehicles met beneath a stoplight about 2 a.m. at North Alamo and Broadway, just north of downtown San Antonio. Three Mexican-Americans from the Westside pulled up in a red station wagon. Three Anglos from Alamo Heights sat in a white Grand Prix. An f-bomb dropped. The crack of gunfire sounded. A body slumped in the Grand Prix. The station wagon sped off.
On Aug. 6, 2015, the killer reappeared on Alamo Street in the historic King William District. Inside La Focaccia Italian Grill, a waiter poured Cabernet for him, iced water for her. Conversation flowed beneath a large chandelier, light falling on a 70-year-old man with a ninth-grade education, on a 46-year-old blonde with two businesses to her name.
Henry R. Rodriguez could be a character actor: thin mustache, distinguished accent, colorful tongue, lots of charisma. He can charm the rattles off a snake. Michelle Patteson could be a traditional suburban mom – tooling two daughters to basketball and volleyball practice in an SUV – except she never married. She had spent much of her life looking for the man who took her father’s life. Now that she’d found him, what did she plan to do?
Michelle was almost 4 when Mike Patteson was slain. She remembers him in bits and fragments of memory, all of them warm. Mike loved children. After he and his wife divorced in 1972, Mike spent every weekend with Michelle, his only child, taking her to parks and the zoo and a lake. When daddy wasn’t doting on his daughter, he was piling 6- and 7-year-old boys into his pickup to go camping and fishing. “Patteson’s Putters,” he called them.
This was the father Michelle missed growing up. She did not know how Mike had died until her grandmother pointed to the spot as they drove past the intersection in 1981. “Right there,” Mary Katherine Patteson explained to 12-year-old Michelle, “is where your father was killed.”
Now here she was, dining with the man who had put a bullet through her father’s right eye. What would Mike think?
Rodriguez thought Michelle might have a gun. A friend offered to accompany him to the grill, incognito, just in case. Rodriguez declined the protection. After hours elapsed with no call from Rodriguez, his girlfriend turned on the television to see if there had been a shooting. Perhaps, as Rodriguez had speculated, it was time to pay for all the bad he had done.
Murder was not his first crime. Rodriguez stole cars in his youth. He brawled in bars and shot one up in Houston. He assaulted police officers and got arrested 13 times before killing Mike.
For much of his life, even after prison, Rodriguez ran with unsavory characters. Drug addicts. Dealers. Thieves. Killers. When he was issued his clothes at the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville, a familiar voice cried, “Ay, compadre!” Rodriguez turned and recognized a friend from the barrio, a man serving time for two homicides.
Inside the grill, Rodriguez considered possible motives for this meeting. He reached across the table. Michelle did the same. Two glasses clinked.
He had blondish hair and freckles and drove a yellow Plymouth Duster, a company car for Getz Exterminators. Mike Patteson walked with his head and shoulders pitched forward, arms falling unevenly at his side. The awkward gait was the result of an accident in which a 15-year-old Mike went through the windshield of a car driven by a friend. He suffered brain trauma and spent two weeks in a coma.
Mike recovered and fell hard for a pretty girl down the street, Nancy Ritchie. They dated through high school and got married against the wishes of their parents. Nancy grew to understand why her parents objected. Her husband was adventurous but lacked ambition, charming but had a temper. He could surprise her with gifts from his father’s pharmacy and entertain her with rock-climbing excursions in the country. But he struggled to hold a job and seemed bent on self-destruction.
He flipped his father’s car on a rural road, totaling it. He dived off 40-foot cliffs into small bodies of water near jutting rocks. He mishandled a rattlesnake and got bit. He cut himself in a hunting accident, left his wound untreated, and was hospitalized with gangrene. “A lot of times,” Nancy said, “he looked death in the face.”
Recklessness and irresponsibility took a toll. Sudden bursts of anger, perhaps triggered by brain trauma, hastened their breakup. In 1972, Mike moved into an apartment, a single dad with a 2-year-old daughter he brought over on weekends.
A year after the divorce, Mike met a younger woman through mutual friends. The attraction was instant. Sandy Oberg was drawn to Mike’s handsome features and sense of humor, to his fun-loving ways. Mike was drawn to Sandy’s natural beauty and laughter, to her sense of adventure. They both had attended Alamo Heights High School – Mike dropped out in the early 1960s while Sandy graduated in ’70 – and shared a love of country music and dancing.
Weeks into the relationship, Sandy recognized a dark side. It happened after Mike, then 27, finished a job in Seguin and headed back to San Antonio in the Plymouth Duster. On an open stretch of Interstate 10, a car with four black men pulled alongside them, extending a dare. Mike revved his engine and started calling them names; the others did the same. Sandy asked Mike to stop. Two cars sped down the highway, profanities flying, Sandy begging Mike to take her home.
Days later, a girlfriend at work asked a favor of Sandy. The friend’s brother had been stopped by police and needed help. Sandy offered to call a cop she knew in Alamo Heights. A minute or two into the conversation, the officer asked what appeared to be an innocuous question:
“Do you know a Mike Patteson?”
“Yeah, I know him. Why?”
Sandy dropped the phone. In the numbing, tearful days that followed, the race down I-10 came back into focus. The name calling, the pleading and her prophetic warning: “Mike, if you don’t watch your mouth, one of these days you’re gonna get shot.”
The man who raised Rodriguez carried a gun in his back pocket. Librado Martinez, the live-in boyfriend of Felicitas Rodriguez, Henry’s mother, was a brawling bartender. Henry remembers the night Martinez came home with a broken wrist from a fight at work. Another time Martinez stumbled in bleeding, struck in the face by a flying bottle. “Fights at the bar were usual occurrences,” Henry said. “When they would start, we would exit through the back door.”
The back door led to a hallway and to the family’s one-bedroom apartment. It was there, in the Red Light District, that Felicitas shooed away strangers with her own gun, a 32-caliber revolver. It was there, after working two jobs during the day, that she washed and ironed the clothes of bar musicians and cared for the children of women who danced for quarters.
In the apartment, Martinez taught Henry about the streets, to be tough and never back down from a fight. Martinez would lift his shirt and roll up the bottom of his pants. He’d point to an old bullet wound on the leg, a stab wound on the side, cuts and scars across his chest. He repeated the reveal night after night. “I never took nothin’ from nobody,” Martinez would tell Henry, “and that’s the way you need to be. You understand?”
Henry understood he enjoyed trouble more than school. He flunked first grade and shoplifted a belt at age 12. He was expelled twice from Lanier High School and broke into cars and stole money. Once, in an attempt to get high, he and a friend were siphoning gas fumes from a car when the owner appeared with a gun and started shooting.
“We tried our hand at being muggers and failed miserably,” Henry said. “How much money can you get from mugging a person in your own poor community? Not much.”
In his youth, Henry carried a knife. As he got older, he managed a bar and carried a gun. Like Martinez, he got in more fights than he can count. In one, Henry stabbed an assailant who attacked him with a knife, wounding him so badly the man went to the hospital. In a bar in Houston, several men came after Henry and a friend, throwing bottles. Henry reached for his gun and fired away, keeping the men at bay.
In between fights, he shot up heroin and drank heavily. The arrests piled up, several for public intoxication, and a succession of funerals followed. Two friends overdosed. One died in a car accident. Another committed murder-suicide. By the time Henry pulled the trigger at Alamo and Broadway, his six best friends from childhood were dead.
It started with an exchange outside a gay bar, a chance meeting between two sets of men from zip codes representing different worlds, affluent 78209 and impoverished 78207.
Henry, then 30, and two friends, Chris Estala and Ralph Martinez, simply wanted a beer. Unable to find a bar open well after midnight, they drove on until they saw the Hypothesis Club, a place they had never visited. When the men arrived, the bar was closing. A married father of four, Henry had no idea the Hypothesis catered to gays.
No one knows why Mike and his friends, none of them gay, went to the Hypothesis. Sandy questioned one of the friends, Jack Krueger, after the shooting but never got an answer.
“I asked Jack and he wouldn’t tell me one way or another, so I will never know,” Sandy said. “The Hypothesis was technically a gay bar, but straights frequented, too. Mike and I had been there once before. It was one of the nicest bars – clean, good music, and not expensive.”
Mike and his friends, 28-year-old Krueger and 19-year-old Gary Henderson, finished drinking at the Hypothesis after 1:30 a.m. and climbed into the Grand Prix. Around the same time, at closing, Henry and his friends headed back to the station wagon to leave. The two sets of men recognized they were checking out the same girls in the parking lot. Slurs and expletives flew. “He called me a f—ing Mexican queer son of a bitch,” Henry said. “That got me.”
The Grand Prix pulled away, with Krueger behind the wheel, Patteson seated next to him, and Henderson in the back. Henry and his friends climbed into the station wagon and gave chase. At a stoplight up ahead, Henry lowered his window and yelled, “What did you say?”
“F— you,” Mike said.
Stripped across the front page top of the San Antonio Light: “3 HELD IN S.A. KILLING.” The story said a patrolman stopped the vehicle carrying the gunman and apprehended three suspects. The article included a critical detail: “The police car was directly behind the suspects’ auto when the shooting erupted, officers said.”
Authorities recovered the murder weapon, which had been tossed from the station wagon. It belonged to Henry. He pleaded not guilty. Estala was released and never charged. An accessory charge against Martinez was dropped.
Ethnic and class tensions surfaced during the five-day trial in 1975. The victim was the son of an affluent pharmacist, H.C. Patteson, from Alamo Heights; the killer was the son of a tortilla maker, Felicitas Rodriguez, on the Westside. The victim grew up in a house with a maid and a weekend home on Lake McQueeney; the killer grew up in a one-room apartment between two bars in a neighborhood frequented by prostitutes.
Two cultures collided at Alamo and Broadway. Two versions of the shooting clashed in 187th District Court. Charles Conaway, the assistant district attorney, told one story. Jack Paul Leon, the defense attorney, told another. Conaway was a fiery and flamboyant prosecutor, known for at least three fistfights with defense attorneys. Leon was less demonstrative but brilliant, known for successfully defending high-profile clients.
Conaway portrayed Henry as a cold-blooded killer, a violent man who raced down Broadway to end the life of a single dad. The prosecutor showed how a bullet from Rodriguez cost a second passenger, Henderson, an eye; how Henry had been a one-man crime spree from his first arrest at 12 for shoplifting to his 14th for murder at 30. “Patteson was long gone from the Hypothesis that night,” Conaway told jurors. “Why the pursuit unless murder was intended?”
Leon said his client fired in self-defense. At the stoplight, Henry saw Mike slide down in the front seat of the Grand Prix. From the back, Estala yelled, “Watch it, he has a gun!”
“I pulled my gun from under my seat and fired at random,” Henry testified. Expecting return fire, he said on the stand, “I took off going north.”
Henry had a gun to protect himself after closing his own bar, El Stand on Durango, and taking the cash proceeds to the bank.
A jury of seven women and five men – six of them Mexican-Americans – deliberated four hours. The verdict: guilty of murder and two counts of assault. Judge John Benavides delivered a ruling that shocked everyone: “murder without malice.” In short, the judge determined that Patteson’s slurs and insults had rendered the killer incapable of “cool reflection,” and therefore, not guilty of malice. Conaway had sought a life sentence. But “murder without malice”– roughly the equivalent of “manslaughter” today – carried a maximum five-year sentence.
Outrage was wide and predictable – from friends and family of the victim to large swaths of the city. Conaway himself took a verbal swipe at the judge. “I felt the facts and circumstances warranted a more severe sentence,” he told reporters. Benavides banned Conaway from his courtroom. The District Attorney’s Office appealed. The legal back-and-forth between prosecutor and judge made headlines for days.
“I firmly believe that the five-year sentence for a murder is not in any sense justifiable,” juror Alicia Salazar wrote in a letter to Conaway published in the San Antonio Express-News. “… The life of Mike D. Patteson cannot be replaced, but the streets of San Antonio will soon be replaced by the same murderers.”
Soon after, the killer went to the state penitentiary. Henry received credit for time served after his arrest and spent two years in prison.
The little girl with a red barrette and yellow ribbon in her hair did not understand. Relatives were kneeling and crying around a long wooden box in church. A man in black with a white collar was saying a prayer. People she did not know were bending over to hug her. This is what a funeral mass looked like to a 3-year-old.
Mommy told her daughter that daddy had died in an accident. What kind? Mommy said he’d gone to heaven. Where was that?
The mind of the girl raced and stumbled, unable to grasp the finality of death. Over time, Michelle came to believe Mike had perished in a car accident but could not process the place everyone said he had gone. She studied the faces of men who resembled him and wondered, “Is that my father? Has he come back from heaven?”
More questions rose when her mother, Nancy, married Denny Williams. At church, Nancy’s daughter was known as Michelle Williams, the girl with two half-brothers, a half sister, and one stepbrother. At school, she was Michelle Patteson. Friends asked about the two last names and Michelle struggled to explain the mystery. Years later, her grandmother told her about the shooting, and the truth exploded like a bomb, shredding her identity.
“All of a sudden I felt like a different person,” Michelle said. “I’m the child of a father who was murdered. I felt like I wasn’t the same person anymore, even though I was. I’d been lying to people, telling them my dad had been hit by a car and had died. How do you undo that? How do you fix that?”
Michelle confronted her mother. “Why didn’t you tell me the truth?”
“It’s not easy,” Nancy replied, “to explain murder to a 3-year-old.”
The answer did not assuage her anger. It did not lessen her confusion. Michelle entered her teenage years with a question that cut to her core. “Who am I?”
Nancy gave several newspaper clippings to Michelle, who formed an outline of central events, one article at a time – the shooting, the trial, the sentencing. She filed the stories in a binder and took them to school. When someone asked about her two last names, Michelle pulled out the clippings.
Still, she wanted to know more. Why did her father’s killer serve only two years? Where was he living? She searched microfiche at the library. She looked up “Henry Rodriguez” in the phone book only to find dozens of listings. Michelle wanted to put a face on her father’s killer. As she dug and probed, her mind went to a dark place: “What if he wants to come after my family? What if he wants to kill me?” The fear ebbed as she grew older, but the desire to know why Henry shot her father persisted.
“Part of the search became more of, ‘Whose fault was it?’” Michelle said. “It was a box I wanted to check off. I wanted to be more angry. I wanted to be justified in thinking my dad didn’t start it. It was all Henry. But that box was never checked off. The question was never answered in my head. I remember thinking, ‘Someday I’d like to see what he looks like. I’d like to meet him.’”
The answer to one question, she would learn later, had been in front of her all along.
Civil protest runs deep in Henry’s DNA. His mother participated in the 1938 pecan shellers strike, a walkout of 6,000 San Antonio workers, most of them Hispanic women, who protested a cut in starvation wages – from six to seven cents for a pound of meat to five to six cents. Felicitas Rodriguez told young Henry how she had labored with Emma Tenayuca, the original strike leader, against fierce opposition, which included tear gas bombs from police and mass arrests. A settlement was reached, and wages rose to seven to eight cents.
The son followed his mother’s activism and became a colorful, go-to interview on civil rights and urban issues following his release from prison. An avid watcher of television news, Michelle almost surely saw Henry on local newscasts, marching to protest police brutality, fist raised, rocking a bandana. He led the fight to transform a blighted Westside neighborhood into the Vista Verde housing project. He worked tirelessly to save the iconic Sanchez Ice House from being shuttered. He supported political candidates who championed la causa de su gente, including his ex-wife, a City Councilwoman from 2007-09.
As Henry railed in the public square, Michelle grew up and settled into a quiet life. She remained single, adopted two girls, and purchased a travel trailer. She moved to Spring Branch and opened a daycare center and a locksmith business. She also bought a gun. One question stayed with her: Whatever became of her father’s killer?
On July 1, 2007, I delivered the answer. In a 641-word Metro section column for the San Antonio Express-News, I wrote:
“Thirty-two years ago, San Antonio knew Henry R. Rodriguez as a convicted killer. Today, the city knows him as a reformed, law-abiding citizen and ex-husband of City Councilwoman Lourdes Galvan.
Now 62, Rodriguez does not try to conceal his past. He does not deny firing the gun that ended the life of 28-year-old [sic] Mike Patteson. But Rodriguez would like to make an important detail of the case known. …”
The chances of securing a pardon from Texas Gov. Bill Clements, the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, were small. From Sept. 1, 1979, through Aug. 31, 1980, the Board of Parole and Pardons received 3,311 applications for pardons. The board recommended clemency for 144 applicants. Clements approved pardons for 112 – 3% of the original applicants.
In the summer of 1981, a future lawmaker took on the clemency challenge and interceded for a close friend, Henry Rodriguez. Walter Martinez, chief of staff for a state legislator at the time, submitted an application along with letters of support from clergy and community leaders. Since Henry’s release from prison, they wrote, he had served as PTA president, volunteered at church, led a neighborhood advocacy group, and worked with a prisoner support and reform organization.
The board denied the application. Martinez appealed, submitting more letters of community support. The board never replied. But within a few weeks, Henry received a signed pardon from Clements, dated Oct. 5, and a full restoration of his civil rights. “Frankly, I was surprised,” said Martinez, who became a Democratic State Representative in 1982 and a San Antonio City Councilman in 1985. “With a Republican governor, we thought our chances were minimal.”
Martinez does not know why the Board of Parole and Pardons changed its mind or what prompted a governor known as a law-and-order conservative to grant clemency to a convicted murderer. Henry remains equally perplexed. “To this day,” he said, “nobody really understands that.”
In the Cushing Memorial Library and Archives at Texas A&M, I recently pored over several boxes of documents from the early years of Clements’ tenure as governor, looking for answers. After reviewing correspondence to and from the Board of Parole and Pardons, the general counsel, the Attorney General, and other state officials, I found no mention of Henry’s pardon. Clements never offered public comment. The board does not provide reasons for recommended pardons.
In the early 1980s, only a fraction of applicants received clemency. There are no records to indicate how often the board reversed itself after denying a request. But this much is clear: Those fortunate enough to secure a recommendation stood an excellent chance of receiving a full pardon. Clements approved 78% of the board’s recommendations in 1980 and 90% in 1981, according to paper and online documents. Whatever his reasons for pardoning a murderer, the tough-on-crime governor took them to his grave in 2011.
My father shares the first name, middle initial, and last name of the killer. My late mother shares the first and last name of the killer’s ex-wife. My father, Henry, was a deputy superintendent in the San Antonio Independent School District in the mid-1970s. My late mother, Blanche, chaired the Fire Fighters’ and Police Officers’ Civil Service Commission in the late ’70s.
People often phoned our house, looking for the other Henry Rodriguez. Once, the San Antonio Light published my mother’s picture and named her, incorrectly, as a supporter of a candidate running for local office. The Light did not publish a two-line correction. It ran a full-blown story to explain the mixup between the two Blanches.
On April 23, 1975, the two Henrys clashed at Navarro Elementary. The activist wanted to stop a historic school from closing. He assembled a contingent of parents, many of whom frequented his bar, and invited City Councilman-elect Henry Cisneros to fire up the crowd. My father, the deputy superintendent, enumerated the reasons Navarro had to be shuttered, which included no air conditioning, disruptive freeway traffic outside classroom windows, and the prohibitive cost of needed repairs for a structure built in 1885. The atmosphere was charged for the first meeting between the two men, which occurred a month after the killer’s sentencing.
“Your dad did a good job representing the district,” the activist recalled. “But we were not happy. Nobody likes to see their school shut down.”
The school closed. Two years later, after another call at home for the other Henry, I asked my father, “Who did he kill and why?”
My father didn’t remember the details. My mother didn’t either, but she knew Henry’s lawyer well. Jack Leon often appeared before the civil service commission to defend officers who had been disciplined. “You know Jack’s wife,” my mother told me. “She’s your journalism teacher at Jefferson.”
The late Joan Leon taught me a thing or two about news and writing under deadline. In the spring of 1977, while working as sports editor of the student newspaper my senior year, Mrs. Leon threw me a changeup. Instead of writing and editing for The Declaration, she had me practice for the University Interscholastic League news writing competition. She handed me a sheet of paper with a list of facts, set a timer, and said, “Go.”
That’s how I began the first 15 minutes of every class: turning a series of facts into a news story. When the bell sounded, Mrs. Leon offered no comment or constructive criticism. Just two words: “Keep practicing.” I grew frustrated. “How can I expect to improve if I don’t know what to correct?” I asked. She handed me another sheet of paper, ignoring the question. The practice yielded a result only Mrs. Leon could have foreseen: second place at the state competition.
Thirty years after leaving her class, I decided to write a column about the newly elected City Councilwoman from District 5, Lourdes Galvan. As I dug into her past, I was stunned to learn she once went by the name Blanche Rodriguez, that she had been married to the killer, and that the husband of my journalism teacher had defended him at his murder trial. As I dug deeper, I learned that she was born Lourdes Blanche Estala. After divorcing Henry, she remarried, took the last name of her new husband, and began using her first name.
Henry called after reading the column. Yes, he had killed Mike Patteson. But he’d also received a pardon. As I began to write another column, I took an unexpected call. “Ken, I’m the daughter of Mike Patteson,” the woman on the line began. “I’ve been looking for Henry all my life. Can you put me in touch with him?”
The killer and the fatherless woman sat across the table from one another, sipping wine and water. He asked about her life. She asked about his. The waiter set the same dish before them – chicken Romana with artichokes and vegetables.
“Let me tell you about prison,” Henry offered.
He played on the basketball team. He wrote letters for inmates and spun records as a disc jockey, Mexican 45s his wife sent from home. He took college classes, led a Bible study, and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. He did not serve much time or do hard time. He had a good time. “In 1976,” the killer said proudly, “I was named AA Inmate of the Year.”
The award, he explained, was the result of a spirited, hard-fought election. Henry and a friend from Lanier assembled a coalition of Chicanos. His opponent galvanized a bloc of Anglos. Debate was heated, the politics fierce. Henry peeled away some Anglo supporters, captured the black vote, and scored an upset.
He told her about his children and grandkids, about his ex-wife and his girlfriend, but hesitated to mention Mike. She told him about packing a .22-caliber revolver. “Single mom, protection, Second Amendment,” Michelle explained. A couple of years back, she forgot the gun was in her purse and had it confiscated at the Bexar County Courthouse. Had she come to dinner armed?
This was not their first conversation. In 2007, Henry allowed me to give his number to Michelle. The murder had weighed on him for decades, haunting him in prison, through protests and political success. The pardon did not lift the burden. The call from Michelle did. “Henry,” she said, “I forgive you.”
His voice cracked like icicles in sudden thaw. Tears fell. “I don’t know if she realizes,” Henry told me in 2007, “how she’s made me feel.”
Henry apologized for taking a life. He and Michelle agreed to meet, to follow up on a conversation that had been liberating for both. Time passed and they lost touch. I left the Express-News. In 2014, I messaged Henry to ask if he had met with Michelle. Sixteen months later, he wrote to say, no, he had not. But later the same day, he called Michelle and arranged to meet her for dinner.
Now here they were, seated in an Italian grill, less than three miles from the shooting. Over dinner and drinks, Henry told her about friends who thought the evening might be a set-up, that she might have lured him to La Focaccia to avenge her father’s death. Michelle laughed. She no longer carried a gun. And the forgiveness she extended in 2007 had not been rescinded. “You and my father were young and stupid,” she said. Henry nodded.
Dinner was 2 1/2 hours of warm conversation and discovery. They occupy opposite positions on the political spectrum – she’s conservative, he’s liberal – but share spiritual ground. Michelle has served the impoverished in Africa, Henry helps the poor in San Antonio. Michelle found Henry to be humble and likable, a favorite uncle, of sorts, with a tender heart. Henry found Michelle to be an authentic believer, full of kindness and bereft of judgment.
She invited him to her church, Hillside Fellowship in Spring Branch. Its motto: “Growing in Grace.” He agreed to visit. As the evening wound to a close, Henry called his girlfriend. “Well, Linda,” he began, “she didn’t shoot me.”
There were six men beneath the stoplight at Alamo and Broadway. Only one is still alive. The driver of the Grand Prix, Jack Krueger, died quietly from a congenital disease 30 years ago. The man seated next to Krueger, Mike Patteson, died within an hour of being shot. The passenger in the back, Gary Henderson, passed in 2005, blinded by a bullet and haunted by survivor’s guilt.
The front-seat passenger in the station wagon, Ralph Martinez, died in 1995. The man in the back, Chris Estala, succumbed to a long battle with diabetes on Aug. 4. The killer behind the wheel plays basketball once a week, has his own table at La Focaccia, and takes phone calls from political brokers. He wields considerable power in the barrio and has won more acclaim than the other five combined.
It’s almost as if Henry devoted himself to good works to cope with the guilt. Remarkably, he was elected PTA president at J.T. Brackenridge Elementary after his release. Later, he held the same position at Lanier, the school from which he never advanced beyond 10th grade. He became an advocate for the poor and the oppressed, a voice for the disenfranchised, especially Mexican-Americans, and held a variety of jobs: truck driver, moving storage foreman, pro boxing ring announcer.
As he told the San Antonio Current in 2006, “I think it’s very important for a person to not just come back and get with society and reintegrate, but to say, ‘I’m a law-abiding citizen and I have been cleared of my sins.’”
The sin Henry took to prison was one of blood. As a little boy, his grandmother took him to a Pentecostal church, where he learned that the blood of Christ could wash him clean. As a pre-teen, he wandered from church to the streets and became quick-tempered and violent.
In the “Chicano tank,” as he called his prison quarters, Henry attended chapel and came under the influence of a pastor, a gifted speaker who addressed the inmates in Spanish. “I committed my life to Christ,” he said.
The commitment collapsed after his release. Henry cheated on his wife, drank heavily, and snorted cocaine. He ran with drug dealers and worked for a bingo hall owner, who was shot to death. He and Lourdes divorced in 1989. For the next several years, he lived a paradox: snorting a line of white powder and sending friends to an inner city minister known for helping drug abusers break their addictions.
Henry says he quit using cocaine on his own in the mid-90s. In 2011, he felt a pull and began attending a Spanish-speaking church, La Capilla del Pueblo, with his girlfriend, Linda Alfaro. Over the past few years, he’s brought many friends to the house of worship. “The pastor, Juan Valenzuela, is very much a man of God,” Henry said. “To me, he is the Joel Osteen for Mexicans.”
The same man who raises a fist in protest now lifts a hand in praise. In the conservative evangelical community, it is a confounding visual. In certain quarters of Alamo Heights and elsewhere, not everyone has forgiven. One woman related to Mike feels sick every time she sees Henry on television. A former girlfriend of Henderson, the one who lost an eye, still feels the pain of her late boyfriend. “It’s sad,” said the woman, who does not want to be identified, “that Henry got away with murder.”
Henry understands the anger. Michelle understands as well. In a state that executes more people than any other in the nation, how could Henry have gotten five years? She carried anger into adulthood. At the age of 32, she took the bitterness and other personal issues to a charismatic priest. The priest offered an ear and gentle counsel, leading her through a process of prayer and healing. Michelle forgave and the anger lifted. “I became a completely different person,” she said.
Forty-two years after the shooting, a miracle. Guilt and grace met for dinner. On chairs the color of blood and a table the color of spring, two hearts connected. A killer and the woman he made fatherless broke bread. They recalled loved ones who had passed and spoke of children who carry promise. They embraced and posed for pictures. He raised a glass of red wine, she lifted water with lemon, and two friends offered a toast.