The Hunting Grounds is a multi-part series on the predators who made Fort Worth a dangerous place to be a woman in in the 1980s. I strongly recommend you start from the beginning of the narrative. Preview sets the scene, followed by Stranger in the Dark and Cold Hit which discusses the creation of CODIS and the first Fort Worth Cold Case Unit. The Devil you Know and Caging the Predator address the issue of serial rapists who escalate to murder, and the first killer confined under the Sexually Violent Predator Act.
Something was bothering Vanessa Villa on August 3, 1986. The 11 year-old Fort Worth Worth girl had been out of sorts all day and now she didn’t want dinner. She didn’t want to go to the store with her mother and aunt. She just wanted to lie in bed listening to a cassette of sad, Spanish songs. She might have been nervous about the school year that was about to start. School was hard for Vanessa. She was bubbly and outgoing and teachers liked her enough to make her an office helper, but her English was limited and so even though she was a bright child who loved art and history, she struggled. At times, she wanted to leave and go back to Mexico. She wrote in her diary, “Momma take me from this place. I’m scared.” But at other times she dreamed of being a cheerleader and had exchanged kisses with a boy. She lived a normal life for a girl on the Northside.
The Northside of Fort Worth has a long history of being a tight knit Mexican community. School might be hard, but Vanessa’s family had found a welcoming home in the neighborhood. Their extended family was all here. Vanessa made money selling Western belts and boots at the Bernal Flea Market, something she did earlier that day. Her friends and family remember her as not being her cheerful self. That night, she excused herself from the dinner table without eating. Vanessa’s mother stopped by her bedroom to check on her before leaving. The baby needed diapers and another child need new shoes for school. Vanessa was lying on the bed wearing blue jean shorts, listening to the sad music as a fan hummed in her open window, keeping the heat at bay. She repeated that didn’t want to go. Her seventeen year old brother was in his room, so her mother let Vanessa and the youngest children stay home while ran her errands.
Vanessa’s mother and aunt weren’t gone long, just a trip to the store and maybe stopping to talk to friends. Upon arriving home, the first thing Vanessa’s mother noticed was that her bedroom door was closed, which was strange because it was hot. The door had been open when they left in order to let the air flow through. She opened the door and was startled to find her daughter naked from the waist down. Her first instinct was to snap, “Cover yourself up!” But on closer look , she realized something was very wrong. Then she started screaming and Vanessa’s brother ran into the room.
It was a crime that shocked the community. There had been a steady creep of the problems facing the rest of the city, but a eleven year-old girl raped and strangled in her own bed? Chris Cook, a senior detective was called out to the scene, but he quickly called for another detective, one who spoke Spanish. Manny Reyes would always recall the first murder case he worked.
Vanessa had been brutally attacked, with ligature marks around her neck and half-moon cuts from finger nails dug in her thighs, yet no one had heard anything. Outside her window, police found a white bucket, the type markets used to sell pickles. The bucket was turned over and the fan had been pushed out of Vanessa’s window. Police believed her attacker had come in through that window.
At first, police pursued leads hard. There was a neighbor with a history of sexually abusing children, but he proved to have an alibi. This was the same year the discovery of DNA was announced. The idea of using it solves crimes was far away. The best police could do was test the semen for secretions. The neighbor was excluded from being the killer, but that didn’t bring police any closer to answers. Vanessa was laid to rest in a dove grey coffin with a lace veil over her face. Reyes watched people shuffle past to pay their respects and he wondered if one of them had done it.
The fifth name in the visitation book at the funeral is written in shaky hand, Mr. and Mrs. Juan Segundo. Juan and his wife, Rosa Maria were friends of the family. Rosa Maria worked with Vanessa’s mother at a nursing home. Juan, who went by Johnny, used to visit there until he was accused of molesting one of the residents and banned from being there.
Johnny was considered harmless by most people. He was small and soft spoken, but Rosa Maria knew he had a darker side. He drank heavily and could be abusive. In 1983, he came home covered with blood and refused to talk about it. She went out to his car, looking for clues. Under the seat she found a woman’s purse. Segundo had been in and out of jail, mostly for marijuana and drunk driving, but also burglary. If she had any suspicions then about just how dangerous her husband was, Rosa Maria kept them to herself. She did leave him soon after.
People were eager to leave the neighborhood after Vanessa was killed. Too much violence and they were now suspicious of each other. Police were sure the killer was local. Everyone knew each other on the Northside. Vanessa’s killer was able to walk up to her house and away again without anyone noticing even though the heat of the evening had driven many outside. He belonged. A stranger would have been seen. Without any meaningful leads, the police moved on to new crimes and the tight knit community broke apart, but no one forgot, not Vanessa’s family or friends, and certainly not that young detective.
October 6, 1987, Irene K. was separated from her husband and staying with a friend on North Houston Street. She woke in the night to the feeling of someone touching her. Startled, she turned on a lamp to find a man with his pants down, kneeling over her. She screamed and he began punching her in the face. The man seemed very drunk to her as she fought back. Fortunately, Irene wasn’t alone. Irene’s screaming brought her friend running. The friend also fought the man who ran off and the women immediately called the police. Juan Segundo might have gotten away with the brazen attack if the friend hadn’t recognized him. She had worked with Segundo and considered him a nuisance. He was was always “hitting on” her and making sexual comments. Perhaps Segundo was actually looking for the friend that night when he broke in.
Thanks to her friend having recognized him, a warrant was issued for Segundo. Police were already looking for him because he had just made bond on his most recent DWI. Segundo was quickly arrested and charged with Burglary with intent to commit sexual assault. He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison on June 28, 1988. Thanks to overcrowding and mandatory early release, he was back out in less than a year.
His parole didn’t last very long. Sharon H. lived in the Ripley Arnold Housing Complex right across the street from the Tarrant County Courthouse, the very place Segundo had pled guilty to trying to rape Irene K.
Like Irene, Sharon woke to a naked man in her room. To keep her from screaming, her grabbed her around the throat and began strangling her. Later police would discover that he had removed a window pane to make entry into her bedroom. Sharon fought Segundo and was able to get free. Ripley Arnold Housing was a series of duplexes that were close on top of one another. Her screams brought neighbors running. They weren’t able to catch Segundo but they got a good look at him and were able to tell police who he was. Segundo was well known in the neighborhood. As one man told the police, “Johnny gets crazy when he drinks.”
How a convicted sex offender who had attacked a woman after being out of prison for less than a year was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor is a real mystery, but that is exactly what happened. Although Segundo was again charged with Burglary with intent to commit sexual assault and was eligible to be punished as a Habitual Offender, meaning he could have gotten anywhere from 25 years to Life, Segundo was only given a sentence of one year.
Segundo’s parole was revoked and he was sent back to prison where he was again released in 1993. Five days later he was arrested for threatening another man with a gun at a bar over a woman. He was released on bond because the courts were slow. Then in 1995, while drunk Segundo ran a red light and led police on a high speed chase through the streets of Fort Worth. He was once again released on bond. This DWI, Segundo’s third, was a felony. Apparently, DWI is more serious than rape, because when he pled guilty on September 14, 1995, he was sentenced to five years.
While on bond for the felony that would send him back to the pen, Segundo killed at least three times, crimes that wouldn’t be revealed for a decade, not until Fort Worth created it’s first Cold Case Unit and assigned a veteran detective, Manny Reyes, who had never forgotten that first case he had been assigned. For 19 years he had stayed in touch with Vanessa Villa’s family and when CODIS made DNA a formidable weapon in solving old crimes, hers was one of the very first cases he sent off for testing.
The results would shock everyone. Without DNA, Fort Worth police would never have discovered that four seemingly disparate crimes were actually the work of a serial killer and that he was loose on the streets, free to kill again.
Coming soon: The Monster’s Disguise.
There are numerous other articles, especially from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram from reporters Melody McDonald and Deanna Boyd. Many of these articles are not online and must be accessed through Fort Worth Public Library Archives.