BALTIMORE – It has been about 10 years since Ricardo Espinoza Perez paid $450 to smugglers to help guide him from Mexico to a new life in the United States, where he worked to raise money to bring his wife and two small children across the border.
Hopes for a better life turned to horror in May 2004, when his son and daughter were gruesomely murdered for mysterious reasons, along with their young cousin.
Adding to the family's grief, his brother, Policarpio Espinoza, 24, and nephew, Adan Canela, 19, were charged with the crimes. Perez insists they did not kill the children, but the men were convicted last month in Baltimore of murdering them, and police believe other family members may have played a role in the murders.
"I never got in conflict with my brother and my nephew," Perez said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
Now, with two relatives facing life in prison, two others facing deportation and his own immigration status in limbo, Perez said he is scared the killers remain at large.
Police, while convinced the two defendants committed the homicides, suspect other relatives were involved. Detective Irvin Bradley said police are still asking questions and hope some relatives will resist any intimidation within the family and step forward with information.
"This is a family with secrets, and they know and they keep it amongst themselves," Bradley said.
As a result of publicity surrounding the homicides, the family's illegal entry in the U.S. came to light. Victor Espinoza Perez, a brother of Ricardo Perez and Policarpio Espinoza, and his wife have been ordered to return to Mexico by Oct. 1. Their lawyer, Jay Marks, said "they are at peace with" that plan.
"It has certainly been taxing on them emotionally, physically and financially and this is not the American dream that they were expecting," Marks said.
Perez said he would like to remain in the U.S. with his wife and their new baby daughter until he knows was really happened to his two older children, 8-year-old Lucero and 9-year-old Ricardo Jr. Ernestine Fobbs, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said his family's status is pending but declined to comment further.
The fact that the family was brought into the U.S. by human smugglers called "coyotes" has long hovered in the background of the complicated case involving the family from Tenenexpan, a town in the Mexican state of Veracruz. It fueled speculation that smugglers could have been connected to the killings.
Perez, 35, maintains smugglers he used could not have been responsible. He said he did not owe them money and the crimes happened about seven years after he and his family entered the U.S.
"I paid for everybody," he said.
In an interview with the AP that included his wife, Noemi Espinoza Quezada, 32, and his brother, Victor, 39, Perez described how he entered the United States.
He said people he paid pointed out a path in 1996 that he could take to sneak across the border on foot in the vicinity of Tijuana. He flew from Los Angeles to New York, where he worked in a kitchen to earn $2,500 to pay smugglers to bring his wife and their two children across the border in 1997. The family moved in 2001 to Baltimore and the children enrolled in public school.
Disaster struck on May 27, 2004, when the parents returned home from work to find the nearly beheaded bodies of Lucero, Ricardo Jr. and their cousin, 10-year-old Alexis Espejo Quezada. Alexis was the son of Maria Andrea Espejo Quezada, who had moved in with the family in the winter before.
To Perez and his wife, that timing is significant. They worry that someone with a grudge against Maria Andrea is responsible for what happened, a theory police discount. Maria Andrea has since distanced herself from the family, and police believe she has moved to New York.
In a trial last year, which ended in a hung jury, prosecutors did not define a motive. Prosecutor Sharon Holback told jurors that the three children "lived in a home that was unsafe" because of "some secret" buried in the family. She said relatives were afraid to tell the truth. But in the second trial, she emphasized that while the reasons for the killings were unclear, the evidence was obvious.
It included testimony from a neighbor who said that two nights before the murders, she saw the suspects acting suspiciously in the back of the apartment building where the children lived. It also included a statement from Policarpio Espinoza to police, in which he said he and Canela had been to the apartment shortly before the murders. He said he stayed in the car, while Canela went inside.
Perez said the men regularly visited the apartment.
The evidence also included two pairs of jeans with the children's blood and skin cells matching Espinoza and Canela's DNA. Prosecutors also presented a shoe worn by Espinoza with a small drop of Lucero's blood. They also had two bloody gloves with DNA links to the two men.
Perez said he did not believe the DNA evidence, but did not elaborate on the reasons why. He also complained police failed to investigate people he suspected of committing the crimes.
Quezada also maintained throughout two lengthy trails that she did not believe the men were guilty. But moments after the guilty verdicts were announced, she hugged and thanked both prosecutors in the case.
"She's happy for justice for Alexis," prosecutor Tony Garcia said.