About 3 a.m. on June 2, U.S. Border Patrol officers stopped a small Hispanic man walking along the railroad tracks near El Paso, Texas. Discovering he had no ID, they concluded he was an illegal alien and took him to a federal lockup in Santa Theresa, N.M. There, a fingerprint check quickly produced a name, Rafael Resendez-Ramirez, and a 23-year history of illegal border-crossing. The records did not show an outstanding warrant for burglary or that Resendez-Ramirez was wanted for questioning in connection with as many as four homicides. He was routinely deported to Mexico, and a golden opportunity was lost.
According to investigators, Resendez-Ramirez quickly re-entered the United States and, on June 4, killed a 73-year-old woman in Fayette County, Texas. Since then, using freight trains to get around, he has allegedly killed another woman in Texas and two people in Illinois, then vanished into the scruffy world of hobos and migrant camps. He is now the prime suspect in eight random and apparently motiveless murders--the classic pattern of a serial killer. Police describe Resendez-Ramirez as an opportunistic criminal who kills with whatever weapons are at hand--the victim's own gun, even a rock.
Last week the FBI put him on its Ten Most Wanted list and set up a Houston-based task force, called Operation Train Stop, to coordinate a nationwide dragnet. But the manhunt could take time--for like many suspected serial killers, Resendez-Ramirez is remarkably elusive. He has spent more than 20 years riding freight trains, living in homeless shelters and supporting himself as a migrant laborer. As an illegal alien, he knows how to survive in the underground economy. As a convicted felon--he has served time in three states for burglary and illegal weapons possession--he knows the criminal-justice system inside out. The FBI says he uses false Social Security numbers, false dates of birth and 30 different aliases.
The suspect's real name, NEWSWEEK has learned, is Angel Leoncio Reyes-Resendiz, and he was born on Aug. 1, 1959, in the town of Izucar de Matamoros in the state of Puebla. "Rafael Resendez-Ramirez" is just an alias--the name he gave when he was arrested as an illegal alien for the first time, back in 1976. The original Rafael Resendiz Ramirez is his uncle, a 67-year-old sugar-cane farmer in the village of San Nicolas Tolentino, also in Puebla. Interviewed by NEWSWEEK, Rafael Resendiz and his wife, Augustina, said they had informally adopted Angel as a boy of 6 or 7 and raised him until his early teens. Then, they said, he went to live with his mother and her new husband in a nearby town, Atlixco. They said they were stunned when they saw his face on television, their nephew identified as a suspected serial killer. "When he left here, he was good," said one of his aunts, Maria Rios Rivera, 75. "Now he is a murderer. We're not that kind of family." His uncle, remembering the bright little boy he once regarded as a son, said, "I'm confused. I keep asking, 'How is this possible?' "
Angel's mother, Virginia Resendiz de Maturino, told NEWSWEEK that he was always her favorite child--the "little one, my beautiful baby." But when he was 13, she said, he came home saying he had been raped by some other boys down by the river in Atlixco. "When he told me that, he cried a lot," she said. "I didn't know what to tell him. The only thing I could say was that Christ loves him." He left home at 13 and went to the United States and came home for a visit a year or two later. The next time she heard from him he was in jail, and she said he told her he had been raped in prison. Now they see each other only occasionally, she said, although she knows he has a girlfriend and a daughter in Durango. She lives in Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, and she, too, is dismayed by the trouble he faces. "What happened, little one?" she said. "What have you done?"
The answer, if …