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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Hurt, then hurt again by killer

9-3-2006 Washington:

BELLINGHAM – Her father's phone number is still programmed into Eve Vasquez's cell phone. She can't bring herself to erase it. It's as if the number and the word "Dad," preserved in the phone's memory, hold out the possibility that he's still alive, as if she can dial and they can again sit by the ocean, eating ice cream to take the edge off sad and bitter memories.

Once, in a dream, she called the number. Her father answered. He told her it was a special favor from heaven: He could talk to her one last time.

It was, she says, her best dream.

A year ago, on Aug. 26, 2005, Michael Anthony Mullen, claiming to be an FBI agent, turned up at the Bellingham home shared by three convicted sex offenders. He warned the men – all of whom had served their sentences – that someone with a "hit list" was killing Level 3 sex offenders.

That hit man, as it turned out, was Mullen himself. He'd found their names and address on a sex offender registry run by police. That night, after one roommate left for his night job, Mullen fatally shot each of the remaining two in the head. Vasquez's father, Victor, was one of those two men.

At the urging of family members, Mullen turned himself in to police a week and a half later. He was convicted and sentenced to 44 years in prison. The killings, he said, were an attempt to show child molesters that they wouldn't be tolerated.

"I want them to know that there are some of us in this World that will cross any boundry (sic) & law to stop them," he wrote in a recent letter to a Spokesman-Review reporter. "This includes murder."

To Eve Vasquez, 28, those pistol shots took away more than the life of her 68-year-old father. They cut short her long-hoped-for reconciliation with him, after he'd served more than a decade in prison for sexually abusing her as a young girl. After years of anger, then silence, then cautious contacts – wary and angry on her part, apologetic on his – the two were on their way to making peace out of a brutal, scarring history.

Then along came a 6-foot-5 stranger with an address, simmering fury over his own childhood molestation, and a stolen 9 mm pistol.

"Everything that I had done to try to make myself better and get the courage to confront Dad and make it better, all that was taken from me," said Vasquez. "After years of waiting for a dad and not having any sort of stability in my life, I finally had a dad.

"And it just kind of disappeared in an instant."

Eve Vasquez grew up in the Whatcom Valley, the oldest girl of seven children of "raging hippie" parents renting a rural home near Mount Baker. Her early memories include the smell of baking bread, berry picking, gardening with her mother, and of the family's cats, turtles, dogs, frogs and a tame raccoon.

"I just kind of remember a time when it wasn't too bad," Vasquez recalled.

Victor Vasquez was a logger. One day, his daughter says, he was caught by a moving log, badly injuring his back. He got disability pay, but it didn't go far.

"We got poor. Really, really poor," she said. Her mother, she said, became emotional and angry, frequently taking the youngest children and leaving. Vasquez remembers being hungry and hearing her parents fighting. A child with dirty clothes and bedraggled hair, she'd gawk at other children in stores.

Her mother's absences increased. Her father, drunk and enraged, would beat the children. He clubbed one of her brothers, striking Vasquez when she tried to intervene.

"I looked in his eyes," she said, "and there was nothing there."

Then, about age 8, she began being sexually abused by her father.

"It was almost as if my parents had lost everything, lost the ability to take care of themselves and their kids," she recalled. "It was as if they'd forgotten right from wrong."

Vasquez tried to escape, riding her bike for miles and finally working up the courage to tell neighbors what was happening. They returned her home, warning her not to lie again.

At the insistence of local officials, the children started going to school. Worried teachers pressed them to eat.

Somehow, distant family members got word of the abuse. They invited the family to visit Arizona. Vasquez's parents piled the seven kids into an old van, sleeping in the vehicle along the way. When they arrived, they got Christmas presents. They went to church. They ate three meals a day.

"It was like this life that I didn't know existed," Vasquez said.

Then, when Vasquez's parents left briefly, her relatives locked up the home and packed off the kids. She never lived with her parents again.

The children were shuttled among aunts in California, Arizona and Utah. In the end, she and her older brother Abe were put in separate foster homes in Bellingham. At age 12, she testified against her father, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison for sexual abuse. Shortly afterward, overcome by guilt, she tried to kill herself with pills.

By 14, Vasquez was living in a juvenile group home in Spokane, attending North Central High School and later University High School. She learned to drive and was taken in by Dru Powers, a foster mother in Spokane. Vasquez was heartbroken when her brother – 18, broke, depressed and terrified of becoming like his father – shot himself to death in Bellingham.

"At that point, everybody had abandoned us," she said. "Everybody."

But Powers hadn't. She cared for Vasquez, letting her dye her hair blond and be a rebellious teen. Vasquez stayed there until 17, when she was stunned to get a phone call from her mother. Guilty at having grown so close to Powers, Vasquez ran away. She lived on the streets of Spokane, asking for spare change, raiding trash bins for old bagels, stealing shoes from Value Village. She finally got a job cleaning houses, then at Starbucks, and got her mother to move to an apartment in Spokane.

By 19, Vasquez was married and pregnant. As the marriage soured, she had a second child. She says her husband was abusive and cheated on her. She became depressed, overweight, overwhelmed. At her husband's insistence, she says, she agreed to let his parents adopt their two children.

"I can't even describe losing my children because I couldn't open my mouth to these people who were judging me," she said. "That was the most horrible feeling."

Three months later, the couple broke up.

"I never really saw my ex-husband or kids again," she said. She was 22.

She started life over: a new apartment, a job at a bowling alley. She spent a summer as kitchen help and a housekeeper at a Yellowstone lodge.

Her father was nearby, it turned out, serving his final years at the prison at Airway Heights. She never visited him. When he was released, he moved to the Bellingham home, owned by one of his sex-offender roommates. Vasquez, as a victim, was notified of his release.

She decided to confront him.

His daughter found Victor Vasquez the same way his killer did: by searching the Internet for sex offenders in Bellingham. There he was – his picture, address and crimes.

She got in her Hyundai and drove west.

The next morning, fearful and mentally reviewing a self-defense class, she stood on his doorstep.

"He just kind of looked at me with tears in his eyes," she said.

She asked if he knew who she was.

"Of course I do," she recalled him saying. "How could I forget you? You're my daughter."

They ended up spending the day together, careful to stay out in public at her insistence. But within hours, she said, she was convinced her father was not the same person who'd beaten his children and sexually abused her.

"I found this human being who was suffering greatly with guilt and pain," she said. "He knew that everyone hated him."

They ended up at a beach, the same spot where she'd later hold his memorial service. She told her father her memories. He cried and repeatedly apologized.

After years of feeling that the abuse and family breakup were her fault, she said, "I just kind of started to feel human."

That was the first of about half a dozen trips from Spokane to Bellingham that Vasquez took to talk to her father. They'd talk on the phone weekly.

"He never made excuses," she said. "He never said it was because of the drinking or the drugs or because he was in the war.

"He felt he'd lost control of his life and his mind. All these kids, a wife who hated him, poverty. He just said 'I lost control. Of everything.' "

The last time she saw him was Aug. 23, 2005. It was the same as other visits: the same beach, the same ice cream.

On Aug. 27, she called. His answering machine didn't pick up. Worried, she called back that night. No answer.

In Bellingham, the third roommate had returned from work at his 3 a.m. lunch break. Walking in the open door, he saw 49-year-old Hank Eisses lying in a pool of blood. The roommate fled and called police. Police found Victor Vasquez's body nearby. In Spokane that night, Eve Vasquez's phone rang. It was her Bellingham foster mother. She asked Vasquez if she were sitting down.

Yes, she said.

"I just saw your dad's house on the news," the woman said. "There was a shooting."

Vasquez fell to the floor.

As police chased leads – a partial fingerprint on a can of Coors Light that Mullen had drunk, a letter he'd written to a local newspaper promising more sex offender deaths – Eve Vasquez put her father to rest.

"I think I was actually the main suspect for a while," she said, "like I'd found someone to kill him."

She wrote to the local paper, defending her father's memory. She planned his memorial service, attended by friends, family members and detectives on the case. A victims' aid group paid for the ceremony and cremation.

She put some of his ashes in the bay, near where they'd talked. The rest sit in an urn on her shelf, awaiting a vacation when she hopes to sprinkle his ashes at Yellowstone and other spots she loves.

Shortly after the killing, Vasquez moved to Bellingham. She volunteers at a home for indigent people with AIDS and plans to attend community college this fall. She wants a nursing degree.

Vasquez testified at Mullen's sentencing, trying to convey what he'd taken from her. She joined a 10-week grieving group, which still, months later, gets together for coffee. She still goes to weekly counseling and says she feels good. She laughs easily, although Powers, her Spokane foster mother, says she wrestles periodically with deep depression.

"For the majority of the hours of the day, she stuffs down what happened. I don't know how you could face it 24-7," Powers said. "She has a good attitude on life and wants to give everyone a chance. I think that helps her."

There's been one unexpected benefit to the publicity surrounding the slaying: Four of Vasquez's siblings, raised by an aunt in California, found her. She hasn't seen them in 15 years. ..more.. by Richard Roesler, Staff writer

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