A Cure for the Lovelorn

Dora Cisneros

For Joey Fischer it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the best of times because his graduation from the exclusive Brownsville, Texas, St. Joseph Academy was rapidly approaching in that spring of 1993. College lay ahead of him; his future looked bright.
 
It was the worst of times because he was involved in a bizarre and lingering break-up from his one-time girlfriend, Cristina Cisneros, that seemed more like a battle with Cristina’s mother, Dora.
 
Things were so strained between the former sweethearts that there was talk of legal action to get back the senior class ring he gave to Cristina. Dora promised to give him back his ring at a sit-down with Joey’s father, but added that she wanted to make him “sweat a bit” before she did so.
 
Everything had started off simply enough. Joey and Cristina attended the same school and attended prom together. It seemed like just another high school romance that had ended when Joey’s head was turned by another girl he met at a relative’s wedding. But Cristina — and to a much, much greater extent, Dora — did not want the relationship to end.
 
First came the strange offer of $500 if Joey continued to date Cristina. Next there were threatening phone calls from Dora to Joey. Then came the bizarre warning in the mailbox. Joey’s mother came home to find an envelope with her name on it. Inside was a card with a skull and crossbones.
 
The fixation was doubly irrational. First of all, it seemed like Dora, not Cristina was the driving force behind the anger, and second, Cristina had no reason to doggedly pursue Joey. She was an intelligent, attractive, artistic young woman from an affluent family — her father was a surgeon and her mother came from a family of bankers. Undoubtedly Cristina would find love again. In fact, she already had begun dating another youth from school.
 
Meanwhile, for Daniel Garza, a/k/a, Guero, it was definitely the worst of times.
 
Garza was an unemployed house painter who moonlighted as a drug mule for the Dallas-area Cuellar drug ring. Around the time Joey Fischer and Cristina Cisneros were getting ready for the prom, Garza and his wife were getting ready to separate. Garza was convinced that supernatural forces were at work to ruin his marriage.
 
“I had always suspected that my wife’s mother and aunts had worked through a Curandera in San Antonio, Texas to put a bad spell (witchcraft) on my wife and I to separate,” he wrote in a confession to police. “My mother-in-law (deceased) never did like me.”
 
Convinced that it takes a witch to fight a witch, Garza, during a June 1992 visit to his sister in Matamoros, decided to visit a Curandera across the Rio Grande in Brownsville for advice.
 
La Curandera, Maria Mercedes Martinez, operated out of a second-hand clothing store reading cards, telling fortunes, and selling healing herbs and oils. Over the next several months Martinez counseled Garza (for a fee) and promised that with her help he could repair his personal life.
 
Martinez had another client who was equally troubled over a relationship. It was Dora Cisneros. In the fall of 1992 Dora visited her long-time Curandera seeking a divination.
 
“It was about a problem she had with her daughter,” Martinez later testified. “She wanted me to read the cards to find out if the boyfriend of her daughter would marry her. I was reading the cards and told her that he didn’t want to marry her anymore.”
 
The news seriously angered Dora, and several days later she returned to Martinez and asked that the Curandera cast a spell on Joey, which Martinez refused to do. Following up, Dora asked if Martinez could find someone who could “do a little job” for her, Martinez said.
 
Martinez thought of another client: Daniel Garza.
 
“In December 1992 I visited La Curandera Martinez at her store. It was on that visit that she told me about a woman she called “La Clienta” that needed to have a guy beaten up,” Garza told police. “La Clienta would pay up to $3,500 in U.S. currency. She told me to help her with that and in return she would guarantee me that everything would be all right with my personal problems.”
 
Although Cristina would later deny on the witness stand that she and Joey had been intimate, Garza said that he was told Joey had “sexually violated La Clienta’s daughter and was talking about her at school to other students.”
 
Sometime after Christmas 1992, Dora decided that a beating wasn’t sufficient for the boy who jilted her daughter. She told Martinez that she wanted Joey killed.
 
Dora and Garza never spoke with each other, but both were putting pressure on Martinez — Dora adamantly wanted Martinez to find someone to kill Joey, while Garza wanted Martinez to do something to repair his marriage, which by this time had already ended in divorce. Martinez pushed back on Garza.
 
While Garza was talking by phone with Martinez, she would frequently steer the conversation back to Dora’s problem. Several times during their talks Garza falsely told La Curandera that he had found someone to take care of Joey, and for a few minutes the discussion would center on La Clienta’s problem rather than Garza’s.
 
“It was during the month of January 1993 that I returned to Brownsville to see La Curandera again because I had paid her lots of money and nothing had changed in my life. Instead I had gotten a divorce,” he told police. “She again asked me if I had talked to anyone or gotten anyone to kill the guy…She again guaranteed me that my luck would change if I helped her with this offer.”
 
It’s an understatement in light of this story to say that love makes people do strange things, but believing that harming Joey would repair his own love life, Garza did a strange thing. He reached out through his drug connections and contacted a pair of Mexican hitmen, Israel Olivarez and Heriberto Pizana.
 
On Valentine’s Day 1993, Garza met with Olivarez and Pizana and gave them a picture of Joey Fischer — a portrait of Joey in his prom tuxedo. On the back of the photo was Fischer’s address. The killers promised to take care of the job the next time they were in Brownsville.
 
On the morning of March 3, 1993, Joey Fischer was preparing to go to school with his sister and brother and was in the driveway cleaning the windshield of his mother’s car.
 
His stepfather, Vernon Nelson, later testified that he was inside his home with Joey’s mother when they heard a pair of “loud pops.” Corinne Nelson went outside to investigate.
 
“I heard her scream, just a blood-chilling scream,” Nelson testified. “I saw Joey was laying down in the driveway in a pool of blood and Corinne was down to help him and she was screaming.”
 
Joey had been shot twice in the head. Next to him on the ground lay one of the few clues police would have to track his killers — a bloody business card belonging to a Dallas bailbondsman. A single unidentifiable athletic shoe print was found near the driveway.
 
The only other evidence police had to go on was an eyewitness description of the apparent getaway car: a white four-door vehicle with Mexican plates.
 
Shortly after the murder, Olivarez called Garza to let him know Joey was dead.
 
Ya esta, dame la feria,” (It’s done, give me the money), Garza recalled the gunman saying.
 
“I told him I didn’t have it with me, that I needed to get it,” Garza told the cops. He added that he then contacted Martinez, who then called Dora Cisneros.
 
“‘Oh yes, yes, yes, yes,’” Martinez said Dora excitedly babbled over the phone. “I’ll be right over.”
 
Some time before noon Dora delivered an envelope containing 35 $100 bills to Martinez, who alerted Garza that the payoff had been delivered.
 
“It was around 12 p.m. when I got to (Martinez’s) store. Her television set was on Channel 4 news. That’s when I saw the news on the murder at Rancho Viejo Country Club.
 
La Curandera Martinez gave me a white bank envelope with the money which contained $3,500.”
 
The morning of the murder, about the time Olivarez and Pizana were videotaped crossing the Mexican-American border at Matamoros on their way to kill Joey, Cristina and Dora Cisneros were headed to a doctor’s office so Cristina could have an x-ray taken of a troublesome ankle.
 
Cristina later told federal authorities that she and her mother arrived at the doctor about 8 a.m. and left around 11:30, filled a prescription and then returned to their home so Cristina could drive herself to school.
 
That testimony was at odds with what Martinez told authorities and what records at both the doctor’s office and a Brownsville bank reflect.
 
The doctor’s records showed that Dora and Cristina left the office no later than 10:15 a.m. and that a bank officer escorted Dora to her safe deposit box at 10:28 a.m. According to investigators Dora put the money in the box to pay for the killing after cashing in a certificate of deposit.
 
Investigators quickly traced the bail-bondsman’s card to the Rudy Cuellar drug gang based on handwriting on the back of the card. Cuellar had used the firm to post bail when he was arrested on a domestic violence charge.
 
Dogged, but routine flatfooted detective work eventually turned up the fact that Garza, a known associate of Cuellar had purchased a .38 Super automatic pistol from a gun shop in February 1993. A .38 Super automatic was used to kill Joey. Garza’s gun was reported stolen after Joey’s murder and the murder weapon was never found.
 
It did not take police long to arrest Garza for his role in the murder. The shooters, however, were long gone over the Mexican border.
 
In an effort to avoid a needle in his arm for participating in a murder-for-hire scheme, Garza began cooperating with authorities. While wearing a wire he twice contacted Martinez telling her that the killers wanted more money. Both times Martinez gave him an additional $500.
 
Repeating the trick, police arrested La Curandera and convinced the 70-year-old woman to wear a wire to trap Dora Cisneros.
 
Driving around Brownsville in her Cadillac, Dora delivered $500 cash to Martinez and questioned whether the murder of Joey Fischer could be linked to her.
 
No existe ninguna evidencia de que hice algo (There isn’t…any evidence that I did anything?)” Dora asked.
 
Shortly after Dora asks if she can be tied to the murder, the tape reveals the sound of police sirens and records the arrest of Dora Cisneros.
 
At the time — April 7, 1993 — it appeared that the authorities had made the best of a terrible situation. They had quickly wrapped up a bizarre and tragic murder plot and had solid evidence against everyone involved. Little did anyone know that the worst was yet to come.
 
Dora went to trial in February 1994, on capital murder charges. Most of the evidence against her came from Martinez. Garza was on trial with her.
 
The case-in-chief against the pair was the testimony of the septuagenarian Martinez, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for a 2-to-20-year prison term.
 
On the stand La Curadora detailed how Cisneros repeatedly pressured her into finding someone who would kill Joey and how she eventually convinced the reluctant Garza, 43, to help her.
 
It appeared to be an open-and-shut case against Dora. Martinez’s testimony was corroborated by circumstantial evidence that Dora had cashed in a certificate of deposit to raise the $3,500 to pay the killers, as well Dora’s behavior after the relationship between Joey and her daughter faltered. Finally, there were tape-recorded conversations between Martinez and Dora where the vengeful mother questioned her advisor whether or not the murder could be traced back to her.
 
After a brief trial Dora Cisneros and Daniel Garza (who had confessed to police about his role) were convicted of murder. Each received a life term.
 
The case disappeared from the front pages and TV screens for just under two years when Brownsville was shaken by the decision of the Texas Court of Appeals that not only tossed Dora’s conviction, but ruled that double-jeopardy applied and that she could not be tried again. Essentially the court allowed Dora Cisneros, whom everyone knew was guilty as sin, to get away with murder thanks to a “rookie mistake” by prosecutors who drafted the indictment.
 
It all boiled down to how the jury was instructed to consider the charges:

Now if you find from the evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that…Dora Garcia Cisneros…did intentionally cause the death of Albert Joseph Fischer, Jr., for remuneration, in that she did then and there…employ another, Israel Olivarez or Heriberto Pizana to intentionally murder Albert Joseph Fischer, Jr.,…and that…Israel Olivarez or Heriberto Pizana did agree with Dora Cisneros to intentionally murder…for such remuneration…

In her appeal Dora contended that the evidence was insufficient to prove that she employed Olivarez or Pizana to murder Joey, and that Olivarez or Pizana in fact murdered him.
 
“Viewed most favorably to the verdict, the evidence shows that (Dora) got Martinez to seek out someone to kill Fischer and that Martinez turned to Garza to find someone to do the killing,” the appeals court wrote. “There is sufficient evidence to show that (Dora) gave envelopes of money, directions, and information to Martinez to pass on to Garza, and that Fischer was killed by gunshots fired from the same type of weapon purchased by Garza.
 
“The evidence that was admitted…does not support a finding that (Dora) either employed Pizana or Olivarez, or that Pizana or Olivarez murdered Fischer.”
 
When closely analyzed, the jury was instructed that unless they found that Olivarez or Pizana murdered Joey, they could not convict Dora.
 
“The record clearly shows that there was simply no evidence admitted against (Dora) to establish that Olivarez killed Fischer,” the judges wrote. “As for Pizana, there are some suspicious facts regarding his involvement, but none rise to the level of beyond a reasonable doubt.”
 
Furthermore, the court opined, “the jury was instructed that unless they found that (Dora) employed Israel Olivarez or Heriberto Pizana to murder Fischer, they could not convict (her) of capital murder. We find the evidence insufficient to show that appellant herself employed Olivarez and Pizana to kill Fischer.”
 
In January 1996, Dora Cisneros walked out of prison a free woman.
 
Not surprisingly, the reaction from most people was anger and frustration.
 
“I’m outraged to think that justice depends on such a small technicality,” Mike Pashos, a friend of the Fischer family told the Houston Chronicle.
 
Joey’s father was furious.
 
“She was convicted on the evidence, and she is being acquitted on paperwork…a paperwork technicality,” he said. “And I think it’s ridiculous.”
 
Dora Cisneros’s attorney acknowledged that the decision did hinge on a “trial blunder” by the district attorney. But a victory is a victory, he said.
 
“We won; it’s over with,” said Tony Canales.
 
But Canales was premature, and at least in Joey Fischer’s case, the scales of justice just took a little longer to balance out.
 
In 1998, the federal government stepped in and picked up the case. About five years after Joey Fischer was murdered, FBI agents arrested Dora at her Brownsville home after she was indicted for using an interstate communications device, a/k/a a telephone, in furtherance of the murder-for-hire plot.
 
After a weeklong trial that differed little from the state trial (except for the charge to the jury, of course) Dora Cisneros was convicted of using the telephone to arrange for Joey’s murder. The judge handed down a life sentence.
 
Dora appealed again, arguing that there was insufficient evidence that she used the telephone in furtherance of the conspiracy.
 
Eventually the U.S. Court of Appeals (in 2006) ruled that it didn’t matter how much Dora used the phone, the fact that she caused Garza (through Martinez) to engage in the use of the phone and travel for an act the resulted in murder made her as guilty as the men who pulled the trigger.
 
As of today Dora Cisneros is serving her life term in a federal prison.