Now there are 13

[This article, about the funeral of a young couple who died during a 50-hour rampage by their brother-in-law that started in College Station and left six people dead, was published on the front page of the Sunday Houston Post, Oct. 16, 1983. I don’t know why I was assigned to cover this funeral, most probably because I was working on the weekend of the funeral. What I do know is that there were two types of assignments I hoped I didn’t get: covering funerals and covering police stories that involved a dead body. I was lucky in that I never did get to see a corpse as part of an assignment, but I did cover several funerals, including that of former U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan (for The Austin American-Statesman) and for some of the astronauts who died in the first space shuttle explosion, in Arlington National Cemetery. (The headline on this story was “Rest in peace: funeral can’t bury horror of Garzas’ deaths.”

Why am I sharing this with you? I don’t really know. I like how I handled the assignment, I guess.]

 

At 3’oclock in the morning,

I happened to fall asleep,

And I heard a voice that said,

“Farewell, beloved brothers

and sisters.”

 

Now you leave us, dear brother,

for other climes;

now you are going away

to the Kingdom of Heaven.

 

— From Don Pedrito Jaramillo,” an old Texas-Mexican ballad

 

DONNA —They played taps at the funeral of Juan and Esther Garza Saturday afternoon. The mournful tune came from a cassette recorder nestled between the branches of a tree near the gravesite.

The Garzas were buried in simple identical brown coffins at the edge of town, in a cemetery by the railroad tracks. His was draped by an American flag — he was an Air Force veteran — hers was decorated with a wreath of pink carnations.

It will be a long time, however, before people here bury the thoughts of how the young couple died, or why.

It will take a while for them to forget, the tragic figure of Gertrudes Garza as she tearfully formed a cross atop her daughter-in-law’s coffin with a handful of dirt, and how she then clung hysterically to her son’s casket.

Or the sight of the mother and another son inside the church while the priest distributed Holy Communion. The son, one of the pallbearers, sat down and threw his head back in exhaustion. It landed in the arms of his mother, who was kneeling behind him. She reached around and hugged him, and he grasped her arms, and together they cried silently.

“It just isn’t right,” said Ramiro Alegría outside St. Joseph’s Catholic Church as the choir sang a Spanish version of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” Alegría described himself as a friend of both Garza and the man charged with his death, and he said he couldn’t believe one friend was dead and the other in jail, accused of killing him.

The 400 people who joined the Garzas in their grief knew, of course, that there is nothing right about death that comes, as Father Joseph Mathey said at the funeral, “like a thief in the night, without warning.”

Although the only reference in the priest’s remarks to the senselessness that led to the funeral was his observation that Juan and Esther “did not know they would die so tragically,” the people there were very much aware that if it hadn’t been for one man’s rampage, there would not have been a funeral that day.

Many people here in this town of 9,932 have, like Alegría, spent the last few days talking about the deaths of the two former residents.

“They’re asking why,” said family friend Macaria Castañeda. “They want to know how such a thing could happen.”

Authorities say they know how: The Garzas died Tuesday at the hands of Eliseo Moreno, their brother-in-law, in their College Station home — but they too are ignorant as to why it happened. The Garzas were the first of Moreno’s alleged victims to die in last week’s tragedy. Ironically, they were the last to be buried.

James Arthur Bennett, 62, was buried Thursday in Shilo Cemetery in Hempstead, and Ollie Wilkins, 79, was buried Friday in Salem Cemetery in Hempstead. Russell Lynn Boyd, 25, a Department of Public Safety officer, was also buried Thursday, in Weatherford.

It is almost a given that people reacting to this type of tragedy will say they are shocked, that the accused was a quiet man, certainly not the type who would gun down another person, much less five.

And that’s what most said here Saturday. Except, of course, for the Garza family. The Garzas have very little good to say about the man who authorities say gunned down Juan Garza – who was both older brother and father to his siblings – and then shot Garza’s wife, in the presence of their two young children.

One by one, Garza’s six brothers and seven sisters – including Blanca, Eliseo Moreno’s wife – followed their mother’s lead and symbolically poured earth over the coffins of their brother and sister-in-law.

One of the many wreaths waiting at the cemetery was a yellow one from Esther’s co-workers at a Texas A&M University cafeteria.

For most residents of Donna and adjacent Weslaco, where Moreno’s parents and other family members live, the outrage, the sense of horror, is simply not here.

In its place is found a quiet resignation, a reluctant acceptance of the senselessness resulting from another case of la locura, the madness.

It is what mothers say about sons who do wild things while drinking or out with friends. It is what is said here about anybody’s actions that can’t be explained: Se le metió la locura

Translation: “He was filled with madness.”

So that is what is being said about Eliseo Moreno, the man from neighboring Weslaco, known as one of the young Morenos “who cut the grass,” and grew up to fix the machines that cut the grass.

Original speculation was that he began his rampage because he loved his wife too much to have her denied him. Others have said the crimes of which he is accused grew out of a blind rage consistent with his previous threats to do harm to those who would stand in his way.

But whether it was a madness sparked by love or anger, this is the type of stuff from which South Texas corridos — ballads — come. The corridos have been the Texas Mexicans’ way of telling a story for generations. They have been written about generals and heroes, about drug peddlers and Texas Rangers, and about outlaws and their victims. If someone were to write the Ballad of José Eliseo Moreno, they could end it by quoting Gertrudes Garza.

“Now there are 13,” she said when asked how many children she had. “There’s only 13.”

 

[Post scripts:

– Moreno was sentenced to death for the killing of the state trooper and received lengthy prison terms for the other killings. He was executed March 4, 1987. His last words, according to AP, were “I’m willing to pay according to the laws of Texas because I know I’m guilty.” He was 27.

– The corrido quoted above is from one of several written about Don Pedrito Jaramillo, who was born in Mexico but lived in Starr County. He was a very popular curandero throughout South Texas. There is a state historical marker about him in Falfurrias.]

About juanzqui7

Former Texas reporter, columnist and editorial writer.
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