— For years, Des Plaines police had no idea who committed the grisly 1999 knife murder of United Airlines flight attendant Young Kavila.
The slender 30-year-old was nearly beheaded as she tried to fight off an attempted sexual assault in the kitchen of her north suburban apartment, according to law enforcement records. The killer left fingerprints and drops of his blood that police could not match.
Then in October 2007 a family of frightened immigrants told detectives of a violent, hard-drinking relative in Mexico who had boasted about the murder — and threatened to kill any relative who gave him up.
Detective Jennifer De Pastors quickly confirmed links to the crime-scene fingerprints and DNA, and authorities filed murder charges against Luis Rodriguez-Mena, a 37-year-old factory worker who had lived near Kavila's apartment before abruptly returning to his childhood home in central Mexico, government records and interviews show.
FBI agents turned the case over to their Mexican counterparts, who began an operation to capture the suspect in Jiutepec, a crowded maze of cinder-block houses tucked between massive factories.
But the fugitive hunt soon ran aground, leaving Rodriguez-Mena free and Des Plaines police wondering what went wrong.
"It's just been very frustrating for us," Des Plaines Chief Jim Prandini told the Tribune. "We wish we could go get him ourselves."
In its "Fugitives From Justice" investigation, the Tribune found suspects going free because of the lack of coordination among law enforcement officials on the U.S. side of the border. The Rodriguez-Mena case highlights another dimension of the problem: the breakdowns that can take place inside Mexico, which accounts for more than half of all U.S. extradition efforts.
Because the Justice Department shrouds America's extradition program in intense secrecy, it is usually impossible to determine what goes wrong in specific efforts to capture border-crossing fugitives. The Rodriguez-Mena case, though, helps lift a veil on a clandestine world.
FBI reports, Mexican government records and interviews all allowed a closer look at the corruption, incompetence and lack of resources that undermine many attempts to apprehend fugitives in Mexico.
Mexico's elite fugitive task force pursued Rodriguez-Mena in fits and sputters, at one point calling off the investigation for months because the force had been infiltrated by powerful drug cartels and needed to be completely reorganized and retrained, FBI reports and other government records show.
U.S. authorities decided not to ask the Mexican agents to enter Rodriguez-Mena's name into a Mexican warrant database — which would alert any local cop who stopped the suspect — because the "high amount of corruption" among Mexican officials "would make the use of such a database an imprudent tactic," one FBI report concluded.
"As has occurred in the past," a Mexican state or local police officer might spot the warrant and use it to extort the suspect, that report said. "In other words, the wanted subject could pay the officer not to be arrested."
In recent testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called the law enforcement breakdowns exposed by the Tribune investigation "simply unacceptable" but praised Mexico's stepped up efforts to capture and extradite fugitives who flee the U.S. to evade trial.
"We have seen dramatic improvements in our extradition relationship" with Mexico, Holder wrote in a letter last month to Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., noting that Mexico in the last fiscal year extradited 104 wanted suspects to the U.S., compared with 12 in 2000.
Yet the returned fugitives still represent a fraction of the thousands of criminal suspects who absconded to Mexico in recent years and live there with apparent impunity today, separate government records show.
The office of Mexico's federal attorney general, which oversees extradition cases, declined repeated requests for information or comment. Officials in the state of Morelos, where Jiutepec is located, said they weren't aware of the Rodriguez-Mena case.
Chicago FBI spokesman Ross Rice said American agents can do little to apprehend fugitives in Mexico and other countries.
"FBI agents have no authority to conduct investigations or make arrests in foreign countries without the express permission of the host government," Rice said. "While we do have agents assigned to U.S. embassies around the world, they can only act in a liaison capacity."
In off-the-record interviews, U.S. federal agents often expressed anger at the Mexican authorities they must rely on to carry out missions to apprehend fugitives, saying Mexico's police agencies remain an often untrustworthy and ineffective partner in the effort to bring the suspects back.
One frustrated American agent recounted how Mexican police knocked on the door of Chicago murder suspect Raul Tolentino in the city of Morelia about three years ago — then inexplicably retreated after the man who answered refused to open the door. When Mexican authorities returned several weeks later at the urging of an FBI liaison, they found the house abandoned. Tolentino remains at large.
In Jiutepec, Rodriguez-Mena was living openly at his parents' house at least until July 2007, when he secured a driver's license in his own name, government records in central Mexico show. But the Tribune found no further trace of him in records there or in the bordering state of Guerrero where he has family.
Although it is impossible to tell whether Rodriguez-Mena somehow learned of the manhunt, he effectively dropped off the grid around the time the Mexican pursuit began.
Murder charges remain pending against Rodriguez-Mena in Cook County, but the Mexican police effort to capture him ended for all practical purposes in November 2009, records and interviews show.
The unsolved homicide remains a high priority for Des Plaines police because it was one of the few true "stranger murders" in that northern suburb in recent memory.
A Seoul-born 30-year-old with long black hair, United Airlines flight attendant Young Kavila lived in constant motion.
Separated from her Thai husband and dating a California man, Kavila lived on the West Coast but maintained a small, spare apartment near O'Hare International Airport with another flight attendant. Each month she sent a portion of her salary to Korea to help support her parents and two younger brothers.
Arriving on a flight into Chicago on the evening of Nov. 30, 1999, she stopped to buy groceries and some take-out Chinese food before heading home about 10 p.m., according to evidence Des Plaines detectives later pieced together.
It's not clear how Kavila's killer got into her apartment, but he accosted and tried to sexually assault her, according to law enforcement records. She fought back ferociously, grabbing a small personal-grooming razor and slashing her attacker, according to forensic evidence gathered by Des Plaines detectives. But her attacker had a boot knife and cut her throat, almost beheading her, police records show. Then he fled.
When Kavila's roommate arrived minutes later, she found Kavila's body face-up on the kitchen floor in a puddle of blood, wearing only a bra. Missing were a diamond ring, some necklaces and her wallet.
Kavila's killer had wiped his hands on her bed covers and briefly dropped his bloody knife there. He also left clear finger and palm prints on the kitchen counter and a doorknob.
Des Plaines police collected DNA swabs from hundreds of men, from taxi drivers and truckers who passed the area to residents of nearby apartments. But they got nowhere until October 2007, when two relatives of Rodriguez-Mena came forward and told police that Rodriguez-Mena had "bragged about the killing to family members in Mexico," according to one FBI report.
The relatives said they fled Mexico in fear after Rodriguez-Mena threatened one of them with a screwdriver and also threatened to kill a second relative and her family.
Federal agents contacted Mexican authorities and got Rodriguez-Mena's fingerprints from a March 2006 DUI arrest in Cuernavaca, which is near Jiutepec. The prints matched those left at the scene.
Rodriguez-Mena had been living at his parent's house in Jiutepec and working sporadically as a laborer on construction sites, sometimes hiking into the hills to shoot doves for dinner. His relatives gave police a family video showing Rodriguez-Mena — looking relaxed and happy in a tank top and baseball cap — clutching a Sol beer and joking with family members as they held cockfights in the courtyard of the family home.
Police also located an ex-girlfriend of Rodriguez-Mena's who had his child in 2001, and genetic testing concluded there was a 99.98 percent chance the child was related to the person whose blood was found at the murder scene.
An undocumented immigrant who surfaced in America in the late 1990s, Rodriguez-Mena had worked in a Des Plaines pillow factory while living with the girlfriend in an apartment complex across the parking lot from Kavila, records and interviews show.
That woman told police that Rodriguez-Mena hastily took her to Mexico on a Greyhound bus the morning after Kavila was killed, telling her falsely that he had a family emergency there. Once in Jiutepec, he sought medical treatment to stitch deep gashes across his torso that she said he told her were from a gang fight.
She told police she subsequently returned to Chicago because he beat her repeatedly, once nearly to death, and threatened to kill her.
At the urging of FBI agents, Mexican authorities in 2008 issued a warrant for Rodriguez-Mena's arrest in that country. But the next year and a half would bring a series of missteps, delays and blown opportunities.
By August 2008, U.S. agents were working with Mexico's Agencia Federal de Investigation, or AFI, the elite force of agents modeled after America's FBI. The AFI began staking out the parents' home, located on a short, narrow street packed with low-slung houses where residents watch the passing scene from windows and doorsteps.
The FBI told Des Plaines police an arrest was imminent and advised Des Plaines Chief Jim Prandini to stand by to book Rodriguez-Mena. Police also worked to round up witnesses they would need to testify before a grand jury.
Prandini assigned officers to work overtime one day — and then the next, and another. "We were waiting in the wings to make it happen," he told the Tribune.
But unbeknown to Des Plaines police, the AFI team was pulled off the case after about three days to apprehend another U.S. fugitive in a nearby town, an FBI report shows.
The AFI reassured their American counterparts they planned to return to Jiutepec for another round of surveillance "in the coming weeks," an FBI memo said.
But before that happened, the AFI underwent a "major universal reorganization, which caused substantial personnel changes and mandatory retraining of all agents," an FBI memo said.
Separate government and media reports show the AFI had been heavily infiltrated by powerful drug cartels. As many as a fifth of AFI's 7,000 agents had come under investigation for criminal activity, some for kidnappings and assassinations, and in November 2008 the agency's second-in-command was arrested for allegedly leaking information to the Sinaloa drug cartel in return for monthly cash bribes.
Scandals like that have recurred over the last decade as Mexico struggles to reform its law enforcement agencies. Over the next months, the Mexican government would restructure the AFI as the newly named Ministerial Federal Police.
The FBI was asked to play a role in retraining the new force, and the Rodriguez-Mena case and other Mexican fugitive hunts were "put on hold indefinitely," according to an FBI memo.
It wasn't until three or four months later, in January or February 2009, that a new Mexican team returned to Jiutepec and made renewed attempts to locate Rodriguez-Mena.
They again staked out his parents' house and reviewed phone records. But over the next months, FBI management in Chicago determined that the undercover surveillance tactics "were not likely to have success."
In November 2009, Des Plaines Detective De Pastors persuaded a relative of Rodriguez-Mena's to make a last-ditch call to Rodriguez-Mena's mother and ask about his whereabouts while police listened in. The Mexican federal police stationed a team in Cuernavaca, "ready to take action based on the outcome of the cooperator's call," the FBI memo said.
When the relative called Rodriguez-Mena's mother on her mobile phone, she asserted that Rodriguez-Mena had gotten into a fistfight with his father and moved out of the home about two years earlier.
With that, the manhunt in Mexico effectively ended. "No one has checked back on the case," a frustrated De Pastors told the Tribune. "It's been a long, hard road. We don't know where to look."
Prandini added: "Ms. Kavila and her family deserve better than this."
Over the years, Kavila's boyfriend, Edbar Zaman, wrote letters to every member of Congress and passed out thousands of postcards with Kavila's story across the Chicago area. He, United Airlines and Des Plaines police have raised a combined $21,000 reward for any information that will lead to a capture and conviction.
"Not a single day, not a single moment in my life goes by without remembering her. I still drink the same tea that Young loved. ... I still remember her smile and laughter," Zaman told the Tribune. "It is absolutely painful knowing that the person responsible for taking the life of such a sweet, beautiful, lovely human being is still living, breathing just across the border."
In Jiutepec and in the rural farming town of Ixcateopan de Cuauhtemoc, where Rodriguez-Mena's family hails from, the fugitive's mother, grandmother and one of his brothers all told reporters they had no idea Rodriguez-Mena was wanted for a crime and that they hadn't seen or heard from him in many years. As far as they knew, they said, he had returned to the U.S.
Mexican authorities have not questioned the family about Rodriguez-Mena's whereabouts, his brother Rosendo Rodriguez-Mena told the Tribune. "That I know, they've never come," said Rosendo, sitting in the cement courtyard of his home next door to their parents in Jiutepec. "You're the first people who've come here."Copyright © 2015, CT Now