Up until he died, Bonifacio Chavez hoped he would help find the man accused of fatally stabbing his daughter in their Pilsen living room.
The young woman's ex-boyfriend, Raul Andrade Tolentino, had confessed in 2000 to the crime, authorities said, but then fled across the U.S. border after his family posted bond.
Chavez traveled to Mexico repeatedly in search of leads, slipping through small towns and discreetly interviewing informants until he had gathered enough information to pass along to police.
With that help, authorities traced Tolentino to the central Mexican state of Michoacan, but they made no visible progress after that. Chavez died in 2007 without seeing Tolentino arrested or tried, and today, 11 years after the killing, authorities appear no closer to bringing him to justice.
Gathered in the living room where Alma Chavez, 19, was fatally wounded, her family described the last time they went to the Cook County Criminal Courts Building to ask prosecutors about the search for Tolentino.
"They couldn't find his file. They couldn't find his photo," said Alma's brother Miguel "Mike" Chavez.
During a recent trip to Mexico, Tribune reporters used public records to confirm that Tolentino had returned to Michoacan's capital of Morelia, near where he grew up; he had registered a pickup truck under his own name in 2008 and signed up to vote.
But officials in the Michoacan attorney general's office said they had never heard of Tolentino and were not seeking his arrest. They vowed to search for him but later emailed to say he couldn't be found.
The unresolved case is typical of dozens of other international fugitive hunts examined during a Tribune investigation — cases marked by blown opportunities, miscommunication between government agencies and inexplicable, years-long delays.
Learning that Tolentino was still at large was difficult for Mike Chavez, who had watched his sister die. But Chavez said the family isn't giving up. "We got to keep searching," he said.
In the Pilsen home where the Chavez family has lived since 1979, Alma's bedroom is almost exactly as she left it. Three framed Catholic religious prints grace the walls, and Mickey Mouse dolls are perched on shelves that hold her neatly folded ROTC uniform and her cap and gown from Juarez High School.
The youngest of nine siblings, nurturing and gregarious, Alma was studying to be a nurse. Her traditional parents discouraged her from having boyfriends.
But Tolentino, who was 28 at the time, seemed like a perfect prospect: a serious young man who worked in a factory. "He was a real quiet guy," Mike Chavez said. "Not a gangbanger. I never saw him drunk, nothing like that."
After dating him for about a year, however, Alma decided to break it off. She didn't tell her family why.
On the morning Alma died in January 2000, her mother, Ana Maria, left at 6:30 as usual for her factory job, leaving Alma alone in the house as she readied herself for school.
It's not clear how Tolentino entered the Chavez home — perhaps he simply knocked on the door. But within minutes, police records show, Alma had been stabbed several times with a knife. As she lay bleeding on the living room floor, she managed to call a cellphone emergency dispatch service.
Police arrived to find Tolentino there too, bleeding from the stomach. A responding officer called in an initial report. "Best we got so far of this story ... the man stabbed a woman and then he went and he stabbed himself real good," he said, according to the 911 recording.
At Mt. Sinai Hospital, Alma was able to speak to her family before she died. "I kissed her and said how much I loved her. She said, 'Don't do nothing to him. Just let it go,'" Mike Chavez recalled.
Government records show that Tolentino became a fugitive a little over a month after his family posted a bail bond of $20,000, an amount that outraged Alma's relatives.
"$20,000 for a life! It is like putting a down payment on a vehicle. It is nothing," said Diana Rodriguez, a niece of Alma's.
The FBI quickly gained information that Tolentino was with his mother in California. But when agents got to that address, they found the two had gone home to Mexico.
After that, according to a later federal warrant, "the matter was not pursued" because "there were no set formal extradition procedures at the time." That explanation is strange, as America has had an extradition treaty with Mexico since 1980 and other fugitives have been returned to face trial.
Families of crime victims often hear rumors about the suspect and provide that information to police, but the Chavezes went even further after Tolentino fled. "My dad used to go to Mexico and spend money trying to bring him to justice," Mike Chavez said.
"He would give money to the police. He felt like … if you don't give them money, they don't care."
Bonifacio Chavez determined that Tolentino had settled in Morelia, apparently starting a family there while working in a pizza parlor. In 2006, the U.S. Justice Department recounted Chavez's findings in a warrant seeking Tolentino's arrest.
But U.S. authorities didn't request an arrest warrant from Mexico until 2007, and the Mexican government didn't issue an arrest warrant until 2008.
Shortly after that, according to a U.S. law enforcement source, Mexican authorities knocked on what they believed was Tolentino's door. The man who answered said he wasn't Tolentino and wouldn't open the door. When police returned weeks later with an American law enforcement liaison, the house was empty.
In late September, after fielding the Tribune's questions and learning that a Mexican federal arrest warrant for Tolentino was still pending, Michoacan authorities pledged to open an investigation.
But after a few days, the official in charge of extraditions for the state attorney general emailed to say that state and federal authorities had been unable to locate Tolentino despite conducting "operations" at different homes associated with him.
"The current whereabouts of this fugitive are unknown," the official said.