AGUA ROSADA,—The story of Arcelia Flores Coronel's life begins in this cluster of farmhouses on a dirt road that threads through hills graced by apple trees and pink wildflowers. It ends in a drab apartment on a Christmas Eve in Rogers Park.
The young mother of three was beaten and strangled, her body concealed in a bedroom closet behind a hastily constructed wall. The suspect was her husband, a man from a nearby town who brought her to Chicago and since her death has vanished.
Fourteen years after his 29-year-old daughter was slain, Flores makes a simple plea: Can this fugitive be found?
While examining more than 200 fugitive cases from northern Illinois where suspects fled across the U.S. border, the Tribune found that they often simply return to their hometowns. But Arcelia's husband, Jorge Coronel, who is now 49, was one of those who managed to disappear and leave no clues to his whereabouts.
Jorge Coronel has not been definitively sighted near his central Mexican birthplace, and U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials apparently stopped hunting him years ago.
Salvador Frutis, an agent with the Michoacan state attorney general's office in the nearby city of Maravatio, said he and his commanders had never heard of Jorge Coronel. But Frutis pledged to investigate the case after learning of it from American journalists. "I am not going to promise you anything," he added.
A buoyant, slender girl with curly black hair, Arcelia Flores was one of 10 children from a family of subsistence-level farmers. Her bedroom was a converted corn storage bin built by her father from sturdy pine planks, with no heat or electricity. Her wooden cot was piled with blankets and surrounded by family photos and shelves of picture books and dolls.
"She had no evil in her," one family friend recalled.
Jorge Coronel came from a prosperous ranching family, and the Flores family felt that he and his siblings looked down on them. Young Jorge had started his own business, buying and selling furniture in surrounding villages from his six-wheeler truck.
"They said we were dirty Indians," said Arcelia's mother, Crecenzia Perez.
Because Jorge was seven years older than Arcelia, and she was only 14, the Flores family disapproved when the muscular young man began stopping by and asking after her.
One day, the family said, Jorge abducted Arcelia after offering her a ride in his truck, then raped her over several days. About a week later, Jorge returned with Arcelia to her home. Her relatives were furious, but Jorge said he was sorry and would marry her, family members said.
When Arcelia was asked her wishes, she went along with Jorge. "She was a frightened girl. She felt she did not have a choice," Perez said.
"He destroyed her life," said Arcelia's younger brother, Alfredo, who was 8 years old when Jorge took her away in his truck. "The kids started coming. She didn't love him. They fought a lot."
After Arcelia gave birth to three children with him, Jorge came to the U.S. alone. He moved into a tiny apartment in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood and found work as a cook at the Walker Bros. pancake house on Green Bay Road in Wilmette. He practiced tae kwon do at a martial arts studio in Evanston and worked a second job doing light construction and house-painting.
"He always acted like a gentleman at work," said pancake house manager Beth Perez. "He was a big, strong, powerful guy, but very quiet."
Arcelia came north with the children about five years later, in the summer of 1997. She found work making tortillas, beans and rice at That Little Mexican Cafe in Evanston. She walked her children to Field Elementary School in Rogers Park and hurried after work to her own English language classes at Evanston Township High School.
But in late-night phone conversations with friends and relatives, Arcelia spilled out her misery, confiding to several acquaintances that Jorge hit and raped her in front of the children, holding her down by the neck, according to Tribune interviews and police reports.
She was desperate to escape the marriage and return to Mexico without Jorge, relatives and friends said.
As Christmas approached in 1997, one family friend began working on a plan to move her to Denver, where she could be protected before returning home to Agua Rosada.
But on Christmas Eve, according to police and court reports, Jorge allegedly beat and strangled Arcelia. He then stuffed her body into a black trash bag, binding duct tape around her ankles and calves and tying the package with string, according to police.
On Christmas, Jorge told his brother he needed to borrow a car to buy presents for the children, a police report said. In fact, Jorge bought supplies he used to conceal Arcelia's body behind a false wall in the back of a bedroom closet, police reported. "The dry wall section appears new and hastily installed," a later police report said.
The next day, Jorge took the three kids to Dallas by bus. There, he sold several items of home electronics equipment and pawned Arcelia's bracelets and rings to finance the next legs of their journey into Mexico, according to a police report and interviews.
Back in Chicago, Beth Perez was aware of the couple's domestic problems and grew concerned for Arcelia's safety when Jorge did not show up for work, a police report said. On Dec. 29, according to Perez, she called Jorge's brother Miguel and urged him to file a missing person report.
Miguel filed a report four days later. He declined to comment for this story.
Miguel showed police around Jorge and Arcelia's apartment, but the officers found nothing suspicious. Three days later, police returned, noted a strong odor and removed Arcelia's body from behind the plasterboard wall.
By then, Jorge Coronel had already arrived in Maravatio and dropped off the three children at a sister's two-story house. His trail, as detailed in local and federal records, ends there.
"He told relatives in Mexico that he had done something very bad in Chicago, Illinois," a U.S. federal warrant states, "and that they would eventually hear about it from the news."