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Excited About Life

Friends keenly mourn the death of Esme Barrera

By Jordan Smith, Fri., Jan. 13, 2012

Esme Barrera at Girls Rock Camp, July 2010
Esme Barrera at Girls Rock Camp, July 2010
Photo by Shelley Hiam

Sixteen-year-old guitarist Frankie Blue was with her dad at a Buzzcocks show at Mohawk in June 2010 when she spotted Esmeralda Barrera right up in front of the stage. Barrera was "so enthusiastic," Blue recently recalled, "dancing and moshing." Blue, one-fifth of the teen rock band Schmil­lion, met Barrera, 29, at Girls Rock Camp Austin in 2008, where Barrera was a volunteer and where Schmillion was formed a year later. Blue, like so many of the other girls at the camp, adored Barrera. She was always excited – funny and sincere and supportive. She caught Barrera's eye, and Barrera smiled warmly, waving to Blue; Blue made her way to the front, and the two spent the show dancing next to each other.

As she watched the seminal English punk band play, Blue thought that she should grab the show's set list, but didn't. "I wasn't spontaneous enough to go after it."

The following Monday, when Blue arrived at Girls Rock Camp, Barrera immediately came up to greet her: "I'm so glad you're here!" Blue remembers Barrera saying. "I got you the set list!" Blue was touched; she hadn't said anything to Barrera about wanting the list. But that was "so Esme" – as friends lovingly called Barrera – "to do something so cool and to share it with someone else. I only wanted it because of the Buzzcocks, but now I'm glad to have it because it came from Esme," she continues. "I wasn't one of her close friends – I wish I had been, because she was awesome, but we were different ages – but no matter how much you knew her, you wanted to know her more, and you wanted to be just like her."

Barrera was a well-loved fixture of the Austin music scene. The El Paso native and longtime Austinite was, as many describe her, a No. 1 fan, an enthusiastic supporter of the children with special needs whom she worked with as a teaching assistant at Casis Elementary School, and a booster extraordinaire of the Alternative Softball League and the Waterloo Records team, where she worked part-time for several years. She was an indefatigable music lover – supportive of all things Austin music – and regularly presented friends with personally crafted mixtapes and discs. She was unique and special, her heartbroken friends all say.

Flowers, candles, and notes placed outside Barrera's home
Flowers, candles, and notes placed outside Barrera's home
Photo by Jana Birchum

And now she's gone.

Just before 3am on Jan. 1, Barrera became the city's first murder victim of 2012. She was killed in her home shortly after she'd returned from ringing in the new year at the 29th Street Ballroom, a few blocks from her rented cottage near the intersection of King and 31st streets. Barrera's slaying – which happened shortly after another woman was attacked just steps from Bar­rera's front door (that woman survived) and not long before another woman, just blocks to the east, awoke in her bedroom to find a man attacking her (she was injured, police say, but also survived the attack) – has put people on edge in Central Austin. Police cannot say definitively that the attacks are connected, though they do say the close proximity and brief timeline would otherwise be a remarkable coincidence. With the help of the first woman who reported having been attacked – whose name has not been released, nor has that of the subsequent victim – the Austin Police Department has developed a description of a possible suspect and a sketch of what he might look like.

Friends and acquaintances of Barrera's – and even people who say they didn't know her at all – have plastered the inner-city neighborhoods with fliers bearing that likeness and with the admonition that women should not walk alone and should be sure to lock their homes, as well as a plea that anyone with any information about the suspect should call the police. Police have not publicly said much more about the case, and that – along with what at least one news outlet, KXAN-TV, asserted that police have not done – seems to be feeding a growing sense of fear, not only that a serial attacker is on the loose in idyllic Austin, but that Barrera's murder could have been avoided if police had done something more after the first reported attack. That there is a perpetrator at large who needs to be caught is clear; that Barrera's killing could somehow have been prevented is not so apparent. That is the raw and sad reality in a growing city: Crime can strike at will, without warning, and take away those we cherish most.

For Barrera, Austin's guitars weep.

Energy and Optimism

Esme Barrera was a firecracker. She was petite and striking – warm brown skin, deep brown eyes, full lips quick to smile. She jumped and danced and rocked. And she knew almost everyone in Austin – or so it seems. News that Barrera had been slain spread like wildfire through Austin's interconnected music scene; it blazed through cyberspace, bounced from Facebook page to page, Twitter feed to feed, even before police had publicly released her name. Blogs were quickly filled with remembrances, and sites dedicated to her sprang up everywhere; tributes to her life featuring her favorite Austin bands were quickly scheduled, with proceeds going to help her family with funeral expenses.

Jan. 1 locations of the three attacks, along with the 29th Street Ballroom, where Barrera celebrated New Year's Eve
Jan. 1 locations of the three attacks, along with the 29th Street Ballroom, where Barrera celebrated New Year's Eve

The outpouring of love and grief is no surprise to those who knew her. "I think it was her sister who originally said [about Esme], 'Her heart was as big as her tiny body,'" said Rachael Shannon, who worked with Barrera at Girls Rock Camp. "Not to be ironic, it was her infectious excitement about life. It was awesome and contagious. She was a fan of everything – of life, of music, of Girls Rock Camp. It's one of the things that made her so powerful." Musician Melissa Bryan says Barrera was bursting with energy, ready to jump in everywhere as a camp volunteer. "I never thought of her as being diminutive because her personality was so large," she recalls. "She was so good at making these kids feel welcome, at giving them the boost they need. She was very present."

That was also true at Barrera's day job at Casis Ele­men­tary, where she tutored kids with special needs, said friend Linda Grey (also a teacher, though not at Casis), who met Barrera when the two worked at Waterloo. Barrera put her all into everything she did, Grey says. She spent her days at Casis before taking the bus to Austin Community College, where she was studying for her teaching certificate. Then she would go out to support musicians she'd come to know and love. "She was so dedicated. ... She lived life to the fullest and just fit so much in," said Grey. "Kids loved her because she was almost kidlike – in a pure and genuine way. If she loved something, she was not scared to say [it]. She had a childlike optimism that made the most of any situation."

Bryan last saw Barrera on New Year's Eve from across the crowded 29th Street Ballroom; earlier, as Barrera was preparing to go out, she'd sent a text to Bryan: "I look ridiculous!" Watching Barrera from across the room, Bryan says she looked anything but, wearing a little dress (maybe it's because she was dressed up that she thought she looked funny, Bryan wonders) and in her element, with a friend who was DJ'ing, having a great time. That's how she wants Barrera to be remembered. "The thing I really wish for her is I don't want her to be remembered as a murder victim," says Bry­an. And she's angry with the media for referring to her friend with that moniker, or as the "first homicide victim of 2012," she says. "She's one who embraced life. She had a great time; she worked really hard. She was always positive despite the situation."

A Series of Attacks

Barrera left the club shortly after closing, heading home on foot to her house, roughly five quick blocks away. The home sits behind a main house on the lot; it's a small garden-style cottage in a secluded setting – surprisingly isolated for a home in a populated urban area, says Chronicle Sports Editor Mark Fagan, who counted Barrera among his close friends (as did a number of the paper's employees). At 2:46am, Austin police received a 911 call reporting that Barrera had been attacked and "seriously injured," says APD Cmdr. Julie O'Brien. "Unfortunately, [she] didn't survive her injuries." Barrera died in her home.

Police have not said how Barrera was killed and have not released any additional details about the crime or the circumstances. They are actively searching for a man described by another young woman who was attacked just a half-hour before Barrera and on the same block. (Reportedly, the attack occurred on the sidewalk in front of the property where Barrera lived; police would not confirm that detail, only that the attack happened nearby.) According to police and media reports, the 21-year-old woman was walking to her home not far from Barrera's after leaving a nearby birthday party. As she walked, she got the feeling somebody was following her, says O'Brien, and she "stepped to the side to let him pass." She then continued toward her destination on King Street. Suddenly, she was attacked from behind and "thrown to the ground by a stranger to her," says O'Brien. The woman struggled and screamed, and the man fled; she found help from some nearby neighbors and called police.

A police sketch of the suspect in the first attack of a woman near Barrera's home
A police sketch of the suspect in the first attack of a woman near Barrera's home

An officer arrived, heard the woman's story, and set off to search the neighborhood by car, police say. In fact, says Police Chief Art Acevedo, that officer was still on the hunt for the man described by the 21-year-old when a call to homicide detectives sent them to Barrera's home. As the investigation began, however, a third woman was attacked – around 5am, just blocks to the east, on the other side of Speedway in the 300 block of East 31st. According to police and published reports, this time a 19-year-old woman awoke "in her home being attacked by a man she did not know," says O'Brien. "Fortunately, in that one, he ran off."

Were the three attacks related, committed by the same person? That is something that police won't definitively say – "We want to know," says O'Brien. Police did say it's extremely unlikely that three random attacks would happen so close together in time and place. Thanks to the first victim, police have a working sketch, released on Jan. 2. The 21-year-old woman described her attacker as a black man in his 30s, about 6 feet tall with a muscular build and large brown eyes. He was wearing a gray hooded jacket, she reported, over a dark-colored T-shirt and jeans. "Until we can ID a suspect," says O'Brien, police won't know if he is responsible for all three attacks.

Meanwhile, the 19-year-old attacked after Barrera's murder says that the man who assaulted her in her bed – choking her before fleeing the apartment – was the same man she saw on Christmas Day at around 5pm, masturbating outside her apartment window. In that incident, she told Fox 7, she was alone in the apartment when she heard a noise outside; when she opened the door, she saw a black man standing there, grinning at her – "It was the scariest grin I'd ever seen," she told the station on Jan. 5. She gave police a description: a black man in his 20s with short hair and broad shoulders; he was wearing baggy jeans and a polo shirt with orange horizontal stripes. Early on New Year's Day, she said, she awoke to the same man choking her in her bed. Police released the sketch of the Christmas Day suspect on Jan. 4. On Monday, O'Brien told a neighborhood meeting that while they are not excluding any possibility, investigators currently have no evidence that the assaults or indecent exposure incident are related to Barrera's murder.

(In what does appear a coincidence of timing, a homeless woman, Stephanie Har­vey, was also murdered on or before New Year's Eve in North Austin, and a suspect was traced and arrested a few days later. Police have not concluded their investigation, but Harvey's murder doesn't appear to be connected to Barrera's.)

Bitter Wisdom

The random and violent nature of the attacks has startled many in the central city – including those who knew and loved Barrera. On Jan. 3, more than 40 people met at Wheatsville Food Co-op at the behest of two friends, musician Lisa Dirocco and Melody Shifflet, organizing to spread the word about the attacks and to urge people to take precautions. Shifflet says she didn't know Barrera well, but said, "It's my duty, as a part of the community, to take responsibility" to help find her killer.

Excited About Life
Courtesy of Melissa Bryan

Christina Jarrous, who knew Bar­rera for nearly a decade, said that she and her friends decided to talk about her to the media in an effort to keep the story alive. "To have it have some profile ... will help the APD," she said. Moreover, Jarrous believes that the violent crime suggests a drawback of Austin's iconic slacker image. "Nobody in this town pays attention to anything. They see something strange on the street, or someone behaves strangely with them on the street, they don't mention it to friends, and they don't report it to the police," she says, just dismissing it as "weird." Perhaps, she says, it's time to be more wary. "I'm aware and afraid that people might turn this into a witch hunt or into being afraid, instead of being proactive," she says. She does not want that, but "you should be able to walk down the street at night; that's the way I want this city to be in 20 years," she says. "We want this person found."

O'Brien and other police officers agree that the string of New Year's Day attacks and the murder of Barrera are not typical for Austin – which remains among the safest of U.S. cities. She doesn't believe that people should panic but notes that it is always a good idea to "be aware of your surroundings." Walking in pairs and locking your doors and windows are always good safety tips.

That's a bitter reminder evoked by Barrera's death. Jarrous says that as much as she wants Austin to be the safe place she loves, she admits it doesn't feel that way right now. "This person has to be out there; I'm starting to understand [that while it is] good that all of us are so open, I don't feel so good anymore. That's a fact," she says. "There's a sense of safety [that is gone]. My friend was not in an accident; she did not die from natural causes; she was not killed because of someone's negligence, but because somebody out there with an ugly and disgusting way of seeing the world has come into our world now."

'Be Excited'

An undercurrent of public wariness has become more apparent in the days since Barrera's murder. There is much unconfirmed speculation about the attacker in online comments, blog posts, and conversations lamenting Barrera's death. Someone heard the attacker was a customer, even a regular, at Nasty's, a nearby bar; another woman says she wonders if the man is the same man who has been stealing things from apartments in the complex where she lives; a commenter online says that just days before her death, Barrera had said that her cottage had recently been broken into but only the "oddest" things were taken; a compilation on Facebook of six recent police composites fed speculation that the attacker is taking advantage of APD's holiday focus on DUI arrests, but O'Brien said the other composites are unrelated to the New Year's crimes.

The rumors have also led some to charge that the police are not working hard enough to solve the murder – or perhaps didn't do enough to prevent it. That sentiment has been fueled by reporting from KXAN-TV, which first reported on Jan. 4 that an "apparent gap in communication may have cost the [APD] critical time in tracking down a suspect" in the Barrera case. At issue for KXAN is that the officer who responded to the call that the 21-year-old had been attacked did not immediately stop to write a report, and that the officer's report wasn't posted to a public database until the afternoon after the attack.

In reality, says Acevedo, the officer did not immediately write a report because he was looking for the suspect, and he was still searching the neighborhood when the call for help at Barrera's house came in – and in fact was the first on the scene. (Unless making an arrest, officers are not required to immediately file reports; instead, report writing must to be done in a timely manner, typically by the end of a work shift.) In any case, all available information about calls for police service are immediately entered into the computer-based dispatch system and would instantly be known to police on patrol throughout the city; moreover, detailed incident information about each call remains stored on police computers. So, for example, when homicide detectives began their investigation into Barrera's death, they could readily access the details of all attacks or other violent incidents not only in that neighborhood but also citywide, looking for similar crimes, suspects, or patterns of behavior. It is, police say, "Investigation 101."

On Jan. 6, APD issued a press release saying they have received "numerous tips ... from a multitude of sources" that they're pursuing in their effort to apprehend Barrera's killer. "We've got a lot of information based on the information that we've put out," said O'Brien.

That is encouraging to Barrera's friends, but also cold comfort for their loss. "You know there are some people who over years and years you get to know them, and there are some people that you meet and you immediately know them – you just click, and we forget how we first met them," said Jarrous. The latter, she says, was Barrera: "She was somebody you noticed; she does not blend in – in a good way. You will notice she is not around." That was echoed by former Girls Rock Camp volunteer Rachael Shannon, who met Barrera the first day of camp volunteer training in 2008, at a difficult time for Shannon. One day, at the end of a workshop she was teaching, she turned to face the young students and saw that each of them was now wearing a screenprinted patch with the initials "RSFC" – Rachael Shan­non Fan Club. Shannon laughs warmly at the memory – and of how she learned that Barrera was the one who instigated the surprising gesture. "If she's enthusiastic about something, she's going to show you," Shannon said. "There was so much realness there, and a lot of fun and joy – just a lot of joy." Shannon says (as have other of Barrera's friends) that if Barrera were here and this tragedy had instead happened to one of her friends, she would do something; she would throw herself into action. That sense of what Barrera would do has influenced some to post fliers, to write remembrances, to organize fundraisers, and to tell the stories of the full and loving life of their friend.

Shannon is doing the same. She's made up a batch of patches reading "EBFC" – Esme Bar­rera Fan Club – to repay her friend's kindness. "This is what she'd do; she'd organize, make some things, and be excited," says Shannon. That's the lesson: "Be excited about life. We've got to show up – because Esme showed up."

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