A new book is telling the real-life tale of a ghastly 2003 murder that rocked the Southern Texas town of Brownsville.
Two young parents, 22-year-old John Allen Rubio and 23-year-old Angela Camacho, murdered their three young children, Julissa Quezada, 3, John Esthefan Rubio, 1, and Mary Jane Rubio, 2 months, in a manner so gruesome, it’s almost impossible to comprehend (seriously, if you are squeamish or otherwise sensitive to gore, click away now). Saying he believed the children were possessed by demons, Rubio admitted to suffocating, stabbing and decapitating them while Camacho said she held their feet so that Rubio could finish the job. It was a crime scene so horrific that local law enforcement say it still haunts them to this day.
Now, a young reporter from New Jersey, who found herself working for The Brownsville Herald in 2008 for her first job out of school, has written a book about the aftermath the crime left on the city. Laura Tillman’s "The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts" starts when the author is tasked to cover a debate on whether the city should demolish the decrepit apartment building where the murders took place. Many locals believe the building holds some evil presence and are in favor of razing it, but a few historians, mostly non-natives, ask whether a building can be evil. The debate led Tillman to examine more closely the real forces that resulted in such a violent and horrific tragedy.
Tillman's exploration includes conversations with Rubio, who is now on death row, as well as personal recollections of her experiences working and living in Brownsville. Camacho, who is serving a life sentence, never answered Tillman’s request for an interview.
The author spoke with Latina about the book, which is more an investigation of the factors that lead to crimes like this one than it is a detailed description of the heinous murders.
You’re from New Jersey. How did you end up working at the Brownsville Herald for your first job in journalism?
I applied to several dozen newspaper jobs after completing an internship after college, and the Herald was one of the only places that responded to me — I hadn't worked at a newspaper before, but I had studied international studies as an undergrad and spoke Spanish, and I think the editor at the time was interested in bringing someone on with that type of experience. I didn't know anyone in Brownsville when I moved there, and it wasn't an easy decision, but reporting on the border offered me the opportunity to write about subjects I'd never get to at most small newspapers.
The story of this gruesome crime is so hard to read. Why should people read your book besides morbid curiosity?
I don't see this book as being about the crime—it's only described in one chapter. Instead, it's about how a community tries to heal after such a devastating event, and that discussion extends to themes like the death penalty, historic preservation, faith and poverty.
How do the issues of mental healthcare and poverty figure into this case, and how do you discuss them in the book?
The man who committed this crime was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia after his arrest, but as a young man growing up, he often exhibited signs of mental health issues that were never thoroughly treated. He was never on medication for those symptoms before this event. Additionally, as a historically disenfranchised area of the country, there has never been a medical school in the region, and there is a desperate lack of mental health professionals to treat the population. While many factors went into creating the conditions for this crime to happen, this absence of such treatment was a major component.
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