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The Chula Vista woman everyone in La Mesa prison hated

Prisoner Clague

La Mes prison interior - Image by Dave Gatley/L.A. Times
La Mes prison interior

This is a mystery story, starring Theresa Clague, the elderly lady from Chula Vista who has spent the last four months in the Tijuana penitentiary and who remains there today. One of the most intriguing questions about Clague’s bizarre experience is the central question in any mystery —. that of guilt, of whether the woman has herself to blame for her predicament or whether she has been the victim of a dastardly plot. Either way, another question, equally intriguing, arises from the first: how has this ailing, seventy-year-old woman survived the shock of suddenly being locked up in a Mexican prison for several months?

When I first met Clague inside the penitentiary, located in the La Mesa neighborhood east of downtown Tijuana, I wasn’t sure she would survive at all. That was back in late July, three weeks after she had been arrested by the Mexican police. Clague’s voice quavered as she grasped my arm that day. “Get me out of here, darling,” she pleaded. “I shake all the time. I’m shaking, shaking for lack of nourishment, lack of sleep. . . .Get me out of here or I die in the next few days!” Her concentration seemed scattered as she recounted the events that led to her captivity. She didn’t sound confused or senile; on the contrary, she displayed a startling memory for names, for certain dates, for the exact numbers of her bank accounts. But she frequently digressed, as if her plight had driven her to distraction.

Theresa Clague. Harris believes that Clague was descended from European royalty.

All her problems, she said, stemmed from the days when she resided in Fredericka Manor, the fashionable Chula Vista retirement complex. (The institution’s records indicate that Clague lived there from 1979 through April of 1982.) One day in late 1981 or early 1982 Clague left her cottage within the complex and went out for a walk which took her onto Landis Street. A block or two off E Street she passed a well-manicured yard being watered by a middle-age Mexican man. The two started talking and Clague learned that the man's name was Abel Fernandez. On later visits she met his wife Fenilda and large family. “They befriended me, and they called me ‘auntie,’ and I wanted to pay them for every errand,’’ Clague explained. “They presented themselves as Christians.’’

Another Chula Vista resident named Melba Harris, who knew Clague well at the time, says the Fernandezes represented what Clague wanted most in life: a family to which she could belong. Harris, a South Bay resident, had met Clague one day about four years ago while walking down Third Street in Chula Vista. Harris says Clague suddenly dropped something, and the two ladies collided. Harris recalls, “She looked at me and said, ‘Oh, you have such a kind face! Would you like someone to live with you?’ Just like that.” The pair walked down the street together and sat down on a bench as Clague confided a terrible loneliness. Although Harris, who is sixty-six years old, answered that she already had a family of her own, she exchanged phone numbers with Clague. "After that I sort of became a companion to her,’’ Harris says. “I took her places and watched over her for the next couple of years.’’ Eventually Clague gave Harris the power of attorney to handle her affairs; Harris still is charged with the task of handling Clague’s funeral upon her death and is the executor of her will.

Jerry Miller: “People walk past her door and they spit at her.”

Harris says she was well aware that Clague was very wealthy. “And she made it very obvious that she had money,” Harris adds. Clague dressed well, groomed herself carefully, and hinted at an aristocratic past. (Harris in fact believes that Clague was descended from European royalty.) More than once, Harris says, Clague tried to bestow money upon her, but Harris rebuffed the offers, protesting that Clague didn’t need to buy her affection. At the same time, Harris says she never felt as though she knew the other woman intimately; Clague’s manner was distant, condescending, almost imperial. Early in the relationship, Harris noted that Clague’s aloofness and sharp tongue resulted in the other residents of Fredericka Manor shunning her. As time went by, Clague increasingly took to issuing Harris a variety of orders and Harris says their relationship cooled.

However, she was still seeing Clague often when Clague met the Fernandezes, and Harris remembers that they seemed to be “lovely people. ... He [Abel Fernandez] is good-looking and very charming, and his wife was very gracious.” Harris says that for a while the Fernandezes would pick up Clague from Fredericka Manor and take her on outings, and then, in the spring of 1982, the Mexican family learned of a vacancy in one of the units in the duplex next to their house on Landis Street. According to Harris, the Fernandezes soon had moved Clague out of the retirement home and into the apartment.

Bob Hudson: ‘‘If she’s been set up, then that’s a violation of our conspiracy laws.”

Although Harris wasn’t aware of it, Clague and the Fernandezes became more than just next-door neighbors at that time. The records at Fredericka Manor show that Clague’s last paid day there was April 5, 1982. On April 6, Clague opened a high-interest savings account at the Plaza Financiera Rio (Tijuana) branch of Banamex. That account, the center of subsequent controversy, stated that the $115,000 Clague deposited could be withdrawn after three months either by Clague or by Abel Fernandez or by his wife. Moreover, two weeks earlier two other savings accounts bearing all three names had been opened at the Plaza Rio branch of Actibanco Guadalajara. These two high-interest accounts were six-month deposits, one for $23,600 and one for about $20,000, according to Clague. (The $20,000 figure has since been disputed and may have been substantially less.)

Clague said later that when she opened the first two accounts (at Actibanco Guadalajara), she made it clear to the clerk that all the money belonged to her and that she only wanted to authorize the Fernandezes to withdraw money from the accounts in case she became ill (Clague is a diabetic) or met with some other emergency. Clague said the clerk answered that the Fernandezes’ names nonetheless had to appear on the accounts. So Clague agreed to that stipulation but insisted on dictating a letter of instruction. The letter stated that the account certificates should be kept at the bank and that the Fernandezes could withdraw money only upon Clague’s written authorization.

La Mesa Prison doesn’t seem much like a prison at all.

Clague’s precautions seemed unnecessary at the time; her relationship with the Fernandezes appeared to be genial for some time after she moved next door to them. Melba Harris says that for a while the Mexican family was preparing three meals a day for Clague, at least one of which would be shared inside the Fernandez home. Harris understood that Clague was paying her next-door neighbors for their assistance. “She didn’t mind paying if she got good service,” Harris recalls. Harris herself only began to question the Fernandezes’ motives when Clague started talking about becoming partners with the couple in the purchase of a ranch in Arizona. But Clague seemed to disregard Harris’s misgivings and warnings that the Fernandezes might be trying to take advantage of her. By June or July of 1982, however, Clague admitted to Harris that her relationship with the Fernandezes was showing signs of strain.

Tijuana court records also show that the relationship seriously began to unravel at about that time. The Fernandezes today claim that on July 5 of that year Clague alone withdrew the $115,000 and all the accumulated interest from the Banamex account. (What Clague did with the cash is unknown.) Two days later Abel Fernandez showed up at Actibanco Guadalajara (the other bank where the three names appeared on joint accounts) and demanded a portion of the accumulated interest. He apparently was given the money in spite of Clague’s letter which stated that Fernandez could only draw upon the account with her written permission. (Fernandez did not withdraw the thousands of dollars of principal and it remains there today.) By August of 1982, both Clague and the Fernandezes were appearing in Tijuana’s civil court, each claiming that they had the right to use the accounts and all the money.

A month later, when the the two Actibanco Guadalajara deposit accounts matured, Clague returned to Tijuana to withdraw the money and interest it had earned. Clague says she was less than one block away from the bank when she was stopped on the street by Tijuana police and taken to a courthouse called the Mesa de Acusaciones Previas, where she was charged with attempting to defraud her neighbors. The Fernandezes had claimed that they had contributed two-thirds of the money in all three accounts. In the case of the $115,000 Banamex account, for example, the Fernandezes’ attorney today says each of the three parties chipped in $38,333.33. However, the Fernandezes presented no evidence of their ownership of the funds, while Clague spoke up at the courthouse to say she just happened to be carrying with her photocopies of the checks with which she had opened all three accounts — cashier’s checks for the full amounts, in her name, drawn from a branch of San Diego Federal Savings. As a result of this evidence, Clague was released.

Clague’s one-time Chula Vista friend, Melba Harris, soon lost contact with Clague and the unfolding melodrama. She recalls that around November of last year she decided to break off her friendship with Clague when the woman’s possessive and dictatorial attitude became unbearable. “She was very rude with me, and I finally just walked out,’’ Harris says.

Harris thus missed hearing about the next chapter in the Clague-Femandez dispute. On February 18 of this year, Clague once again was arrested after entering Mexico, on charges similar to those that had been lodged against her five months earlier. This time, however, she was booked into the notorious Eighth Street jail in downtown Tijuana, where she remained throughout the weekend. On the following Monday (February 21), a second Tijuana judge reviewed the charges against Clague and once again dismissed them for insufficient evidence.

Clague returned home to Chula Vista, and the financial squabbles with her next-door neighbors apparently subsided for several months. At the least, Clague didn’t mention the trouble to David Allen, a Spring Valley financial adviser, when Clague met with him on June 17. Clague had read that Allen’s firm, Tax and Business Services, was boasting of a thirty-percent average return from one particular program, and she had asked Allen to drop by her home and explain the investment to her. “She was organized beyond organized,” Allen recalls of their discussion. “She asked me more questions and she wanted more details than people who invest three times as much.” After three and a half hours of “intense cross-examination,” Clague told Allen she was tired. She set up another appointment to talk with him, but that appointment was not kept.

On July 6, almost immediately after stepping through the revolving gate at the border, Clague was arrested by Tijuana police. Clague’s theory is that the Fernandezes must have seen her leave her house, headed for the bus to the border, and they must have telephoned her description to the Mexican authorities. (The Fernandezes deny this, saying that Tijuana police had long had Clague’s description on file.) Once arrested, Clague says she was shoved into the back of a Tijuana police car and driven to the downtown jail, where again she was held for several days. Unlike her experience in February, however, Clague got no immediate hearing and instead was transferred to the La Mesa Prison to await Judge Victor Vasquez’s return from vacation. For two weeks no American government official knew about her plight. Clague later was to explain that she was afraid American authorities might get angry at her for having invested her money in Mexico, so instead of demanding to see someone from the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana, Clague, using her flawless command of Spanish, told prison officials she was Mexican, born in the state of Chihuahua.

That’s one of peculiar twists to her behavior, an action the Fernandezes and their attorney cite as evidence of Clague’s duplicity. “When she is in Mexico she says she is Mexicana, and when she is on the other side, she says she is American,” scoffs the Fernandezes’ Mexican attorney. In fact, consular officials have confirmed that Clague does hold American citizenship, but Clague passes as a Mexican with ease. She says she was born and grew up in Mexico; her father was a British diplomat stationed there, and thus she spoke fluent, colloquial Spanish.

When I visited the prison in July, I asked Clague about another seeming eccentricity — namely, why had she continued to frequent Tijuana after she had twice been arrested there in the previous ten months? Clague all but avoided the question, muttering something about being able to get better prices on groceries, but her former companion Melba Harris later offered this explanation. “Underneath her hard old heart, she’s a sentimentalist. And Mexico was home to her.”

Indeed, when I saw Clague after she’d been in the penitentiary for two weeks, she did seem oddly well adjusted to her surroundings, despite her warnings that the prison was killing her. Although she complained that she couldn’t eat most of the spicy food, she had worked out an arrangement to buy soft-boiled eggs, avocados, and liquid fruit drinks. She battled the heat by sipping almost constantly from a glass bottle filled with water.

I had gained access to the prison with Jerry Miller, one of the central figures in Clague’s story. A middle-age woman with dark-brown hair and a girlish face, Miller is a Christian missionary who lives in Pine Valley. She looks like a homey, conventional lady, the mother of five, the kind of person who might possibly venture across the border for an afternoon of exotic shopping — but who never would be found in any prison, Mexican or American. In reality, however. Miller first visited the Tijuana penitentiary eleven years ago in the company of another American missionary. She came away fascinated. Since then Miller has made the prison part of her routine of charitable work; for a few years she even lived in the women’s section one night each week in an effort to be closer to the lives of the female prisoners. Today she moves about within the penitentiary as comfortably as if she were at a church social.

A visit to the La Mesa prison goes a long way toward explaining how Miller could be spellbound. No place like it exists in American society. People who’ve been locked up in both Tijuana’s downtown jail and La Mesa Prison say that of the two, the latter is paradise. That’s not to suggest that the prison is a luxurious place in the sense that people call downtown San Diego’s Metropolitan Correctional Center luxurious. But La Mesa Prison doesn’t seem much like a prison at all; it is a world in itself, a tiny village set within the city of Tijuana.

It’s located a block or two off Agua Caliente Boulevard, a little more than a mile past the race track. From the side street, Avenida Los Charros, one sees a windowless wall a full block long, cream colored, with an orange stripe running the length of it. Sentry boxes, which look tiny compared to the immensity of the structure, appear here and there along the top. On the west side is the entrance, a flimsy gate manned by a young guard who scrutinizes and admits authorized visitors. The orange paint on the chain-link fence next to the gate has been rubbed off in a wide strip where a steady succession of men, women, and children have grasped the metal and stared inside, searching for their loved ones within.

From here the inner arrangement of the prison can be glimpsed. Essentially it’s a stockade built around a central plaza, a plaza which looks little different from many Mexican villages, ringed by restaurants and homes and little shops. The prisoners who can afford these facilities purchase — and “own” — them for the length of their incarceration. Thus one prisoner may reside in an apartment virtually indistinguishable from what he might obtain in town (complete with television, stereo, cooking facilities) while his destitute fellow prisoners make do with sleeping bags spread outside.

There is a maximum-security section and an area for solitary confinement, where a handful of people can be locked up, but for the most part the inmates move freely within the prison confines. A gate separates the men’s section from the women’s quarters, but most prisoners pass readily from one to the other, as do the offspring of the liaisons which result.

While the men’s section looks like a village, the women’s quarters are much smaller, like a street in some decrepit Latin neighborhood. On one side of the “street” is the outer wall of the prison; on the other are the apartments and small rooms containing the women’s bunks. A central outdoor sink draws the women to one end of this corridor; there they gather to do laundry, hanging what they have washed on clotheslines in the corridor. Jerry Miller was visiting friends here on July 20 when a round-faced old lady approached her and asked if they could talk. In her eleven years of ministering at the prison, Miller had grown accustomed to meeting scattered Americans — drug dealers, murderers — in La Mesa, but Theresa Clague’s presence there shocked the missionary.

Miller learned that Clague had already introduced herself to Sister Antonia, the American nun who has made the prison her full-time home for the last several years. The nun had brought some supplies from Clague’s home in Chula Vista and had found a Mexican lawyer who agreed to represent Clague. But American officials still were ignorant of the old lady’s predicament, so Jerry Miller, deeply moved and worried, set about contacting both news reporters and Congressman Duncan Hunter’s office.

Bob Hudson, the field representative in Hunter’s El Cajon office, responded to the news with alacrity. Hudson immediately called the American consulate in Tijuana, which dispatched a staff member to the prison, who brought Clague a fresh supply of pills (vitamins, calcium, Maalox, diabetes medication) and began trying to hack through the legal thicket surrounding her plight.

On the day I accompanied Miller, she first stopped at Clague’s duplex in Chula Vista to check for mail. We found the dwelling darkened, a little stuffy in its owner’s absence, but tidy, and touched in a hundred ways by Clague’s efforts to personalize it: plastic flowers in a vase, doilies on the simple furniture, family pictures and Bibles on the bookshelves, sections of walls virtually obscured by clippings of news stories and comic strips, religious pictures, greeting cards. At the Bank of America on E Street, Miller arranged for Clague to pay some bills; a bank clerk verified that Clague had been a customer for at least four years.

Down at the prison, Miller hugged Clague. “When will they get me out, my love?” Clague implored. Her long gray hair was fastened in a topknot, pinned close to her head. She wore a print cotton duster and sturdy walking shoes. Although Miller had offered to bring Clague other clothes, the old lady had spumed them, declaring that the duster was her coolest item of apparel. At her side, she clutched a sizable black leather purse from which she periodically fished out thin brown cigarettes and matches.

She moaned to Miller that she couldn’t tolerate the filthy prison bathrooms and so hadn’t bathed in three weeks. Miller, aware of the problem, reached into her brown shopping bag and pulled out a pair of rubber flip-flops she had brought to protect Clague’s feet from the cracked and dirty shower floors. But Clague protested at the sight of them. “Oh, honey, I can’t stand the ones that have a strap between the toes. I need the ones that crisscross [over the top of the foot]!’’ Meekly, Miller added the request to a list of additional supplies Clague wanted, then she turned to the challenge of bathing Clague, a chore that ultimately took several hours. All the while. Miller murmured patient reassurances to Clague’s steady complaints about the living quarters to which she had been assigned — a bunk in a small dark room shared with three other young women. “They play the radio all night,’’ Clague said about her roommates. “I can’t sleep. They fight. They throw my medicines away,’’ she cried.

Miller soothed Clague by reminding her that she had plenty of money (about $40,000) in her Chula Vista bank. According to the arcane prison customs, Clague should be able to acquire a private room by paying a few hundred dollars. Miller told her. As subsequent events transpired, this proved unnecessary. Soon after the news of Clague’s incarceraiion appeared in San Diego newspapers, the prison officials removed Clague’s roommates, in effect giving Clague private accommodations for free. She received other special attention. Officials from the consulate began checking on Clague at least every two weeks (normally the consulate only schedules monthly visits to Americans in the Tijuana jails). Miller also increased her visits to the prison; at one point she says she was commuting daily from Pine Valley with supplies of fruit, homemade baked goods, and items requested by the old lady.

Though the publicity brought Clague some special treatment, she still remained locked up for charges that Hunter’s aide Bob Hudson points out never would have been treated as a criminal case by American legal standards. "Here, this would be a civil suit,’’ Hudson says angrily. With a determined sense of mission, he devoted himself to efforts to extricate Clague, contacting the offices of Baja Governor Roberto de la Madrid, later talking with Baja’s attorney general in Mexicali. By mid-August, however, Hudson began to get the first clues as to how frustrating Clague’s experience with the Mexican legal system would be. First Hudson received word that a hearing for Clague finally had been scheduled for the third week in August, and he made plans to attend the session. Then he was told that the hearing had been postponed. Then he heard that the first hearing had been held after all, but that a second session was scheduled for August 31. What Hudson witnessed at that session further rocked his confidence.

The judge in the case, Victor Vasquez, had returned from his vacation, but Hudson says Vasquez only poked his head into the courtroom for a few minutes in the course of almost five hours of testimony. Instead the judge’s secretary conducted the proceedings, which took place in an office devoid of such American-style trappings as a witness stand, jury box, or judge’s bench. Instead the office contained a few desks, chairs, and filing cabinets.

“It was a real informal atmosphere. Everyone was smoking and stubbing their cigarettes out on the ground. That sort of thing,” Hudson says.

Clague viewed the marathon sessions through a barred window at the back of the room, which opened into a holding area. (In fact, a special car was sent to transport Clague from the prison to the courthouse only after a consular employee began checking into her absence just before the hearing began.) In contrast with the informality of the setting, however, the actual testimony involved a tedious ritual. Hudson says first one of the attorneys would pose a question to whoever was testifying, then the judge’s assistant would restate the question to a secretary seated at a typewriter, who then would type out the question. The witness would then answer, with the judge’s assistant once again turning around and relaying the witness’s words to the typist for transcription. (Although Hudson was taken aback by this, a consular official says it is standard procedure for Mexican judges to rely principally upon such written records in making their decisions.)

That day Hudson noted that somehow the evidence supporting Clague’s case — the photocopies of the checks with which she had opened the disputed accounts and the letter she had dictated stating that the Fernandezes could only withdraw money upon her written authorization — already had been introduced into the files. The action revolved around two witnesses called by the Fernandezes’ attorney. The first was the Actibanco Guadalajara clerk who typed up the letter (saying that the Fernandezes could only withdraw money with Clague ’s written permission). She verified that the letter was genuine, but testified that the bank had agreed to insert it in Clague’s account file only to get the old lady off their backs; in fact, the letter had “no validity,” the clerk declared.

Also taking the stand that day was Abel Fernandez, who testified about his financial worth in the United States. Fernandez stated that he had a South Bay dental business which generates an income of between $3000 and $4000 a month. He also said he owned several major assets — the house on Landis Street worth $160,000 by Fernandez’s estimate, a 1973 Explorer motor home worth $35,000, and other property in San Diego. “There was no documentation for any of this,” Hudson says, the frustration still tightening his voice. After the proceedings were over, that frustration motivated Hudson to do some checking on Abel Fernandez’s financial claims. On September 9 Hudson asked a realtor to appraise the Fernandez residence. He received a signed estimate that the house (which the Fernandezes purchased for $23,000 in 1972) was worth at most $73,000 today instead of the $160,000 Abel claimed. Hudson further discovered that the current Blue Book value of the Fernandez family’s motor home is a maximum of $8000, as opposed to $35,000.

I met with the Fernandezes’ attorney recently not far from the Tijuana courthouse. But when I asked Alberto Cardenas Ochoa about the figures Hudson had ascertained pertaining to the Fernandezes’ American holdings, Cardenas brushed away those facts like a pesky fly. He declared that the Fernandezes’ American holdings in fact have no relevance to the claim that Theresa Clague defrauded them. Cardenas pointed out that Fernandez also testified (on August 31) that all the money he had contributed to the bank accounts in Mexico had been earned solely in Mexico, not in the United States. According to Cardenas, Fernandez owns a small automotive business in Tijuana and he also does dental work in a small town in Baja. Furthermore, Fernandez had made “millions of pesos” selling real estate in his family home of Cadereyta in the state of Nueva Leon, his attorney said.

Fernandez had tons of money — and thus no motive for swindling an old lady, Cardenas declared. I reminded the attorney that Clague also appeared to have ample resources and a comfortable income. Why on earth would she try to steal her next-door neighbors’ money? She was avara (miserly), Cardenas charged, “sick in the head” from her lust for making yet more money. And unlike the previous two arrests, Cardenas said this time the Fernandezes had found two witnesses to Clague’s act of fraud, a mysterious couple (Cardenas declined to give their names) who had seen the Fernandezes turn over the cash to Clague outside the two banks.

These witnesses apparently testified at a court session subsequent to the August 31 hearing, another of the baffling twists in the court proceddings. Hudson in Duncan Hunter’s office says after the August 31 session, the prosecutor in the case informed him that the judge would probably render his verdict within about ten days. Then Hudson heard that yet another hearing had been scheduled. Then he was told that hearing had been delayed. As of this week, the judge had not yet produced a decision.

But not long after the August 31 hearing the attention of those interested in freeing Theresa Clague had shifted to another legal venue. Hudson says the first week of September, Clague’s Mexican lawyer began talking about the possibility of winning for Clague something called an amparo, which is essentially a legal order issued by a judge protecting the subject from further prosecution. An amparo could allow for Clague’s immediate

release, Clague’s lawyer explained enthusiastically. He also sounded optimistic about Clague’s chances for winning this reprieve. Hudson was skeptical, but about September 21 Hudson learned that a federal judge in Tijuana had granted the amparo. Unfortunately, he learned simultaneously that the Tijuana federal district attorney had immediately appealed the action. An appeals court in Hermosillo would have to hear the issue, with that court’s decision not likely to be delivered for at least three months, Hudson was told.

So Clague remained confined to the penitentiary through the end of September and into October. The old lady seemed to be in tolerably good health, Jerry Miller told me early last month. But Miller confessed that she was seeing much less of Clague than she had been at the beginning of Clague’s incarceration. In fact, she said she had only recently resolved to try to steer clear of Clague. "I have not in my eleven years met a prisoner who has been as widely hated as she is,” Miller said sadly, adding that she had come to understand that sentiment. ‘‘She just treats me like I’m her slave, and everyone else at the prison,” Miller said. By the end of her close association with Clague, Miller said she had acquired several lists of items and favors demanded by the old lady. When Miller managed to accomplish one of them, Clague never seemed to offer any thanks, Miller said. As an example, she mentioned how she had brought in a heavy lockbox so Clague could safely store her valuables. “I figured Theresa could wear the key around her neck, and the box was heavy enough that I don’t think anyone would have taken it. They do have a little respect in there when something’s locked up.” Yet on Miller’s next visit, Clague had abandoned the box, declaring that it was too much trouble to use.

‘‘She wants people to clean her and her room,” Miller continued. ‘‘She would like someone to bring her food every day; she claims she can’t eat the food in the prison restaurants.” Miller pointed out that one of the other female prisoners would almost certainly cook meals for Clague if Clague would only pay for the service. ‘‘But she won’t pay. Instead she demands to be waited upon. And she doesn’t ask politely.” Clague had even refused to pay the prison’s standard, one-time fee of about twenty dollars for an electrical hookup in her room; she had been adamant about not paying any “bribes.” So instead of thus acquiring her own electrical fan, Clague told Sister Antonia to get the prison director’s fan for her use. When the nun refused to make such a request, Clague took to removing all her clothes during heat spells, in the process alienating the prison guards with this display of “immorality.”

Miller said she had kept her peace until one recent incident in which Clague had ordered Miller to buy her a certain medication in tablet, rather than capsule, form. Miller had visited five separate pharmacies in Tijuana in a futile search for the capsules. When she told Clague this, the old lady had railed about how stupid Miller was and how she could never get anything right. “I’d been kind of taking it from her, but this time I said I thought she was kind of stupid for winding up in jail.” Stung, Clague turned her back on Miller and walked away, then turned and yelled, “Some Christian you are!”

So Miller told me she had decided to avoid Clague. “I’m not going to abandon her completely. I’ll keep my eye on her. But I can’t continue to give her the attention I have been giving her.... I also know that she can get anything she wants or needs with the money she’s got.” At the same time, Miller expressed some concern about Clague’s safety, given her growing unpopularity among the other prisoners. “People walk past her door and they spit at her,” Miller fretted.

“That lady have two sides,” says Abel Fernandez about Clague. Fernandez has been reluctant to discuss any aspect of his lawsuit against his neighbor, but instead has referred news reporters to Cardenas, his attorney. He says he doesn’t really care what people in the United States think about him; the suit will be judged in Mexico. However, Fernandez finally agreed to talk about the personal relationship that existed between him and his family and Clague. Once it was a warm and close relationship, but then Clague changed, Fernandez maintains.

He says when he first met Clague out in front of his house, the elderly woman poured out a tale of illness and loneliness which moved him to open his house to her. Fernandez says eventually Clague began to ask him about his financial affairs, urging him to invest some of his savings in Mexican bank accounts, a prospect with which he wasn’t comfortable. “But she insist and insist and insist.” Fernandez claims that eventually Clague promised to put Abel and Fenilda’s name on several of her bank accounts (accounts which contained her funds only) if the Fernandezes would contribute shares to a few other accounts; as an added incentive, Clague hinted that she would die soon and thus the Fernandezes would own all the money in all the accounts. Finally, Fernandez says he yielded. “I say to myself, what I going to lose if I put this money together with hers? The contract and everything had my name on it.” He says he insisted on keeping the certificate for the Banamex account, but acquiesced at allowing Actibanco Guadalajara to retain the receipts for the other two accounts.

Fernandez says the change in Clague came not long after the three accounts were opened. Suddenly the old lady began criticizing his business judgment, telling him she knew that Mexicans were stupid; she had lived among them for most of her life. Fernandez says he became alarmed and told Clague he wanted his money back when the accounts matured. One day before the first account was to reach maturity, however, Clague withdrew the $115,000 plus interest. All he has wanted ever since then is merely to receive his rightful share of that sum, Fernandez says; he says the minute Clague chooses to pay it, she will go free.

He says he simply doesn’t know why Clague, a wealthy woman, would try to defraud him. ‘‘She’s a very confused lady,” he says. Discussing the case, Fernandez sounds bone weary. The fatigue takes on an irritable note when he talks about congressional aide Bob Hunter’s efforts on behalf of freeing Clague (which extended to photographing the Fernandez house and attempting to talk to the dentist for whom Fernandez works). ‘‘He [Hudson] not supposed to bother me like this,” Fernandez states, adding that he plans to look into the possibility of filing a lawsuit against Hudson.

Hudson, in turn, talks about having the FBI investigate the Fernandezes’ role in Clague’s imprisonment. ‘‘If she’s been set up, then that’s a violation of our conspiracy laws,” Hudson declares. He doesn’t conceal his opinion that the dispute is not simply a case of Clague’s word against that of her neighbors. Clague has evidence to back up her word, Hudson says. ‘‘I haven’t yet seen one shred of evidence to indicate that she [Clague] is not telling the truth.” He also points out that now ‘‘four separate sets of Mexican judges have concluded that Theresa Clague should not be in prison.” And still the end of Clague’s confinement isn’t in sight.

That fourth independent judgment came two and a half weeks ago, when the district appeals court in Hermosillo agreed that Clague should be granted an amparo. Clague’s release was expected within days, but the Fernandezes’ attorney now appears to have won yet one more review. Hudson isn’t making any guesses about when the old lady will leave the prison; too many people have been saying manana for too long. However, Hudson seems certain that Clague will get out sooner or later. ‘‘If worse came to worst, we could get her out on a prisoner exchange. But I will consider it a travesty of justice if it comes to that,” Hudson mutters. Could Clague survive that long? One person who sounds confident is Clague’s one-time friend Melba Harris, who despite her differences with Clague, notes with some admiration, ‘‘She’s a fighter and a survivor.”

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La Mes prison interior - Image by Dave Gatley/L.A. Times
La Mes prison interior

This is a mystery story, starring Theresa Clague, the elderly lady from Chula Vista who has spent the last four months in the Tijuana penitentiary and who remains there today. One of the most intriguing questions about Clague’s bizarre experience is the central question in any mystery —. that of guilt, of whether the woman has herself to blame for her predicament or whether she has been the victim of a dastardly plot. Either way, another question, equally intriguing, arises from the first: how has this ailing, seventy-year-old woman survived the shock of suddenly being locked up in a Mexican prison for several months?

When I first met Clague inside the penitentiary, located in the La Mesa neighborhood east of downtown Tijuana, I wasn’t sure she would survive at all. That was back in late July, three weeks after she had been arrested by the Mexican police. Clague’s voice quavered as she grasped my arm that day. “Get me out of here, darling,” she pleaded. “I shake all the time. I’m shaking, shaking for lack of nourishment, lack of sleep. . . .Get me out of here or I die in the next few days!” Her concentration seemed scattered as she recounted the events that led to her captivity. She didn’t sound confused or senile; on the contrary, she displayed a startling memory for names, for certain dates, for the exact numbers of her bank accounts. But she frequently digressed, as if her plight had driven her to distraction.

Theresa Clague. Harris believes that Clague was descended from European royalty.

All her problems, she said, stemmed from the days when she resided in Fredericka Manor, the fashionable Chula Vista retirement complex. (The institution’s records indicate that Clague lived there from 1979 through April of 1982.) One day in late 1981 or early 1982 Clague left her cottage within the complex and went out for a walk which took her onto Landis Street. A block or two off E Street she passed a well-manicured yard being watered by a middle-age Mexican man. The two started talking and Clague learned that the man's name was Abel Fernandez. On later visits she met his wife Fenilda and large family. “They befriended me, and they called me ‘auntie,’ and I wanted to pay them for every errand,’’ Clague explained. “They presented themselves as Christians.’’

Another Chula Vista resident named Melba Harris, who knew Clague well at the time, says the Fernandezes represented what Clague wanted most in life: a family to which she could belong. Harris, a South Bay resident, had met Clague one day about four years ago while walking down Third Street in Chula Vista. Harris says Clague suddenly dropped something, and the two ladies collided. Harris recalls, “She looked at me and said, ‘Oh, you have such a kind face! Would you like someone to live with you?’ Just like that.” The pair walked down the street together and sat down on a bench as Clague confided a terrible loneliness. Although Harris, who is sixty-six years old, answered that she already had a family of her own, she exchanged phone numbers with Clague. "After that I sort of became a companion to her,’’ Harris says. “I took her places and watched over her for the next couple of years.’’ Eventually Clague gave Harris the power of attorney to handle her affairs; Harris still is charged with the task of handling Clague’s funeral upon her death and is the executor of her will.

Jerry Miller: “People walk past her door and they spit at her.”

Harris says she was well aware that Clague was very wealthy. “And she made it very obvious that she had money,” Harris adds. Clague dressed well, groomed herself carefully, and hinted at an aristocratic past. (Harris in fact believes that Clague was descended from European royalty.) More than once, Harris says, Clague tried to bestow money upon her, but Harris rebuffed the offers, protesting that Clague didn’t need to buy her affection. At the same time, Harris says she never felt as though she knew the other woman intimately; Clague’s manner was distant, condescending, almost imperial. Early in the relationship, Harris noted that Clague’s aloofness and sharp tongue resulted in the other residents of Fredericka Manor shunning her. As time went by, Clague increasingly took to issuing Harris a variety of orders and Harris says their relationship cooled.

However, she was still seeing Clague often when Clague met the Fernandezes, and Harris remembers that they seemed to be “lovely people. ... He [Abel Fernandez] is good-looking and very charming, and his wife was very gracious.” Harris says that for a while the Fernandezes would pick up Clague from Fredericka Manor and take her on outings, and then, in the spring of 1982, the Mexican family learned of a vacancy in one of the units in the duplex next to their house on Landis Street. According to Harris, the Fernandezes soon had moved Clague out of the retirement home and into the apartment.

Bob Hudson: ‘‘If she’s been set up, then that’s a violation of our conspiracy laws.”

Although Harris wasn’t aware of it, Clague and the Fernandezes became more than just next-door neighbors at that time. The records at Fredericka Manor show that Clague’s last paid day there was April 5, 1982. On April 6, Clague opened a high-interest savings account at the Plaza Financiera Rio (Tijuana) branch of Banamex. That account, the center of subsequent controversy, stated that the $115,000 Clague deposited could be withdrawn after three months either by Clague or by Abel Fernandez or by his wife. Moreover, two weeks earlier two other savings accounts bearing all three names had been opened at the Plaza Rio branch of Actibanco Guadalajara. These two high-interest accounts were six-month deposits, one for $23,600 and one for about $20,000, according to Clague. (The $20,000 figure has since been disputed and may have been substantially less.)

Clague said later that when she opened the first two accounts (at Actibanco Guadalajara), she made it clear to the clerk that all the money belonged to her and that she only wanted to authorize the Fernandezes to withdraw money from the accounts in case she became ill (Clague is a diabetic) or met with some other emergency. Clague said the clerk answered that the Fernandezes’ names nonetheless had to appear on the accounts. So Clague agreed to that stipulation but insisted on dictating a letter of instruction. The letter stated that the account certificates should be kept at the bank and that the Fernandezes could withdraw money only upon Clague’s written authorization.

La Mesa Prison doesn’t seem much like a prison at all.

Clague’s precautions seemed unnecessary at the time; her relationship with the Fernandezes appeared to be genial for some time after she moved next door to them. Melba Harris says that for a while the Mexican family was preparing three meals a day for Clague, at least one of which would be shared inside the Fernandez home. Harris understood that Clague was paying her next-door neighbors for their assistance. “She didn’t mind paying if she got good service,” Harris recalls. Harris herself only began to question the Fernandezes’ motives when Clague started talking about becoming partners with the couple in the purchase of a ranch in Arizona. But Clague seemed to disregard Harris’s misgivings and warnings that the Fernandezes might be trying to take advantage of her. By June or July of 1982, however, Clague admitted to Harris that her relationship with the Fernandezes was showing signs of strain.

Tijuana court records also show that the relationship seriously began to unravel at about that time. The Fernandezes today claim that on July 5 of that year Clague alone withdrew the $115,000 and all the accumulated interest from the Banamex account. (What Clague did with the cash is unknown.) Two days later Abel Fernandez showed up at Actibanco Guadalajara (the other bank where the three names appeared on joint accounts) and demanded a portion of the accumulated interest. He apparently was given the money in spite of Clague’s letter which stated that Fernandez could only draw upon the account with her written permission. (Fernandez did not withdraw the thousands of dollars of principal and it remains there today.) By August of 1982, both Clague and the Fernandezes were appearing in Tijuana’s civil court, each claiming that they had the right to use the accounts and all the money.

A month later, when the the two Actibanco Guadalajara deposit accounts matured, Clague returned to Tijuana to withdraw the money and interest it had earned. Clague says she was less than one block away from the bank when she was stopped on the street by Tijuana police and taken to a courthouse called the Mesa de Acusaciones Previas, where she was charged with attempting to defraud her neighbors. The Fernandezes had claimed that they had contributed two-thirds of the money in all three accounts. In the case of the $115,000 Banamex account, for example, the Fernandezes’ attorney today says each of the three parties chipped in $38,333.33. However, the Fernandezes presented no evidence of their ownership of the funds, while Clague spoke up at the courthouse to say she just happened to be carrying with her photocopies of the checks with which she had opened all three accounts — cashier’s checks for the full amounts, in her name, drawn from a branch of San Diego Federal Savings. As a result of this evidence, Clague was released.

Clague’s one-time Chula Vista friend, Melba Harris, soon lost contact with Clague and the unfolding melodrama. She recalls that around November of last year she decided to break off her friendship with Clague when the woman’s possessive and dictatorial attitude became unbearable. “She was very rude with me, and I finally just walked out,’’ Harris says.

Harris thus missed hearing about the next chapter in the Clague-Femandez dispute. On February 18 of this year, Clague once again was arrested after entering Mexico, on charges similar to those that had been lodged against her five months earlier. This time, however, she was booked into the notorious Eighth Street jail in downtown Tijuana, where she remained throughout the weekend. On the following Monday (February 21), a second Tijuana judge reviewed the charges against Clague and once again dismissed them for insufficient evidence.

Clague returned home to Chula Vista, and the financial squabbles with her next-door neighbors apparently subsided for several months. At the least, Clague didn’t mention the trouble to David Allen, a Spring Valley financial adviser, when Clague met with him on June 17. Clague had read that Allen’s firm, Tax and Business Services, was boasting of a thirty-percent average return from one particular program, and she had asked Allen to drop by her home and explain the investment to her. “She was organized beyond organized,” Allen recalls of their discussion. “She asked me more questions and she wanted more details than people who invest three times as much.” After three and a half hours of “intense cross-examination,” Clague told Allen she was tired. She set up another appointment to talk with him, but that appointment was not kept.

On July 6, almost immediately after stepping through the revolving gate at the border, Clague was arrested by Tijuana police. Clague’s theory is that the Fernandezes must have seen her leave her house, headed for the bus to the border, and they must have telephoned her description to the Mexican authorities. (The Fernandezes deny this, saying that Tijuana police had long had Clague’s description on file.) Once arrested, Clague says she was shoved into the back of a Tijuana police car and driven to the downtown jail, where again she was held for several days. Unlike her experience in February, however, Clague got no immediate hearing and instead was transferred to the La Mesa Prison to await Judge Victor Vasquez’s return from vacation. For two weeks no American government official knew about her plight. Clague later was to explain that she was afraid American authorities might get angry at her for having invested her money in Mexico, so instead of demanding to see someone from the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana, Clague, using her flawless command of Spanish, told prison officials she was Mexican, born in the state of Chihuahua.

That’s one of peculiar twists to her behavior, an action the Fernandezes and their attorney cite as evidence of Clague’s duplicity. “When she is in Mexico she says she is Mexicana, and when she is on the other side, she says she is American,” scoffs the Fernandezes’ Mexican attorney. In fact, consular officials have confirmed that Clague does hold American citizenship, but Clague passes as a Mexican with ease. She says she was born and grew up in Mexico; her father was a British diplomat stationed there, and thus she spoke fluent, colloquial Spanish.

When I visited the prison in July, I asked Clague about another seeming eccentricity — namely, why had she continued to frequent Tijuana after she had twice been arrested there in the previous ten months? Clague all but avoided the question, muttering something about being able to get better prices on groceries, but her former companion Melba Harris later offered this explanation. “Underneath her hard old heart, she’s a sentimentalist. And Mexico was home to her.”

Indeed, when I saw Clague after she’d been in the penitentiary for two weeks, she did seem oddly well adjusted to her surroundings, despite her warnings that the prison was killing her. Although she complained that she couldn’t eat most of the spicy food, she had worked out an arrangement to buy soft-boiled eggs, avocados, and liquid fruit drinks. She battled the heat by sipping almost constantly from a glass bottle filled with water.

I had gained access to the prison with Jerry Miller, one of the central figures in Clague’s story. A middle-age woman with dark-brown hair and a girlish face, Miller is a Christian missionary who lives in Pine Valley. She looks like a homey, conventional lady, the mother of five, the kind of person who might possibly venture across the border for an afternoon of exotic shopping — but who never would be found in any prison, Mexican or American. In reality, however. Miller first visited the Tijuana penitentiary eleven years ago in the company of another American missionary. She came away fascinated. Since then Miller has made the prison part of her routine of charitable work; for a few years she even lived in the women’s section one night each week in an effort to be closer to the lives of the female prisoners. Today she moves about within the penitentiary as comfortably as if she were at a church social.

A visit to the La Mesa prison goes a long way toward explaining how Miller could be spellbound. No place like it exists in American society. People who’ve been locked up in both Tijuana’s downtown jail and La Mesa Prison say that of the two, the latter is paradise. That’s not to suggest that the prison is a luxurious place in the sense that people call downtown San Diego’s Metropolitan Correctional Center luxurious. But La Mesa Prison doesn’t seem much like a prison at all; it is a world in itself, a tiny village set within the city of Tijuana.

It’s located a block or two off Agua Caliente Boulevard, a little more than a mile past the race track. From the side street, Avenida Los Charros, one sees a windowless wall a full block long, cream colored, with an orange stripe running the length of it. Sentry boxes, which look tiny compared to the immensity of the structure, appear here and there along the top. On the west side is the entrance, a flimsy gate manned by a young guard who scrutinizes and admits authorized visitors. The orange paint on the chain-link fence next to the gate has been rubbed off in a wide strip where a steady succession of men, women, and children have grasped the metal and stared inside, searching for their loved ones within.

From here the inner arrangement of the prison can be glimpsed. Essentially it’s a stockade built around a central plaza, a plaza which looks little different from many Mexican villages, ringed by restaurants and homes and little shops. The prisoners who can afford these facilities purchase — and “own” — them for the length of their incarceration. Thus one prisoner may reside in an apartment virtually indistinguishable from what he might obtain in town (complete with television, stereo, cooking facilities) while his destitute fellow prisoners make do with sleeping bags spread outside.

There is a maximum-security section and an area for solitary confinement, where a handful of people can be locked up, but for the most part the inmates move freely within the prison confines. A gate separates the men’s section from the women’s quarters, but most prisoners pass readily from one to the other, as do the offspring of the liaisons which result.

While the men’s section looks like a village, the women’s quarters are much smaller, like a street in some decrepit Latin neighborhood. On one side of the “street” is the outer wall of the prison; on the other are the apartments and small rooms containing the women’s bunks. A central outdoor sink draws the women to one end of this corridor; there they gather to do laundry, hanging what they have washed on clotheslines in the corridor. Jerry Miller was visiting friends here on July 20 when a round-faced old lady approached her and asked if they could talk. In her eleven years of ministering at the prison, Miller had grown accustomed to meeting scattered Americans — drug dealers, murderers — in La Mesa, but Theresa Clague’s presence there shocked the missionary.

Miller learned that Clague had already introduced herself to Sister Antonia, the American nun who has made the prison her full-time home for the last several years. The nun had brought some supplies from Clague’s home in Chula Vista and had found a Mexican lawyer who agreed to represent Clague. But American officials still were ignorant of the old lady’s predicament, so Jerry Miller, deeply moved and worried, set about contacting both news reporters and Congressman Duncan Hunter’s office.

Bob Hudson, the field representative in Hunter’s El Cajon office, responded to the news with alacrity. Hudson immediately called the American consulate in Tijuana, which dispatched a staff member to the prison, who brought Clague a fresh supply of pills (vitamins, calcium, Maalox, diabetes medication) and began trying to hack through the legal thicket surrounding her plight.

On the day I accompanied Miller, she first stopped at Clague’s duplex in Chula Vista to check for mail. We found the dwelling darkened, a little stuffy in its owner’s absence, but tidy, and touched in a hundred ways by Clague’s efforts to personalize it: plastic flowers in a vase, doilies on the simple furniture, family pictures and Bibles on the bookshelves, sections of walls virtually obscured by clippings of news stories and comic strips, religious pictures, greeting cards. At the Bank of America on E Street, Miller arranged for Clague to pay some bills; a bank clerk verified that Clague had been a customer for at least four years.

Down at the prison, Miller hugged Clague. “When will they get me out, my love?” Clague implored. Her long gray hair was fastened in a topknot, pinned close to her head. She wore a print cotton duster and sturdy walking shoes. Although Miller had offered to bring Clague other clothes, the old lady had spumed them, declaring that the duster was her coolest item of apparel. At her side, she clutched a sizable black leather purse from which she periodically fished out thin brown cigarettes and matches.

She moaned to Miller that she couldn’t tolerate the filthy prison bathrooms and so hadn’t bathed in three weeks. Miller, aware of the problem, reached into her brown shopping bag and pulled out a pair of rubber flip-flops she had brought to protect Clague’s feet from the cracked and dirty shower floors. But Clague protested at the sight of them. “Oh, honey, I can’t stand the ones that have a strap between the toes. I need the ones that crisscross [over the top of the foot]!’’ Meekly, Miller added the request to a list of additional supplies Clague wanted, then she turned to the challenge of bathing Clague, a chore that ultimately took several hours. All the while. Miller murmured patient reassurances to Clague’s steady complaints about the living quarters to which she had been assigned — a bunk in a small dark room shared with three other young women. “They play the radio all night,’’ Clague said about her roommates. “I can’t sleep. They fight. They throw my medicines away,’’ she cried.

Miller soothed Clague by reminding her that she had plenty of money (about $40,000) in her Chula Vista bank. According to the arcane prison customs, Clague should be able to acquire a private room by paying a few hundred dollars. Miller told her. As subsequent events transpired, this proved unnecessary. Soon after the news of Clague’s incarceraiion appeared in San Diego newspapers, the prison officials removed Clague’s roommates, in effect giving Clague private accommodations for free. She received other special attention. Officials from the consulate began checking on Clague at least every two weeks (normally the consulate only schedules monthly visits to Americans in the Tijuana jails). Miller also increased her visits to the prison; at one point she says she was commuting daily from Pine Valley with supplies of fruit, homemade baked goods, and items requested by the old lady.

Though the publicity brought Clague some special treatment, she still remained locked up for charges that Hunter’s aide Bob Hudson points out never would have been treated as a criminal case by American legal standards. "Here, this would be a civil suit,’’ Hudson says angrily. With a determined sense of mission, he devoted himself to efforts to extricate Clague, contacting the offices of Baja Governor Roberto de la Madrid, later talking with Baja’s attorney general in Mexicali. By mid-August, however, Hudson began to get the first clues as to how frustrating Clague’s experience with the Mexican legal system would be. First Hudson received word that a hearing for Clague finally had been scheduled for the third week in August, and he made plans to attend the session. Then he was told that the hearing had been postponed. Then he heard that the first hearing had been held after all, but that a second session was scheduled for August 31. What Hudson witnessed at that session further rocked his confidence.

The judge in the case, Victor Vasquez, had returned from his vacation, but Hudson says Vasquez only poked his head into the courtroom for a few minutes in the course of almost five hours of testimony. Instead the judge’s secretary conducted the proceedings, which took place in an office devoid of such American-style trappings as a witness stand, jury box, or judge’s bench. Instead the office contained a few desks, chairs, and filing cabinets.

“It was a real informal atmosphere. Everyone was smoking and stubbing their cigarettes out on the ground. That sort of thing,” Hudson says.

Clague viewed the marathon sessions through a barred window at the back of the room, which opened into a holding area. (In fact, a special car was sent to transport Clague from the prison to the courthouse only after a consular employee began checking into her absence just before the hearing began.) In contrast with the informality of the setting, however, the actual testimony involved a tedious ritual. Hudson says first one of the attorneys would pose a question to whoever was testifying, then the judge’s assistant would restate the question to a secretary seated at a typewriter, who then would type out the question. The witness would then answer, with the judge’s assistant once again turning around and relaying the witness’s words to the typist for transcription. (Although Hudson was taken aback by this, a consular official says it is standard procedure for Mexican judges to rely principally upon such written records in making their decisions.)

That day Hudson noted that somehow the evidence supporting Clague’s case — the photocopies of the checks with which she had opened the disputed accounts and the letter she had dictated stating that the Fernandezes could only withdraw money upon her written authorization — already had been introduced into the files. The action revolved around two witnesses called by the Fernandezes’ attorney. The first was the Actibanco Guadalajara clerk who typed up the letter (saying that the Fernandezes could only withdraw money with Clague ’s written permission). She verified that the letter was genuine, but testified that the bank had agreed to insert it in Clague’s account file only to get the old lady off their backs; in fact, the letter had “no validity,” the clerk declared.

Also taking the stand that day was Abel Fernandez, who testified about his financial worth in the United States. Fernandez stated that he had a South Bay dental business which generates an income of between $3000 and $4000 a month. He also said he owned several major assets — the house on Landis Street worth $160,000 by Fernandez’s estimate, a 1973 Explorer motor home worth $35,000, and other property in San Diego. “There was no documentation for any of this,” Hudson says, the frustration still tightening his voice. After the proceedings were over, that frustration motivated Hudson to do some checking on Abel Fernandez’s financial claims. On September 9 Hudson asked a realtor to appraise the Fernandez residence. He received a signed estimate that the house (which the Fernandezes purchased for $23,000 in 1972) was worth at most $73,000 today instead of the $160,000 Abel claimed. Hudson further discovered that the current Blue Book value of the Fernandez family’s motor home is a maximum of $8000, as opposed to $35,000.

I met with the Fernandezes’ attorney recently not far from the Tijuana courthouse. But when I asked Alberto Cardenas Ochoa about the figures Hudson had ascertained pertaining to the Fernandezes’ American holdings, Cardenas brushed away those facts like a pesky fly. He declared that the Fernandezes’ American holdings in fact have no relevance to the claim that Theresa Clague defrauded them. Cardenas pointed out that Fernandez also testified (on August 31) that all the money he had contributed to the bank accounts in Mexico had been earned solely in Mexico, not in the United States. According to Cardenas, Fernandez owns a small automotive business in Tijuana and he also does dental work in a small town in Baja. Furthermore, Fernandez had made “millions of pesos” selling real estate in his family home of Cadereyta in the state of Nueva Leon, his attorney said.

Fernandez had tons of money — and thus no motive for swindling an old lady, Cardenas declared. I reminded the attorney that Clague also appeared to have ample resources and a comfortable income. Why on earth would she try to steal her next-door neighbors’ money? She was avara (miserly), Cardenas charged, “sick in the head” from her lust for making yet more money. And unlike the previous two arrests, Cardenas said this time the Fernandezes had found two witnesses to Clague’s act of fraud, a mysterious couple (Cardenas declined to give their names) who had seen the Fernandezes turn over the cash to Clague outside the two banks.

These witnesses apparently testified at a court session subsequent to the August 31 hearing, another of the baffling twists in the court proceddings. Hudson in Duncan Hunter’s office says after the August 31 session, the prosecutor in the case informed him that the judge would probably render his verdict within about ten days. Then Hudson heard that yet another hearing had been scheduled. Then he was told that hearing had been delayed. As of this week, the judge had not yet produced a decision.

But not long after the August 31 hearing the attention of those interested in freeing Theresa Clague had shifted to another legal venue. Hudson says the first week of September, Clague’s Mexican lawyer began talking about the possibility of winning for Clague something called an amparo, which is essentially a legal order issued by a judge protecting the subject from further prosecution. An amparo could allow for Clague’s immediate

release, Clague’s lawyer explained enthusiastically. He also sounded optimistic about Clague’s chances for winning this reprieve. Hudson was skeptical, but about September 21 Hudson learned that a federal judge in Tijuana had granted the amparo. Unfortunately, he learned simultaneously that the Tijuana federal district attorney had immediately appealed the action. An appeals court in Hermosillo would have to hear the issue, with that court’s decision not likely to be delivered for at least three months, Hudson was told.

So Clague remained confined to the penitentiary through the end of September and into October. The old lady seemed to be in tolerably good health, Jerry Miller told me early last month. But Miller confessed that she was seeing much less of Clague than she had been at the beginning of Clague’s incarceration. In fact, she said she had only recently resolved to try to steer clear of Clague. "I have not in my eleven years met a prisoner who has been as widely hated as she is,” Miller said sadly, adding that she had come to understand that sentiment. ‘‘She just treats me like I’m her slave, and everyone else at the prison,” Miller said. By the end of her close association with Clague, Miller said she had acquired several lists of items and favors demanded by the old lady. When Miller managed to accomplish one of them, Clague never seemed to offer any thanks, Miller said. As an example, she mentioned how she had brought in a heavy lockbox so Clague could safely store her valuables. “I figured Theresa could wear the key around her neck, and the box was heavy enough that I don’t think anyone would have taken it. They do have a little respect in there when something’s locked up.” Yet on Miller’s next visit, Clague had abandoned the box, declaring that it was too much trouble to use.

‘‘She wants people to clean her and her room,” Miller continued. ‘‘She would like someone to bring her food every day; she claims she can’t eat the food in the prison restaurants.” Miller pointed out that one of the other female prisoners would almost certainly cook meals for Clague if Clague would only pay for the service. ‘‘But she won’t pay. Instead she demands to be waited upon. And she doesn’t ask politely.” Clague had even refused to pay the prison’s standard, one-time fee of about twenty dollars for an electrical hookup in her room; she had been adamant about not paying any “bribes.” So instead of thus acquiring her own electrical fan, Clague told Sister Antonia to get the prison director’s fan for her use. When the nun refused to make such a request, Clague took to removing all her clothes during heat spells, in the process alienating the prison guards with this display of “immorality.”

Miller said she had kept her peace until one recent incident in which Clague had ordered Miller to buy her a certain medication in tablet, rather than capsule, form. Miller had visited five separate pharmacies in Tijuana in a futile search for the capsules. When she told Clague this, the old lady had railed about how stupid Miller was and how she could never get anything right. “I’d been kind of taking it from her, but this time I said I thought she was kind of stupid for winding up in jail.” Stung, Clague turned her back on Miller and walked away, then turned and yelled, “Some Christian you are!”

So Miller told me she had decided to avoid Clague. “I’m not going to abandon her completely. I’ll keep my eye on her. But I can’t continue to give her the attention I have been giving her.... I also know that she can get anything she wants or needs with the money she’s got.” At the same time, Miller expressed some concern about Clague’s safety, given her growing unpopularity among the other prisoners. “People walk past her door and they spit at her,” Miller fretted.

“That lady have two sides,” says Abel Fernandez about Clague. Fernandez has been reluctant to discuss any aspect of his lawsuit against his neighbor, but instead has referred news reporters to Cardenas, his attorney. He says he doesn’t really care what people in the United States think about him; the suit will be judged in Mexico. However, Fernandez finally agreed to talk about the personal relationship that existed between him and his family and Clague. Once it was a warm and close relationship, but then Clague changed, Fernandez maintains.

He says when he first met Clague out in front of his house, the elderly woman poured out a tale of illness and loneliness which moved him to open his house to her. Fernandez says eventually Clague began to ask him about his financial affairs, urging him to invest some of his savings in Mexican bank accounts, a prospect with which he wasn’t comfortable. “But she insist and insist and insist.” Fernandez claims that eventually Clague promised to put Abel and Fenilda’s name on several of her bank accounts (accounts which contained her funds only) if the Fernandezes would contribute shares to a few other accounts; as an added incentive, Clague hinted that she would die soon and thus the Fernandezes would own all the money in all the accounts. Finally, Fernandez says he yielded. “I say to myself, what I going to lose if I put this money together with hers? The contract and everything had my name on it.” He says he insisted on keeping the certificate for the Banamex account, but acquiesced at allowing Actibanco Guadalajara to retain the receipts for the other two accounts.

Fernandez says the change in Clague came not long after the three accounts were opened. Suddenly the old lady began criticizing his business judgment, telling him she knew that Mexicans were stupid; she had lived among them for most of her life. Fernandez says he became alarmed and told Clague he wanted his money back when the accounts matured. One day before the first account was to reach maturity, however, Clague withdrew the $115,000 plus interest. All he has wanted ever since then is merely to receive his rightful share of that sum, Fernandez says; he says the minute Clague chooses to pay it, she will go free.

He says he simply doesn’t know why Clague, a wealthy woman, would try to defraud him. ‘‘She’s a very confused lady,” he says. Discussing the case, Fernandez sounds bone weary. The fatigue takes on an irritable note when he talks about congressional aide Bob Hunter’s efforts on behalf of freeing Clague (which extended to photographing the Fernandez house and attempting to talk to the dentist for whom Fernandez works). ‘‘He [Hudson] not supposed to bother me like this,” Fernandez states, adding that he plans to look into the possibility of filing a lawsuit against Hudson.

Hudson, in turn, talks about having the FBI investigate the Fernandezes’ role in Clague’s imprisonment. ‘‘If she’s been set up, then that’s a violation of our conspiracy laws,” Hudson declares. He doesn’t conceal his opinion that the dispute is not simply a case of Clague’s word against that of her neighbors. Clague has evidence to back up her word, Hudson says. ‘‘I haven’t yet seen one shred of evidence to indicate that she [Clague] is not telling the truth.” He also points out that now ‘‘four separate sets of Mexican judges have concluded that Theresa Clague should not be in prison.” And still the end of Clague’s confinement isn’t in sight.

That fourth independent judgment came two and a half weeks ago, when the district appeals court in Hermosillo agreed that Clague should be granted an amparo. Clague’s release was expected within days, but the Fernandezes’ attorney now appears to have won yet one more review. Hudson isn’t making any guesses about when the old lady will leave the prison; too many people have been saying manana for too long. However, Hudson seems certain that Clague will get out sooner or later. ‘‘If worse came to worst, we could get her out on a prisoner exchange. But I will consider it a travesty of justice if it comes to that,” Hudson mutters. Could Clague survive that long? One person who sounds confident is Clague’s one-time friend Melba Harris, who despite her differences with Clague, notes with some admiration, ‘‘She’s a fighter and a survivor.”

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