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Artwork by E.R. Bills

You won’t find many pictures of Lenora Ivie Frago, even on the internet. It’s mostly the same photo of an attractive young woman of perhaps Hispanic descent, incredibly grainy but still suggestive of beauty, unfocused, unnoticed, and forgotten. And that’s definitely the case. Frago has been forgotten, intentionally or conveniently. She doesn’t fit our narrative. Her death is an affront to our insane ideals and flagrant hypocrisy. Oh, and she’s also actually Native American. And we definitely don’t like to go there unless Kevin Costner or Daniel Day-Lewis provides us with White Savior magnanimity. It’s not how true stories play out in Texas.

It was the wee hours of Christmas Eve, 2009, and 27-year-old San Antonio resident Ezekiel Gilbert decided he wanted to play It’s a Wonderful Life via an escort service on Craigslist. He contacted the E-Street Girls Inc. “hotline” and made an appointment to “lasso the moon” in his Camino Real apartment in the 12200 block of Blanco Road.

At approximately 3:45 a.m., a 23-year-old single mother of one, Frago, transported by her manager, Christopher “Topher” Perkins, showed up at Gilbert’s door. Perkins waited in his car.

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Gilbert paid $150 for 30 minutes of Frago’s time, and he chatted her up before attempting consummate what was no doubt his idea of a Christmas miracle, but something went awry. Gilbert wanted sex, but the original fee didn’t include sex or whatever special kind of attention he felt he was due. Gilbert and Frago disagreed, and Frago decided to leave. Maybe it was a grift perpetrated by Perkins and Frago, but Gilbert never indicated such to investigating detectives. Perhaps Frago didn’t feel safe (Gilbert’s gringo machismo was noted during his trial), or maybe Gilbert simply made Frago’s skin crawl. It’s even possible that Frago pressed Gilbert for more money for whatever might improve his Christmas spirits. It was hardly a G-rated transaction.

The dispute resulted in Frago’s exit of Gilbert’s apartment without him having experienced anything approaching It’s a Wonderful Life, and he wasn’t happy. In fact, Gilbert got all Mr. Potter about forfeiting his ill-conceived investment to procure illicit pleasures and confronted Perkins, a former nightclub bouncer. The conversation didn’t go Gilbert’s way, and Perkins and Frago started to leave. Gilbert did what so many other white, male Texas versions of Mr. Potter do when they feel they haven’t been treated like the belle of the ball.

Gilbert moseyed over to his BMW and grabbed his AK-47.

If Frago was going to abandon him after he got hard, someone was — you guessed it — going to die hard (which Frago may not have known because she was only 2 years old when Die Hard, another “Christmas” classic, came out).

When Frago and Perkins got in the car, Frago screamed, “He’s got a gun! Go! Go! Go!”

Perkins pressed the proverbial pedal to the metal, but it didn’t get them out of range soon enough. Gilbert fired two shots and one hit Perkins’s car and ricocheted, lodging in the back of Frago’s neck. She was paralyzed and passed away in a matter of months.

Gilbert was charged with aggravated assault until Frago died. Then he faced murder charges, and his case went to trial two and a half years later. His lawyers, Bobby Barrera and father Roy Barrera Sr., argued that Gilbert was simply trying to prevent the commission of a crime (theft), even though the property that he alleged was stolen ($150) was handed freely to the victim to make her an accomplice to another crime, according to Texas Penal Code 43.02 — prostitution. The Barreras’ defense of Gilbert’s murder of Frago while attempting to commit the offense of soliciting prostitution was very clever. In his opening statements, the junior Barrera said Frago “was there to rip” Gilbert off and that Gilbert had fired only to shoot out the tires of Perkins’ vehicle. Then the Barreras dusted off a 50-year-old statute — Texas Penal Code 9.42, deadly force to protect property — to trump their defendant’s violation of 43.02. Essentially, 9.42 states that a person can utilize deadly force against another to protect land or property, especially when it is immediately necessary and, in particular, at nighttime and specifically if the land or property cannot can be protected by any other means or if it would expose the would-be protector (or, in Gilbert’s case, recoverer) to serious bodily harm or death.

The ploy was an asinine farce, but the Barreras managed to keep straight faces, Gilbert feigned innocence, and the jury was extraordinarily gullible or favorably predisposed. Gilbert’s eventual ‘not guilty” verdict was an unflinching triumph of sexism, racism, and classism, all at the same time, but no one except almost everyone outside of Texas seemed to notice. After all, our entire border with Mexico was treated like a whorehouse for over 100 years and well into the 20th century. How dare Frago reject Gilbert’s advances? Especially after Gilbert paid $150 to get what so many good Texans’ grandfathers got for three pesos in the good ol’ days.

No wonder so many old-timers want the wall so bad.

 

*****

 

How could something like this happen, you ask

Your quandary and disbelief were echoed across the country. The webzine Above the Law put it bluntly, stating that Gilbert got “off on a technicality — the technicality in this case being that he didn’t get off,” and the jury ruled he could get away with killing Frago because she didn’t get him off.

The Huffington Post headline read, “Ezekiel Gilbert Acquitted of Murdering Woman Who Wouldn’t Have Sex.” Gawker’s headline said, “Texas Says It’s OK to Shoot an Escort if She Won’t Have Sex with You.” And even Guns.com expressed or bragged about the sheer inanity of the decision: “Man Acquitted of Killing Hooker Who Would Not Give Him Sex.”

An article in Tits and Sass, a website devoted to “service journalism by and for sex workers,” suggested the Gilbert acquittal had broader implications:

 

This precedent is exceptionally deadly for women, both in the sex industry and not. Sex workers who feel uncomfortable when arriving to see a client and choose to not have sex with him have the threat of legally sanctioned death hanging over their head. But this can expand past that. Imagine the woman who answers a vague house cleaning post, babysitting post, or secretary post (all jobs I’ve seen listed on Craigslist that have carried an insinuation that sex was expected) and the man hiring her decides that sex is a mandatory part of the position. Her options now are: 1.) have sex she does not want to have, 2.) not be paid for her time/work, or 3.) get shot.

 

Most of the headlines passively suggested that members of the jury were mouth-breathing cretins, and legendary journalist Kirk Eichenwald — who was educated at St. Mark’s in Dallas — demonstrated this notion by exploring the absurdity of Texas Penal Code Sec. 9.42 itself in a June 7, 2013, piece in Vanity Fair:

 

Under Texas law, if I see some kid getting ready to spray-paint his name on an underpass after dark, I can kill him. Criminal mischief at night can be a Class C misdemeanor involving less than $50 in damages, but in Texas, it effectively carries the death penalty. (Unless — and I can say this for damn sure — the youngster is a wealthy white boy. Then the murder charges will come raining down.) The enraged shooter can also kill anyone fleeing with a piece of property that isn’t his.

Still, Gilbert’s case seems ridiculous. Essentially, he is claiming that he is able to compel the commission of a crime — prostitution — if he simply believed he was paying for sex or demand his money back for the service he was promised and did receive. (On the other hand, the cops testified in the case that Gilbert never suggested he was stopping a theft of his money.)

Think of the possibilities. A guy buys some pot from a drug dealer, but it turns out to be oregano. If the drug dealer attempts to drive away — at night, of course — the purchaser can kill him. Or suppose someone buys something for what is advertised as the best price in town, later finds a lower one, goes back to the store manager, demands his money back, and is refused. Can the buyer then legally shoot the manager as he heads home that night? I don’t see why not — at least that transaction involved a dispute about a legal transaction, rather than the crime Gilbert wanted performed.

 

This section of the penal code — which implicitly permits individuals to stand their ground while engaging in criminal activity — is stupefying, and even presiding Judge Mary Roman alluded to this point after the verdict.

“It needs to be amended,” she said. “It was just unfortunate. I don’t believe that was the legislative intent at all.”

Is she right?

After his amazing though expected acquittal in San Antonio, Ezekiel Gilbert went on to get arrested in Vegas — and get off once again.

Well, Gilbert obviously believed he was “dispossessed” of his cash and the act of prostitution he assumed said dinero would purchase. But this isn’t quantum physics. There was no evidence that Frago perpetuated this “dispossession by using force, threat, or fraud against the actor.” In the police interview conducted with Gilbert after the incident, as homicide detective Raymond Roberts told the court, Gilbert “never mentioned anything about theft.”

Regarding Gilbert’s determination that deadly force was immediately necessary, couldn’t he simply have called the police and given them the make and model of the car and maybe even the license plate number? Isn’t that a reasonable assumption that might make a demonstration of potentially deadly force irresponsible if not criminal?

Oh, right.

If Gilbert had called the police, he obviously would have incriminated himself.

Unquestionably, however, nighttime is the right time, and that was where the Barreras really earned their angel’s wings. It was “nighttime” — 4:15 a.m., to be exact — and Gilbert clearly considered Frago’s Grinch-like rejection of his version of It’s a Wonderful Life a theft of sorts, and she did abscond with the funds he believed would secure it.

Call me crazy, but is firing an assault rifle at someone’s car over $150 reasonable, and is $150 in any way, shape, or form worth risking killing someone over, even if you have no recourse or means of replenishing the kitty for future escapades in the skin trade?

Shouldn’t Gilbert simply have done what most other lonely, horny gun-nuts in this state do? Masturbate in their favorite recliner while thinking about escorts or staring lovingly at their semiautomatic rifles?

 

*****

 

The bullet that lodged in Frago’s neck left her bedridden and dependent on a respirator. Some months after, the respirator became disconnected, and the resulting deprival of steady oxygen left her brain damaged, never to recover. Frago was taken off life support in July 2010.

The shameless Barreras argued that Frago’s delayed death wasn’t Gilbert’s fault, but neurologist Augusto Parra disagreed.

“When you are bedridden like” Frago, Parra stated, “with mechanical support, with tubes for feeding … these patients are prone to have complications. She was in this situation because she was shot.”

During the trial, Gilbert was on his best behavior and cleaned up pretty well for the proceedings. It was a far cry from Perkins’ description of him the night he shot Frago. “His whole posture was about him trying to appear bigger than he was,” Perkins testified, indicating Gilbert’s face was “stone cold” and that he comported himself with a kind of “gangster swagger.”

The San Antonio jury who weighed in on Gilbert’s guilt or innocence for 11 hours over two days, however, saw through the facts, looked past the tragic death of an unfortunate or perhaps imperfect single mother, and crowned the white guy innocent. It’s a common Texas theme, but Gilbert earned it. He put on a command performance. He hugged the Barreras and confirmed the bamboozled jury’s intuitions. He thanked God, the Barreras, and the jury for seeing “what wasn’t the truth” and giving him a “second chance.” But he didn’t stop there.

“I sincerely regret the loss of life of Miss Frago,” he said. “I’ve been in a mental prison the past four years of my life. I have nightmares. If I see guns on TV where people are getting killed, I change the channel.”

Not so coincidentally, I think I’ve been in a “mental prison” ever since this blatant travesty of justice. Back in those days, we didn’t have semiautomatic slaughters every other month. It was fairly new, but it seemed to portend things to come.

 

*****

 

I recently reached out to two of the most prominent members of the prosecutorial team. One never returned my call, and the other said they didn’t know if their current employer would approve of them commenting on the trial — they said they would check but never called back. I also reached out to one of Frago’s brothers, who cared for his sister while she was in the hospital and was heartbroken when she died and crushed when Gilbert was acquitted. I didn’t get to talk to him, but I did speak with his wife. She told me her husband finished raising Frago’s daughter and told her to tell me that he didn’t want to talk about it, presumably because he wasn’t up for revisiting the entire nightmare again.

But I fear it’s too late for that. To suggest that the Barreras and Gilbert perpetrated a Texas-sized line of bullpucky of the highest magnitude isn’t enough.

A little less than a year before Gilbert’s trial, the bond company that posted his $250,000 bail asked to be released from their contract on the bond because Gilbert was living in Las Vegas and frequently changing his cell phone numbers and the bond firm was receiving reports that he intended to jump bail. In fact, bounty hunters were eventually enlisted to bring him back to stand trial. And now, just nine years after the declaration of Gilbert’s innocence, here’s the sickening punchline.

After an Alamo City jury acquitted Gilbert, he returned to Las Vegas and used his second chance to resume his posture of “gangster swagger.” He’s had run-ins with the law involving drugs and domestic battery, and, in early September 2017, for using Snapchat to recruit a young woman into prostitution. Gilbert’s girlfriend, 20-year-old Wynter Nicole Fowler, sent the woman pictures of Rolex watches, Versace purses, and a Rolls Royce along with claims of earning thousands of dollars in Sin City.

The gullible woman fell for Gilbert and Fowler’s pitch and relocated to Vegas, where she was soon working as a prostitute for Gilbert. About a month into her “employment,” however, she decided to quit. Gilbert threatened her and boasted that he’d already “gotten away with murder” in Texas.

On Sept. 12, 2017, Gilbert and Fowler were arrested and booked on sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit sex trafficking charges. When police searched Gilbert’s residence, they found several guns and more than $400,000 in cash.

Gilbert and Fowler both worked with investigators and received plea deals that reduced the charges against them and mitigated their sentences. And, even better, Gilbert had clearly liberated himself from his “mental prison” and mastered his fear of guns. His attorney portrayed him as a repentant, hard-working average Joe recently diagnosed with cancer and only dabbling in servicing Johns as a desperate side hustle. Gilbert delivered another command performance, informing the judge that he fully accepted responsibility for his actions. “I’m sorry and I just wish, if granted, I could live life and continue with my credit repair and take care of my health.”

Gilbert was sentenced to probation and 12 weekends in jail, so he could still work and seek treatment for his malady. He obviously had a guardian angel, and perhaps he got his “wonderful life,” after all.

He doesn’t want to talk about it, one way or another — because I called him earlier this month.

When a man answered the phone, he said he was not Ezekiel Gilbert and said the phone no longer belonged to him but that he could take a message. He asked me my name, and I gave it. Then he asked me what the call was about.

“I wanted to talk to [Gilbert] about a case he was involved in here in Texas a while back,” I said.

“Oh,” he replied. “What kind of case? Are you a police officer? I’m sorry. I’m trying to write down notes.”

“No,” I said. “I’m a writer. I’m writing about the death of Lenora Frago.”

“Oh, OK,” the man replied. “This isn’t his number anymore. He actually called me a while back and said I could take messages for important stuff or whatever. I reckon this is important. … I can give him the message and have him give you a holler back. This is ‘Mills’?”

“Bills,” I corrected. “B-I-L-L-S. I was wondering if I could get his side of the story. Obviously, I’m aware of his legal issues in Las Vegas, which mirror in some ways some of the stuff that went on in Texas and don’t lend credence to his original acquittal, so I just wanted his opinion. I mean, I heard he has cancer or was being treated for cancer, and sometimes people become repentant or they remember things differently … or look at things differently. Sometimes, they don’t.”

There was a long pause, so I said, “So give him my message.”

“Pardon me?” the man said.

“So give him my message,” I repeated.

“You should ask a little nicer than that,” he said. “Lose this fucking number, homeboy.”

 

*****

 

I haven’t lost Gilbert’s number.

I’ve actually thought about giving it to Patrick Crusius, the Dallas man who drove from Big D to El Paso on August 3, 2019, to gun down 23 Mexican-Americans with a semiautomatic civilian version of the AK-47. Maybe Gilbert could be an expert witness on protecting one’s property — which, in Crusius’ case, could be argued was all of Texas. White men are, after all, being told by Fox News, Alex Jones types, and 2020 election loser Donald J. Trump that they’re being dispossessed. Maybe Gilbert could even do a photo op with the Barreras, fearless gun rights advocate Gov. Greg Abbott, and Texas transplant Kyle Rittenhouse.

Today, Lenora Ivie Frago is almost entirely forgotten in San Antonio and Texas, and her outrageous murder and Gilbert’s preposterous acquittal aren’t on anyone’s radar. Had Frago received Gilbert’s second or third chance, she would have been 36 this Christmas Eve, and she may have gotten to spend it with her 20-year-old daughter. But, again, that’s not how true stories play out in Texas.

We all know they’ll be more guns than books under Lone Star Christmas trees this year. And more El Paso Walmarts, Santa Fe high schools, Uvalde elementary schools, and other gun massacres in the months to come. Because in the Lone Star version of It’s a Wonderful Life — though our Mr. Potter is also a wheelchair-bound reprobate — Christmas is a wonderful lie.

So, images of victims like Frago will continue to fade, appear grainy, and recede in our collective memory.

If Lenora Ivie Frago were alive today, she’d be 36 years old and able to spend Christmas with her 20-year-old daughter and other family members.

 

Fort Worth native E.R. Bills is the award-winning author of several books on Texas history, mysteries, and travel.

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