I first found this case while digging through old ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ episodes. This case was not only featured on ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ in season two, but it also debuted twice on ‘America’s Most Wanted’. Then, I realized that this case had materialized in a full-length one hour and 42 minute documentary directed by Charlie Minn titled ‘A Nightmare in Las Cruces’.
It’s unclear why I was attracted to this case in particular. It could have something to do with the fact that it’s still unsolved after over 30 years, but I think it’s because it’s a case that could happen to anyone even now. Anyone I know or anyone you know. It’s a case where normal people were going about their normal day doing their normal tasks. Some of these people were devastatingly stripped from their families, and some, their lives.
During the research of this case, I’ve listened to the 911 call. It’s brutal to listen to because of the soft and innocent voice attached to it. At one point in the call, the young voice painfully details to the 911 operator that “It hurts” while he asks questions if the men are still there, what they were wearing, how many people are hurt. She answers his questions as calmly as she can, even though it’s clear that she’s in agony. This female voice counts to seven, informing the operator that there’s seven victims. She eventually tells the operator that the gunmen lit a fire on the desk in the room that she’s in. She informs the operator that her name is Melissa, that she’s in the office and that she needs the fire engine. She keeps pleading for the operator to help her. While I continued to listen, it became extremely apparent that those few minutes Melissa was on the phone must have felt like years to her. During the phone call to 911, Melissa tells the operator where to find her, and how to get to her. You can also hear the operator tell the police where Melissa is. It’s haunting and tragic.
This case takes place in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Las Cruces lies 225 miles south of Albuquerque, 42 miles northwest of El Paso, Texas and 41 miles north of the Mexican border at Sunland Park. Most specifically, the date is February 10th, 1990 and we find ourselves at 1201 East Amador Avenue. It’s a bowling alley. A place where families and friends gather to have fun. A place where people gather to play tournaments. It’s a place typically known for joy. The time of day when all this began was early to mid-morning. Stephanie Sernac was the manager of her father’s bowling alley, and on this particular Saturday morning, she was there early enough to open the business for the day. She brought along her 12 year old daughter, Melissa Repass and Melissa’s friend- 13 year old Amy Houser. The two preteen girls accompanied Stephanie because they were there to help supervise the bowling alley’s daycare center. Ida Holguin, the bowling alley’s cook, was also there that morning, as she was getting the kitchen ready and began prepping the food.
During the Charlie Minn documentary, we first meet Steve Sernac, Stephanie’s brother. He had visited the bowling alley early that morning to pick up a backpack that he had left there the previous day. When he pulled into the parking lot, he noticed two individuals hanging out, but didn’t really think anything of it. When he went inside, he walked through the unlocked set of front doors. Although his sister, niece and her friend, and Ida were there, he didn’t like the fact that the doors weren’t locked, and told his sister that he thinks that she should keep the doors locked while the business isn’t open. He can’t remember if he had his own set of keys to lock the door himself, but thinks that he didn’t because he knew that Stephanie was there to do the money. When he hurriedly left, he told his sister to please just lock the door on his way out and noticed the two men still in the parking lot. He asks himself that if he had stayed that day, would the two men have entered the bowling alley? He says that he has regrets, but doesn’t know that if he had ever stopped to ask the men what they wanted, well… if that would have stopped the events from happening.
At 9:47 a.m on February 10th, 1990, Captain Fred Rubio from the Las Cruces Police Department gave an on screen interview to reporters and the media of what had transpired earlier that morning at the bowling alley after they received a phone call about people hurt and a fire in progress. He notes that police, fire and paramedics all responded to the scene. Captain Fred Rubio details that once police arrived, they saw and smelled smoke coming from the office and “we were able to observe in that particular office at least seven bodies.” He notes the three deceased bodies that were found: Steve Teran aged 30, Paula Teran aged 7 and Amy Houser aged 13. Captain Fred Rubio tells the media and news that Victoria Teran (her name is later revealed to be Valerie) aged 3 was taken to the local hospital and was DOA. “So you have three members of one family.” After giving out the news of who was found deceased, Captain Fred Rubio details who was found alive- two people in their 30’s and one 12 year old, but wouldn’t give out their information and says that it’s for security purposes.
For the 2010 film, Charles Comer, a Las Cruces resident, gave an interview detailing how the community dealt with the aftermath of what had happened at the bowling alley. He wonders if the people that committed the acts at the bowling alley were still just meandering around their city and questions if people’s lives are still at risk. Anthony Woods, Amy’s step-father, explains that afterwards, people questioned what they would allow their kids to do and where to go because no one knew what was going to happen next. The community was scared. A few other members of the community give credence to this, and explain that the community as a whole changed. Life in Las Cruces was different after February 10th 1990. Cynthia Woods, Amy’s half sister, says that her own life has changed and that she was afraid to be alone for a while. Mark Myers, a Las Cruces detective says that it was hard for people in the community to wrap their minds around the fact that two people could just enter an establishment and shoot at people- children in particular, for money. Charles Comer asks, “Will we ever be the same?”
The 911 call was made at 8:29 a.m and was made by 12 year old Melissa Repress. Giving a current (2010) interview in the documentary, a now older Melissa explains that she had learned how to give info on a 911 call in school just a few weeks earlier, which would explain her somewhat calm demeanor on the phone call. The memories are fresh, however, and it’s hard for her not to cry. She says that she was the only conscious one in the room, and hopes that if it was anyone else, they would have made the same decision that she did- to call 911.
Seven victims total. The documentary highlights Ida Holguin next. She was 33 years old at the time of the shooting. She gives an interview for the documentary, and notes that she usually worked evenings, but changed her schedule around so that she can attend Bingo later that day with her mother. The third person highlighted is Stephanie Senac. The documentary notes that although she survived the initial shooting, she died at age 43 from wounds she sustained in 1999. Shannon Caruso, Stephanie’s friend, tells us that in the years after the shooting, Stephanie was afraid for her life, and thought that the people who attacked her, would come back and finish the job. Melissa, Stephanie’s daughter, explains that after the shooting, Stephanie changed. Medically, she could no longer do the things that she loved to do, and psycholicially, she “just didn’t know how to deal with it.” The fourth person highlighted is Amy Houser, Melissa’s friend and who was 13 years old when she died at the scene from wounds she sustained during the shooting. Anthony Woods is back from earlier in the documentary, and explains that he hadn’t seen his step-daughter much in the week leading up to the shooting because he had been on a job. When he did see her, he asked how school was going and other typical questions one asks their step-daughter. What gives him some solace now is knowing that during the last conversation he had with Amy before she left, he told her that he loved her. That conversation is the last one he has with Amy, and he holds onto that and thinks about it all the time. Her last words to him were, “I love you too!” Gloria Woods, Amy’s mother, says that learning to live without Amy has been devastating and near impossible. She says that having to go through life without Amy has been her toughest task. The last three people highlighted are the Teran family. Steve, aged 26 at the time of the shooting, his daughter Paula aged 6 and his younger daughter Valerie aged 2. Steve and Paula died at the scene from wounds they sustained from the shooting, while Valerie died on the way to the hospital. Anthony Teran, Steve’s brother, mentions Steve’s wife and how she lost her whole family on that fateful morning. “One morning you’re getting your kids ready, or feeding them breakfast, or cleaning them up, and the next minute you’re burying them.” We meet Steve’s wife- Audrey Teran- and she’s tearfully remembering that day. Audrey says that she cried nonstop that day, and once she saw her own father, only then was she able to form any words. Those words were, “Why Dad? Why me?” Patricia Rodriguez, Steve’s sister-in-law, mentions that she remembers what Audrey had told her: “They’re gone, they’re gone” and nothing more. Even in 2010, the family is broken and haunted by what they lost.
Ida remembers that she got to work around 8:00 a.m that morning and began working in the kitchen. Ida says that Stephanie, her daughter Melissa, and Melissa’s friend Amy were all there- and Melissa says that she was there just hanging out “like we typically did.” Melissa notes that she and Amy got hungry, but that Ida wasn’t ready to give out any food yet. In order to get the girls out of her hair while she was counting money, Stephanie gave Melissa and Amy some quarters to get some goodies from the vending machine. When they headed out into the front lobby of the bowling alley, the girls more or less bumped into two men with guns. “The older one told me and Amy to go back into the office and the younger one went to the snack bar area to get Ida.”
Ida explains, “This man came around the corner and put a gun against my side and said that “This is a holdup, come with me.”” The gunman took Ida to the office where she was met with the gunman’s accomplice, Stephanie and the two preteens. Melissa notes that once all four women were in the office, they were instructed to get on the floor. Melissa continues to explain that she didn’t see much at first because her head was down, but heard shuffling of papers while the gunmen looked for money. When she heard a louder noise, Melissa peeked her head up and saw Steve Teran and his two young daughters enter the office. Immediately, the two gunmen pointed their weapons at Steve, Paula and Valerie and told them to also get on the ground. Melissa continues that Steve and his girls complied and she heard more shuffling from the gunmen. “And then I heard shots. A lot of shots. I felt three.”
The two gunmen unloaded their weapons on all seven victims. The documentary hauntingly depicts the scene of the two gunmen carrying out the crime. I will note that if you want to watch the documentary for yourself, please be aware that it might trigger you. After carrying out their crime, the two gunmen took off into the day.
Ida notes that she was the second one shot. She explains how the felt the heat of the gun barrel against her head before the gunman pulled the trigger. Melissa depicts the sounds of someone- she doesn’t know who- trying to grasp for air and notes that she only had her mother to lean on. But after the few seconds of sounds of those around her trying to grasp for air, silence came over the room. Ida explains that she couldn’t see anything but red. Just blood, notably her own.
Melissa tried to get her mother’s attention, but Stephanie was unresponsive. When Melissa slowly began to move, she very quickly realized that there was a fire on the desk. She carefully felt around and found the telephone and dialed 911.
Jim Hash, a 911 dispatcher comes into view and remembers that the early morning of February 10th was rather slow. He was reading a newspaper when the phone call came through. He remembers that once he heard Melissa’s voice he threw the newspaper to the ground and motioned for people to get him what he needed to conduct the phone call. We meet Bill Schatzman next, the first responding officer on scene that day. He notes that when he first got the call of shots fired at the bowling alley, he was a little beside himself, but quickly recovered and knew that he had to hurry his ass to the scene. He knew by listening in on the 911 call that something was very seriously wrong, and got to the scene just as another police car pulled in. Both of the officers were about to enter the building when a third police car came in, and then all three men entered the bowling alley together. Bill remembers smelling and seeing the smoke coming out of the office, and still hearing the dispatch telling him to hurry. A lump forms in Bill’s throat and his voice gets a little heavy as he remembers walking into the office and seeing the look of relief come across Melissa’s face. It’s hard for him to retell what he witnessed when he walked into the office. He tries to hide back from crying while he says that Melissa refused to take her hand off the telephone. Melissa says that she didn’t want to let the phone go because she was told to stay on the line. It hadn’t yet sunk in for Melissa that she was going to be okay, that she was now safe. Bill managed to get Melissa out of the office and out to another officer as he headed back inside and began the tedious process of carefully trying to get all the bodies out of the office and away from the still raging fire.
Melissa says that the only thing she saw when she got up to get out of the office was Valerie. She says that she got too scared to look around to see if anyone else was alive. She says that what she saw still haunts her. Crime scene photographs of the bowling alley lobby come on screen, and again: TRIGGER WARNING! It depicts images of police helping several victims- some alive, some already gone. Ida notes that it was hard for her to hear what the paramedics and police were asking her, but she remembers telling them her name. She says that when she heard her own voice she knew for certain that she was still alive. She felt herself being carted out of the building and “that was it.” Bill says that once the officers got all the victims out of the office, a doctor had arrived on scene and was the one deciding who went to the hospital and who wasn’t. Wiping away tears, Bill explains that he was going about his job when the paramedics told him to get inside the ambulance- that Melissa was asking for him. And so, he went. Melissa says that she was scared and didn’t know what her mother’s condition was. The only person she trusted in that moment was Officer Bill.
Detective Mark Myers is back and gives kudos to Melissa for her bravery in the moments after the shooting. He notes that even though she herself was bloody and hurt, she mustered enough strength to get help not knowing if her mother or any of the other five victims were alive. It’s heroic. Jim Hash says that for him, Melissa counting out each person… to the number seven has stayed with him all this time.
The documentary shows old camera footage that a crowd began to gather outside the bowling alley around 10:30 a.m as Audrey depicts what happened to her youngest daughter. She notes that because of where the bullet was found in Valerie’s skull, the gunman had to have been looking down at her- and she up at him- when she was shot. “To be honest with you, I hope he sees her eyes every day. I hope that that’s what he remembers when he wakes up in the morning.”
(I admit the documentary seems to kind of bounce all over the place in regards to when things happened, but I think it’s trying to highlight how chaotic that day became. From what happened at the crime scene after the gunmen left, to what the family members were going through.) 8:37 a.m marked the time that backup began to arrive on scene. A couple different detectives who all were at different places in the city of Las Cruces were informed that it was an all hands on deck type of situation and to get to the bowling alley ASAP. All these detectives who were interviewed for the documentary gave varying depictions of the scene when they arrived: because they all arrived at different times. Each detective was given a different assignment on what their job was to do. Some were given areas to search for the gunmen. Some were tasked to ask questions about what people may have seen. Some were given the task to fly up in the helicopters to survey and canvas the area. The police department set up a coordinated effort to block off all exits out of Las Cruces. At around 9 a.m is when police stopped a car with four people with a considerate amount of cash. They called in Stephanie’s brother (who had seen the alleged attackers) but he had told the police that none of those people from the car fit the description of the two people he had previously seen in the parking lot. Gloria Woods and Audrey Teran give testimony of what they were doing and where they were when they found out what had happened. Gloria was at work while Audrey was in class. Audrey went on lunch with a friend and caught the tail-end of a news report on the radio detailing what had happened at the bowling alley. She had no idea that it was at her husband’s place of employment. Gloria went into the office and phoned the bowling alley, but got no response. Gloria’s co-worker immediately told her that she’d drive her to the bowling alley. When Audrey got back to school, she phoned the bowling alley and she too, got no response. Audrey, along with her friend headed for the bowling alley after another friend from school informed her about the robbery.
A few different detectives describe what the crime scene looked like when they arrived. They very quickly noticed the bodies of Steve, Paula and Amy in the lobby that had been moved from the office. They saw the burned desk and what was left of papers and anything that had been on the desk prior to the fire. The captain of the police force knew that there was a lot of area to investigate, so he called in the state crime lab to collect any evidence.
When Gloria arrived on scene, she saw the yellow tape but didn’t care and drove into the parking lot. Detectives came out and approached her, asking her why she was there. Undoubtedly Gloria was in hysterics, and told the police that her daughter Amy was in the bowling alley. One of the detectives on scene was one of Gloria’s friends from school and immediately told her to just go to the hospital. When Audrey attempted to pull into a roped off parking lot, she too was asked why she was there. Like Gloria, Audrey too must have been nervous and worried. Audrey informed the police that her husband was the mechanic of the bowling alley and that he had their two daughters. The police asked Audrey what the ages of her two daughters were and she responded. They then asked her what the girls were doing with him and she told the police that she couldn’t find a babysitter, so the two girls were allowed to come to the daycare that was inside the bowling alley. The police informed Audrey that she needed to speak to a police officer and directed her to wait at her car. The documentary depicts how Audrey was informed of her family: the police sat Audrey down inside her vehicle and strapped her in with a seatbelt. They informed her that her husband had been shot. She asked where, knowing that because he was previously in the military he would have put up a fight. When the police explained that he had been shot in the head, Audrey immediately asked about her two daughters, thinking that whoever did this wouldn’t hurt children. The detectives informed her that Paula had too, been shot and had passed away on the scene. She asked about her youngest, Valerie. The detective told her that her daughter was at the hospital and that she needed to go there. The documentary shows Audrey and her friend heading out of the parking lot and to the hospital as she says that well, “at least one of them is alive.”
At this point, we meet some of the hospital staff that went to the bowling alley to help with giving times and causes of the death to the deceased victims. They had a hard time dealing, as two of the victims were the ages of 6 and 13.
The minute that Gloria Woods left the parking lot, she immediately began pleading to God for her daughter to be okay. When she arrived at the hospital, she was put into a room, alone. When Audrey arrived at the hospital, she was greeted by a priest and immediately knew that the situation wasn’t looking good. She knew she had already lost her husband and 6 year old daughter, but was still clinging to the hope that her 2 year old would make it. She too, was brought to a room with a social worker, and asked “how bad is it?” One of the detectives approached the room with Gloria Woods and asked for her name. When they asked her if Amy was her daughter, Gloria immediately asked them to take her to Amy. Gloria breaks down at the memory of the detective informing her that Amy had died. Back in the room holding Audrey, a priest knelt down in front of her and told her that Valerie had held on for 45 minutes, but that she had died at the hospital. He informed her that if Valerie had lived, she would be a quadriplegic, and that it was God’s will. The social worker informed Audrey that Valerie had died while being held by a nurse, and that her last word was “Mama.” (Phew. This is a hard one to write. Emotional, tug at your heart strings, wanna hug your children and never let go kind of case.)
On February 11, 1990, just the next day, Captain Fred Rubio, while sitting in his car, angrily tells reporters that he refuses to release the names of the survivors. It’s clear that he’s frustrated, angry and stressed. On February 13th, a mass was held for Amy, and the documentary shows footage of devastated friends and family. The priest says, “Shock. Outrage. Disgust. Anger. Pain, are but a few of the words that describe the emotions that all of us here, and indeed the entire city of Las Cruces, are experiencing over the incident that occurred this past Saturday.”
Again, we’re with Captain Fred Rubio who when asked if there have been any leads, informs the camera crew that no, nothing has surfaced yet. When asked if the gunmen might have taken off to Mexico, he answers that anything is possible. At this point in the documentary, a range of detectives say that they were given a few different descriptions of what the gunmen looked like. Most of them basically just said that they were black and that was about it. Detectives also note that someone was on the roof of the place across the street who thinks that he saw the killers run out and take off on foot. However, another detective noted that the person on the roof ended up just being a red herring, and of no use, or it wasn’t true at all. Steve Senac, Melissa and Ida all met with a sketch artist who came out with a composite for both gunmen. Any and all leads that had come to the police station were met and investigated thoroughly. Detectives and family members all note that the gunmen hadn’t just gone in there to rob the place and theorize that there might possibly be another motive. One of the detectives believes that the two men were hired by someone to carry out the murders, based on the fact that there was more money left in the safe that they had access to, but didn’t take. Family members and detectives claim that at first, the gunmen weren’t there looking for money; that maybe they were looking for someone in particular. The community of Las Cruces largely believes that Stephanie’s father- the owner of the bowling alley had something to do with what happened. This is due to the fact that it’s believed that he was involved in drug trafficking of some kind and other illegal activity, although that theory hasn’t really been proven. He became upset with the detectives when he realized that he could be a possible suspect and in the documentary, still seemed a little bent outta shape. RJ Senac, Steve’s younger brother worked at the bar for the bowling alley, and was there most nights. A lot of the community suspects that RJ had a cocaine addiction, and did his dealings at the bowling alley. The community thinks that the two men were there looking for RJ and although it hasn’t been proven, it’s another theory. RJ Senac died of an apparent drug overdose on May 6th, 1997 and was just 36 years old. So, if RJ was in fact somehow responsible or linked in any way, we’ll never really know now. Steve Senac is upset that fingers are constantly pointed in his family’s direction for the cause of what happened.
This case is as much about the victims as it is about trying to figure out who the two men are, and if they can be tracked down and arrested. It’s been over 30 years, so the answer to who they are, and where they are is slim. On February 10th, 1991, the community held a mass for the one year anniversary. The Bishop there spoke about how the murders hadn’t yet been solved, so they wept. Then says that even if they had been solved, they would all still weep. He went on that the entire city of Las Cruces wept, and will continue to weep. “There’s no explanation…”
Like previously mentioned, Stephanie Senac initially survived the attack. She tried her best to live her life, but friends and family bring up the fact that she was haunted by what happened and that she suffered from severe PTSD. She ended up succumbing to her injuries and passed away in 1999. Melissa Repress went on to have children and tries her best to try and move on, but notes that it’s near impossible because she’s lost so much. She lost her childhood and says that she tries her hardest to be the best mom to her children, but that it’s hard most days. Ida Holguin too survived that day, yet also suffers from PTSD. She notes that she always has to face the doors and always counts how many people come in and out of a room. She’s on various sorts of medication and thinks that it’s getting harder, not easier over time to deal with. Audrey Teran still tries her hardest to come to terms with what she’s lost, but says that she was robbed of time with her husband and two little girls. Even though she has two teenagers, (as of 2010) life is difficult for her. It’s heartbreaking to watch her talk about what she’s had to go through all these years and how she’s still trying to find a way to get closure.
But, the families and the community of Las Cruces haven’t yet found any closure. And I don’t think they will, not until the gunmen are caught. And even then, I feel as though they won’t.
I refuse to post more detailed crime scene photographs of this particular case because they are just too triggering and depicts too graphically violence to children. If you’re interested in still seeing them, check out Charlie Minn’s documentary, or look online.