From troubled youth mentor to murder victim
At 45, Ray Hernandez was a doting son who did yard work for his mother and insisted on fixing and replacing things around her house. He called her every Friday evening.
But on Friday, Aug. 8, 2008, that weekly call never came.
"I call over there and I call and I call and it rang and it rang and it rang," his mother, Delores Hernandez, said. "Finally somebody answered the phone. They wanted to know who I was."
She told the man on the line that she was Ray's mother. The man identified himself as a detective.
"He said, 'You need to meet me at the Grand Prairie Police Department. We need to talk to you,' " she said.
Ray, a Dallas County juvenile probation officer, had been found dead that evening by Grand Prairie firefighters responding to a house fire.
Someone stabbed Ray 46 times and then, in an apparent attempt to destroy evidence, set items on the kitchen stove and turned on the burners.
Almost 10 years later, Grand Prairie police remain optimistic that Ray's case will be solved, and a family still waits for answers. The case is the latest focus of the Star-Telegram's "Out of the Cold" podcast series.
“I was just hoping they'd solve it before my dad passed, but they never did," said Richard Hernandez, Ray's younger brother.
“I hope they do it before I go,” Delores Hernandez added.
A compassionate career
Cold case Detective Alan Frizzell is the latest Grand Prairie police investigator to work on the case.
That Ray was a probation officer — part of the law enforcement world — affects Frizzell.
"Just because he's a good guy," he said. "He's doing what he's supposed to do. He's not some dope dealer who got murdered. He's trying to do good for people."
Ray's desire to work with troubled youths began while volunteering at the Tarrant County Juvenile Detention Center to earn credits for a college class.
“He felt sorry for the kids," Delores Hernandez said. "He made the mistake of giving his phone number to one kid, they said, ‘No, you’re not supposed to do that.' ”
Ray, a Haltom High School graduate, was a serious student. He worked his way through college, eventually earning his master's degree in criminal justice and criminology from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville.
He worked in the Texas prison system for years before landing his dream job in 1996 as a juvenile probation officer for Dallas County. He served in various capacities, including as an in-school probation officer who steered at-risk kids away from the juvenile system.
"At Christmas, sometimes he would ask me to make extra cookies or make a bunch of cookies so he could take them to the kids," Delores Hernandez recalls.
"Mother, you wouldn't believe it," she remembers him telling her. "These kids don't know, they don't have any idea what Christmas is because they have parents that are drug addicts, alcoholics and they don't care for these kids at all."
Ray did care, and it showed in his work, colleagues say.
They say Ray was a stellar employee who served as a calming, positive influence to the troubled youths with whom he worked.
"He would do too much. I would be, 'Ray, slow down. They're going to expect all of us to do that,' " said Giuliana Stevens, who worked the night shift with Ray. "He raised the bar. He definitely raised the bar."
Stevens remembers Ray's thoroughness and compassion as he screened arrested juveniles to determine whether they should be detained.
The kids, she said, sometimes came in agitated and unpredictable, but Ray had a knack for calming them.
"The way he treated our clients, so respectful, never demeaning," Stevens recalled.
Mike Griffiths, interim executive director for the Dallas County Juvenile Department, said that, on several occasions, Ray was honored with the department’s “Caught in the Act” award, a recognition given to employees who went above and beyond.
"Just stellar, stellar," Griffiths said. "He exemplified what probation officers should be, so it was a huge loss for us."
A promising case
Frizzell, the police detective, says evidence in the case is strong.
Neighbors saw a purple car — thought to be a Dodge Stratus — parked in Ray's driveway the evening of his death. Someone left in the car but later returned.
The second time, neighbors saw the driver get out and walk toward Ray's back yard along the side of his house. The man, described as African-American and in his early 20s, apparently jumped the back fence.
He returned about five to 10 minutes later carrying something.
Frizzell said he believes the man had killed Ray during his earlier visit. He left, cleaned himself up and returned to set the fire.
Frizzell said he believes the man took with him a DVD player that had been inside Ray's living room.
Soon after the man left, neighbors noticed the fire.
"They had said they’d seen him before but don’t know him, just coming and going," Frizzell said. "So to me that establishes ... it wasn't a stranger crime. It was some sort of a relationship. They knew each other in some aspect.”
While they don't know his name, police did obtain the killer's DNA profile from blood found on one of the broken and bent knives that had been used to stab Ray.
"It always happens. Every time," Frizzell said. "When you have a stabbing, somebody cuts themselves."
The profile was entered into the FBI's Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, which compared it to those of people arrested for, charged with or convicted of certain crimes.
Though no match was made, the database did later link the profile to biological evidence from two other unsolved crimes — separate rapes of prostitutes that occurred in Fort Worth in 2011.
Last year, Grand Prairie police paid to have DNA phenotyping done by Virginia-based Parabon-Nanolabs. The company predicts the killer's physical appearance based on DNA analysis, then creates composites from those predictions.
In Ray's case, they created three composites showing the suspect at different weights and ages.
Ray’s killer was predicted to have brown or dark brown skin with no freckles, brown or black eyes and black hair.
More recently, Grand Prairie police also paid a California-based company, Identifinders International, to conduct genetic genealogy research to look for possible last names associated with Ray’s murderer.
The company compares a suspect's Y-DNA profile to those uploaded on GEDmatch, a publicly accessible database where users can upload their own genealogical information to search for relatives.
Genetic genealogy has recently been pivotal in leading to arrests in high-profile cases, including that of the suspected Golden State Killer in California.
Colleen Fitzpatrick, a forensic genealogist and the founder of Identifinders International, said a Y-DNA search she did a few years ago helped Phoenix police identify a suspect in the mutilation deaths of two young women in the early 1990s.
Through her genealogy research, Fitzpatrick was able to tell Phoenix police that the killer they were seeking likely had the last name of Miller based on possible ancestors she uncovered along his paternal lineage. That information, she said, narrowed their large pool of suspects to five people.
"Of those five, there was only one that could even come close. And they went and collected a DNA sample from him, and his DNA matched the DNA at the scene of the crime," Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick said near matches to the Y-DNA profile of Ray's killer were associated with three surnames — the most prominent being Lacey but also Ratliff and Sheets.
Frizzell has scoured the case file for such names but found none.
And while the search for the killer continues, he believes the DNA will be key in making an arrest.
"That's why this case is so promising. ... There's DNA," Frizzell said. "Eventually we’re going to get to our society where everybody’s DNA is going to be in CODIS.
"We're going to get this case solved whether it be soon or 20 years from now."
If you have information about the murder of Ray Hernandez, please call Grand Prairie police Detective Alan Frizzell at 972-237-8795.
'Out of the Cold' podcast
Listen to the complete story of the murder of Ray Hernandez, which is Episode 10 of the Star-Telegram's own "Out of the Cold" podcast. Find the link at www.star-telegram.com/outofthecold. You can also subscribe through iTunes, Stitcher and Google Play.