Hours before the burned remains of Carlos Alvarado's wife were found in a field, the computer technician accompanied searchers to the couple's old home and stared at their bathtub for what seemed like forever.
Then he broke down and wept.
"The earth swallowed her up in 20 minutes," he told Tim Miller, director of Texas Equusearch, on the fourth day of round-the-clock searching for the mother of four. Isabel Alvarado, 39, had last been seen on March 30.
"The earth just swallowed her up," the husband repeated.
Hours later on April 7, homicide detectives charged Alvarado, 45, in his wife's murder, accusing him of choking her. In court Tuesday, prosecutors said he killed his wife and dismembered her body before burning the remains and discarding them on his aunt's property in Fresno. He told detectives he thought his wife was having an affair.
Alvarado's court-appointed attorney had not yet spoken to him.
Isabel Alvarado's family denied she was unfaithful, saying rather that he was "insanely jealous," obsessively stalking the woman he called muñeca, or "doll," because of her delicate features and cherub lips. They said he'd spend hours waiting outside the Taco Bell where she worked to see if she talked to any men.
The couple met when they were teenagers, growing up near Northside Village. But over the years, relatives said Alvarado's jealousy often spiraled into violence. In 1997, he was sentenced to 10 days in Harris County Jail for misdemeanor assault.
'Trying to work it out'
Harris County sheriff's deputies refused to immediately release the related report, saying they were reviewing how it fit with the murder investigation. But Isabel Alvarado's family said her husband hit her while she was pregnant with their third child.
There were other stresses, too. In 2002, the couple filed for bankruptcy. Things seemed to improve. Two years ago, the family went to Disney World, and pictures show them smiling at the airport, on the rides, in the hotel.
Then Isabel Alvarado told her family she wanted more independence, "she wasn't going to be relying on him any more," said Ramirez, 21.
The mother had already been working at the Taco Bell on Texas 6 near their home in the 16300 block of Royal Mile Lane in Cypress She picked up a second job at a Chuck E. Cheese, where her eldest daughter is a manager.
In December, family members were suddenly forced out of their home. It had been placed in foreclosure in November. Carlos Alvarado had missed six payments, relatives said. He'd never told his wife. She moved her children to a nearby rental home and the couple split up.
Vanished after work
"She was scared," Ramirez said. "She said, 'He's been acting weird. What if I leave him and he does something to the kids?'"
In February, they got back together "for the kids," Ramirez said. On March 31, her family reported her missing when she didn't come home from work. She was last seen locking up the Taco Bell at 3:15 a.m. Deputies found her truck just blocks away on Texas 6.
Calling out her name
In the ensuing days, Carlos Alvarado seemed to have disappeared himself. When he finally showed up to help search, he promised his children he would "bring mama home before Easter." He told TV reporters the presumed kidnappers "have no right to put your dirty hands on her ... you have to treat her as the queen she is."
Alone with Miller the Saturday of his arrest, he was silent, "almost numb," the rescuer said. Inside the couple's home, he called out his wife's name as he ransacked the closets.
"She used to hide in them," he explained.