Kenner police have arrested a man accused of murdering and dismembering a co-worker after a dispute over a woman, then disposing of his body parts in a remote part of St. John the Baptist Parish.
The arrest appears to resolve the mysterious discovery of a severed arm found floating in a canal in Reserve on Dec. 29.
A man fishing under Interstate 10 in Reserve late last month made a discovery straight out o…
Authorities allege that Viusqui J. Perez Espinosa, 44, killed Ivis Alexis Portales Lara, 27, who was last seen at La Belle Maison Apartments in Kenner's University City neighborhood on Nov. 11.
Kenner Police Chief Michael Glaser said investigators believe Portales was killed that day, although detectives have not determined how. Authorities said Tuesday they've now recovered all of the victim's body parts except for his skull and left hand.
The motive, according to authorities, was romantic jealousy. Perez had previously dated a woman who then began dating Portales, they said. Perez and Portales were colleagues at a scaffolding company.
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Police said in a probable cause affidavit that the woman and Perez had been dating for about 18 months before they broke up in September. A couple of their neighbors on Tuesday said the relationship was tempestuous, especially after the break-up.
Both of the neighbors spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying they feared retaliation if Perez were to be released and find out they had spoken to the news media.
One of the neighbors said the woman and Perez — both of whom are Cuban nationals — were sometimes seen arguing in a courtyard outside their apartment.
The other neighbor said the woman would complain that Perez threatened to "slit her throat like a slaughtered pig's" once he found out Portales, a native of Honduras, had moved in.
The woman, who is 51, insisted Portales had moved in primarily to help her with rent, and she never claimed they were lovers, one of the neighbors said. But that neighbor also said the woman referred to Portales as "Chiquito" — an affectionate nickname meaning "little one" in Spanish — and spoke openly about caring for him.
Glaser said the woman had a sexual relationship with Portales, which investigators suspect infuriated Perez.
Despite all that, Perez on Nov. 8 asked his ex to let him temporarily move back in, saying he had fallen on hard times and had nowhere else to turn, the neighbor said.
According to one of the neighbors, the woman said she didn't want to let Perez return, but Portales — who considered Perez a friend — persuaded her they should help Perez get back on his feet.
"(Portales) saw (Perez) standing outside with all of his belongings at his feet, and it moved him," one of the neighbors said. "They let (Perez) stay with them out of pity."
The woman nonetheless made Perez sleep on a sofa, police said. Then, on the morning of Nov. 11, police allege that Perez forced oral sex on the woman.
Portales was last seen at 6 p.m. the same day, after a co-worker dropped him off at the apartment, according to police.
Two days later, that co-worker told police she was suspicious because she hadn't heard from Portales.
An officer went to the apartment about noon Nov. 13 and met with Perez, who said Portales had moved out, Glaser said. Perez underlined the point by showing him that the victim’s toiletries and clothes were missing, according to police.
“The officer is satisfied at the time that the person has voluntarily left the apartment,” Glaser said.
But that evening, a pastor called police and said Portales had missed church services, which was unlike him. A different officer then created a missing-person report on Portales.
The next day, Portales' ex-wife — with whom he had a 6-year-old girl — called police to voice her concern that Portales had missed a visit with their child. And finally on Nov. 15, a representative of Brand Scaffold Builders paid a visit to police headquarters to pass along a macabre tip.
“He’s hearing rumors that the victim was killed and dismembered. So that’s when our detectives started following up,” Glaser said.
Detectives returned to the apartment, where Perez repeated his story about his roommate moving out, the chief said. But one detective spotted what looked like blood droplets on the wall of the living room.
Perez denied knowing about the blood. The woman who lived at the apartment also was interviewed, Glaser said. “The female doesn’t know anything about the disappearance of our victim,” Glaser said.
But she did allege that Perez had raped her. He was quickly booked on a count of second-degree rape. The chief said investigators believe the woman’s story that she thought Portales had moved out of the apartment and that she did not suspect he had been murdered.
“We believe he was killed while she was at work,” Glaser said.
Investigators got a search warrant for the apartment and found blood throughout it that proved a DNA match for Portales. In a news release, police said blood was splashed on the floor, in the hallway, bathroom and elsewhere, in quantities so large that it indicated “an apparent struggle inside the apartment."
One of the neighbors said police were so incredulous over the amount of blood that an investigator had asked the woman who lived with Portales "whether anyone had ever butchered meat or killed an animal inside the home."
One of the neighbors described seeing Perez loading black plastic bags into his trunk on the night when Portales went missing. Hours later, the neighbors said, Perez was seen discarding a mop, a yellow janitorial bucket and at least one cleaning liquid container in a dumpster just outside their apartment building.
Police said Tuesday that while neighbors' suspicions and other circumstances were adding up at that point, the murder investigation had hit a wall.
“We still have no body. So we’re waiting and looking for a body. There’s no activity on the victim’s bank accounts. His automobile is still parked in front of the apartment. He just disappeared,” Glaser said.
A big break in the case came Dec. 29 when a fisherman spotted an arm in the swampy waters of the Reserve Canal under Interstate 10 in St. John the Baptist Parish. A DNA test confirmed that the severed arm belonged to Portales.
Since that discovery, searchers equipped with cadaver dogs, underwater drones and sonar technology have returned to the Reserve Canal several times in a search for more body parts. On Thursday, officers found shoulders, knees and an intact torso.
“Most of the body has been recovered,” with the biggest exception being the skull, Glaser said.
There is no evidence that Perez or anyone else attempted to weigh down the bags containing the body parts, St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriff Mike Tregre said.
“He was dumped, probably all from the elevated portion of Interstate 10,” Tregre said.
Tregre credited Mark Michaud, a diver and former Slidell police officer who has made it his mission to find people who go missing in Louisiana waterways, for assisting in the search for body parts.
Glaser said booking Perez on murder on Tuesday was prompted by the decision of Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick Jr.’s office to accept a lesser charge in the sexual assault case. Detectives feared Perez might be able to make bond and secure his release from jail, Glaser said.
“We didn’t want to give him the chance to leave town,” Glaser said of Perez, who remained in custody Tuesday without bail.
Court records do not show that any formal charges have been filed against Perez in connection with the sexual assault allegation. The DA's Office said it would not comment on the matter, citing a policy against discussing open cases.
Glaser said lots of investigative legwork and lab work remain for authorities before they can ask a grand jury to consider formal charges in Portales' killing.
Attempts by The Advocate on Tuesday to contact the woman with whom Portales and Perez lived were unsuccessful. But the neighbors described being frightened over a slaying that police suspect occurred a few feet away from their front doors.
"It gives me chills, to be honest," one neighbor said. "It'd be good if the justice system came through on this. Ivis didn't deserve what happened to him."