Hiding in plain sight: The Desiree Skaf story
It is the tale of two women with two very different outcomes.
A tragedy that changed many lives. One of the women now rests in peace, while the other is living out her life without consequence, as a fugitive.
The first woman is Janet Balderrama, and her story ends in a cemetery that has now become her final resting place. Balderrama was a daughter and mother of two young children. Her life was cut short at the age of 25 by an alleged drunken driver.
Her own mother, Lourdes Balderrama, says the grief never goes away. Life without her daughter has been a daily struggle.
The woman at the center of the tragedy is Desiree Skaf, who was 24 at the time of the deadly crash.
On July 11, 2013, El Paso police say Skaf was driving drunk down Doniphan at about 3 a.m. The Jetta Volkswagen that Skaf was driving allegedly slammed into another vehicle. That car then spun out of control crashing into a light pole along the street. Janet Balderrama was a passenger in that second vehicle.
That fateful night changed the course of many lives. Balderrama was critically injured and was taken off life support two days later in the hospital. Her family now wonders if they will ever see justice for what happened that night.
Skaf was charged with intoxicated manslaughter. She went through several defense lawyers, and eventually pleaded guilty.
Defense attorney Joe Spencer was the most recent attorney to take on the case. He was contacted by the Skaf family.
"I do know that there was an attempted plea. I read the transcript. It appears that it was not a voluntary plea," said Spencer.
Skaf was sentenced to 15 years in prison. But then there was a twist. As she was set to turn herself in her plea was thrown out.
Spencer says, “There was a misunderstanding, there wasn't an agreement as to what the terms were."
A new trial was granted, and that’s when Spencer took over. Skaf was now had more time as a free woman.
“As we were coming close to crunch time, to what was going to happen on this case, she disappeared," said Spencer.
Skaf never showed up to a mandatory court hearing in November 2016, and hasn't been heard from since.
"We have a real concern over where Desiree is. I think her family has a real concern of where Desiree is," said Spencer.
CBS4 tried tracking down the Skaf family numerous times. At their home in the Upper Valley, there appeared to be people inside, although no one answered the door.
Public posts on social media paint a different story about Skaf’s disappearance. The Skaf family seems happy and unconcerned.
On April 22, her mother, Lisa Marie Skaf posted an update about their next move saying goodbye to El Paso and the USA.
On April 23, Lisa Marie posted another Facebook update, this time checking in at London's Heathrow airport.
Then days later, she updates Facebook again claiming Beirut, Lebanon, as her family's new home. Pictures of the entire family touring Beirut and checking out the local sites show no signs of concern.
Roberto Ramos, assistant district attorney and director of the Foreign Prosecution Unit, says “It's common knowledge that's been posted that she's in Lebanon."
Skaf’s intoxicated manslaughter case has now gone cold. It sits with the many other unresolved cases in the extradition unit within the district attorney's office.
"We have a list of nearly 200 serious crimes that are still unsolved that we look at," said Ramos.
He says the unit has extradited more than 100 people since it was created in 2005, but all of them are from Mexico.
"We don't have a treaty with Lebanon, so there is no international warrant issued," said Ramos.
Although he wouldn’t comment on the Skaf case specifically, he said, “We can’t try somebody in absentia unless they were actually a part of the process when it began."
Ramos claims there is very little they can do now.
"I can tell you that it's an active case. It has a high priority. The district attorney is very concerned," said Ramos.
Meantime, the charges will always be hanging over Skaf's head until she returns.
Defense attorney Spencer said, "If a person leaves the jurisdiction of the court or has absconded it is just evidence of guilt that can be shown to a jury and the ramifications are more severe."
On May 21, Skaf’s mother made another public post on Facebook. This time saying the family was back in the U.S. for a couple of months to sell their house.
CBS4 went back to the house in the Upper Valley.
Desiree's father Ramzi Skaf refused to come out.
CBS4 asked the district attorney's office about possible charges Skaf's parents could face, if they helped her escape.
Ramos said, "Here in Texas, it's a felony. It's a third-degree felony; two to 10 in prison. If the person is aiding and abetting, providing financial assistance so the person can remain a fugitive."
We also emailed Skaf’s mother, Lisa Marie. She responded saying, “We're in El Paso for a while later, until we sell or rent our home. Whether we move to Siberia, Dubai, or Lebanon, it's not for you to know." She then referred us back to Joe Spencer.
Spencer said, "My indications from the family is that there was never any indication that they were leaving the country."
The case is now in limbo. The district attorney's office isn't talking much about the progress, except to say it’s a waiting game.
CBS4 also checked to see if a missing person’s report had been filed by the family. It hadn’t.
Nor have Skaf’s parents been charged with anything at this time.
Skaf could be arrested through Interpol, if she traveled to another country, but no international warrant has been issued. So it appears this case may go unresolved for years.