Original Sin

Matthew Mirabal was convicted of killing his wife. But his church still wants to save him.

Natalie Vasquez was raised in Chamisal, a shabby village set among the piñons and red rolling hills of northern New Mexico, a poverty-stricken stepchild to the wealth and culture of nearby Taos and Santa Fe. The centuries-old settlement, beset by the problems of a modern age -- drugs, welfare, dropouts -- has become a cradle of evangelicalism in a land shaped by Roman Catholic missionaries.

Contradictions were a part of Natalie's life. They would also prove intrinsic to her brutal death at the age of 24. A religious young woman who strove, as a friend said, to live for God, Natalie was strangled, beheaded and dumped like so much refuse in a canyon west of Boulder.


Brian Stauffer
Troy and Janet Hancock don't believe Matthew Mirabal killed his wife.
John Johnston
Troy and Janet Hancock don't believe Matthew Mirabal killed his wife.

The year 1991 would prove pivotal to many residents of Chamisal. That was when Troy Hancock said God called him to New Mexico.

Hancock, the son of an itinerant preacher, was reared amid the fiery sermons and zealous prayers of revival meetings. The Word flows through his veins. And when he opened a storefront church in Española, thirty miles from Chamisal, he brought with him that charismatic style of worship.

Hancock is of the Apostolic faith, which adheres to a strict interpretation of the Bible. He and other members of the faith are instructed to be gentle, meek, sober and temperate. They eschew drugs and alcohol and prefer that members not own a television. Gender distinction in attire is considered "God's will": Women are to appear "chaste and non-sensual," meaning no makeup, long hair gathered in a bun, modest skirts, no slacks. They call one another "Brother" and "Sister."

Though the lifestyle may seem bland, the services are just the opposite. Sermons are boisterous affairs, punctuated by shouts, tears and choruses of 'Amens!' At any time, a member of the congregation might be moved to dance, to speak in tongues or to run laps around the pews. A congregant might also choose to stand and preach.

Troy's new chapel, christened with the incongruously grand name of Souls Harbor Revival Tabernacle Church, quickly drew members from Española, Chamisal, Pojoaque and other small towns in the area.

Mary Mondragon's family was among the first to join.

Mondragon (whose daughter Lisa would later become Natalie Vasquez's sister-in-law), had known Troy's father and heard him preach, which is what drew her to Souls Harbor. "I knew the testimony," she says. "I knew his father. I said, 'That's the church for me.' I knew he preached the truth."

Also joining the church early on was Enselma Vasquez, her husband and their children. Natalie was the oldest of her brood.

Enselma's roots are planted firmly in Chamisal's sandy red soil; her ancestors settled in the area in the 1600s, she says, a fact that allowed her family a certain matriarchal status. And for years, the Vasquez home served as an unofficial gathering place for the local kids.

"Whenever they had problems, [the youth] would come to me," Enselma says.

Enselma was a loyal member of the church for several years after Troy Hancock and his wife, Janet, arrived. "I was always the first to make tamales when a visiting pastor would come," she says. But, coincidentally or not, as her unofficial role as counselor to the young people began to fade, Enselma's relationship with the Hancocks began to suffer.

Troy, who was only in his late twenties when he moved to Chamisal, established a youth group at the church and began leading group meetings there. He threw open his home to the teens, welcoming them to visit, use his trampoline, play board games.

"He was real close to [the young people]," says Mondragon. "They had a love for him, for the way he treated them."

Enselma, though, saw Troy's influence in a darker context.

"He would preach to the kids that he wanted them at his house, and if there was any counseling, that it should be with him and his wife. That was one of our biggest problems with the Hancocks, that I didn't like what they were doing," Enselma says.

"[The Hancocks] said [the young people] didn't have to obey their parents if they didn't want to," she continues. "Troy would say, 'Natalie is eighteen, she can make her own decisions.' I said, 'As long as she's under my roof, she will do what I say.' I said I have my own way of discipline.

"They wanted total control of the kids and didn't want nobody else involved, even the parents."

But Janet Hancock says that Enselma's view is skewed. "The kids quit going to her house because she made them uncomfortable about the church," she says. "She set rules and regulations, called meetings with the youth and tried to advise them that we didn't need to know about it."

By 1995, the relationship between Enselma and the Hancocks had seriously soured. Enselma says she grew disenchanted with the church after Troy's demands for money became bothersome and his spending questionable.

Church members scoff at that characterization.

"What money, is my question," says Vince Dominguez, who belonged to Troy's church in New Mexico and followed the pastor four years ago when he moved to Colorado. "Our rent [in Española] was $200 a month, and sometimes we couldn't even pay that," he says. "I have been there when we counted the offerings. Most people down there are on welfare, and sometimes there would only be $5."

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