NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico (KXAN) - Mexican authorities are inching closer to some answers in thecase of Father Jesse Euresti, an Austin priest whom they believemay have been murdered in his Nuevo Laredo home.
Police in that Mexican border city have been "in touch" with thehome's caretaker, Manuel Martin, a potential witness or suspect,sources said. It was unclear if police knew Martin's whereabouts orwhether they had spoken directly with him.
They still hadn't found Euresti, who has been missing sinceTuesday and who heads the East Austin CristoRey Catholic Church.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is also involved, sourcesconfirmed late Thursday.
Sources also say a young pregnant woman had been staying in thehome and hasn't been seen in several weeks. Authorities aresearching for her as well, but there was no more information onwhether they believe she or her disappearance are connected to thecase.
"He's never done anything to anybody but help people in thisworld," nephew Pete Rios said.
Meanwhile, members of his Austin parish are holding daily Massto pray for his safe return - although the scene in the city justacross the border from Laredo, Tx., looked grim when family membersand police arrived there Wednesday.
Mexican authorities appear to have stepped up theirinvestigation, family members say, after international attentionhas been focused on it - from the Catholic diocese in Texas and inMexico to consulates and news media on both sides of theTexas-Mexico border.
"The way things look, it doesn't look good," Richard Eurestisaid. "We want to know what happened. Everyone does."
Neighbors and family members kept vigil outside the home onCalle Guerrero, in an upscale neighborhood. And although anapparent resolution in the drug war in Nuevo Laredo has meant ahuge drop in cartel-related violence - with murders down 75 percentfrom 2006 - this incident has locals nervous.
The area still isn't entirely free from crime, they say, andanswers are still hard to come by in the priest's case.
"Whatever happened here was violent, and he didn't deservethat," said Euresti's nephew, Manuel Rios.
As the word spread to the 1,600 families that FAther Eurestiserved at his church, more and more people are attending the dailymasses.
Despite the details they've heard so far about the disturbingscene in Mexico, members of the congregation are not giving uphope.
"Today, we're really here to pray that Father Jesse is safe,that he's OK," said Sophie Llanas, parishioner
The service was especially hard for Elizabeth Verastegui, whohas known the native Austinite for decades.
"He's a good person, you know, because I've known him since hewas young, and my tears are just for being sad for him," shesaid.
The desire to know what happened to Father Jesse Euresti isgetting more difficult to bear.
"It's harder because they don't have any new of anything yet,"said parishioner Sophie Llanas. Below are scenes from the vigil atthe church:
Like any church, Cristo Rey has dealt with tough timesbefore.
In July of 2007, KXAN Austin News reported on unrest within thechurch. Some members left the congregation over concerns thatEuresti was too forceful and would lash out at members.
The Diocese of Austin says the parish resolved the conflict, andmembers say Euresti has attracted many new members since then.
"Everytime he greeted us, he greeted us very nice," said Llanas.""We were able to enrich our beliefs more with his being here."
Together, this church family holding out hope for his safereturn.
Back in Nuevo Laredo, some 230 miles south of Austin and justacross the border from Laredo, police clamped down on the crimescene and forbid the family from talking any more about thecase.
They have not named Martin, the caretaker, as a suspect - so farthey only want to question him - but family members are wary of hisinvolvement.
They say they didn't trust the caretaker and hope police canfind him to answer questions about the disappearance.
"I'm hoping I get to take my uncle home," Manuel Rios said. "I'mhoping they catch the guy, but the main thing is I want to take myuncle home."
Euresti, 69, was last heard from around 2:30 a.m. Tuesday,telling family members he had arrived. But later in the day, afriend reported that the priest was missing after stopping by thehouse and noticing the alarm was off and the garage door wasopen.
"So, we know something happened," said Manuel Rios. "They tookhim away, you can tell they dragged his body."
The Catholic community is extremely disturbed by the news.
"We are shocked by this information," said Bishop GregoryAymond, bishop of the Diocese of Austin. "We do not know whether heis missing or has been killed. Please remember Father Euresti, hisfamily and parishioners in prayer."
The Cristo Rey Catholic Church said it will offer prayers forEuresti every day at its noon and 6 p.m. mass celebrations untilsomething further develops surrounding the priest'sdisappearance.
Euresti's family members said he bought the house in the gatedNuevo Laredo community just four months ago, with plans to retirethere. He was born and raised in Austin and graduated from StephenF. Austin High School in 1957. His family and friends warned himagainst retiring there.
"We kept telling him 'Why buy, why not stay here,' but I guessit was something he wanted to do," said Josephine Juarez, aparishioner.
"He's been there for all of us," said family friend Mary LouOrtega, speaking from Father Jesse's home. "He loved Mexico. Thisis what he wanted."
Relatives said Euresti would go to his Nuevo Laredo home onCalle Guerrero every week for a couple days before returning to runthe Cristo Rey Catholic Church.
Euresti has been a leader at the church since 2006. Someparishoners remember first meeting him at the church 50 years agowhen he was a teenager in seminary school and lived around thecorner from the church.
"I was just an altar boy," said Luis Zavala. "He worked with thecommunity here." Zavala joined hundreds of others at the churchWednesday to sing and pray together.
Euresti has been a priest since 1965, serving in areacommunities for decades, including parishes in Waco, Luling,Lockhart and Cameron. Euresti also served as a chaplain in theUnited States Air Force.
Euresti's family is working with the U.S.Consulate to locate him. The local police department in NuevoLaredo, as well as the offices of U.S. and Mexican consulates,confirmed an ongoing investigation into the priest'sdisappearance.
"My uncle could just disappear there...that's possible, it'shappening everyday there," said Beatrice Rios, his niece.
Euresti was born and raised in Austin but loves Mexico, hisfamily said. He shrugged off his family's fears for his safety whenhe decided to live there.
"We were all telling him, 'Please don't do that,' but my unclehad been to Mexico many times. He loves Mexico," his nephew Riossaid.
Nuevo Laredo is a city of about 500,000 people.
KXAN Staff Writer Jackie Vega contributed to this report.
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