HOUSTON—Mary Ann Rivera, a 76-year-old ailing woman accused of killing her husband more than 40 years ago, appeared before a Harris County judge Friday hooked up to the oxygen tank that helps her breathe.
Investigators said Rivera’s husband, Cruz Rivera, died after she doused him with a pot of hot grease at their Moody Park home in November 1970. Prosecutors said she threw the grease and other liquids on her husband after the two argued. The husband was severely burned and died from liver problems a few days later.
Rivera was indicted back then, but was released after she posted a $10,000 bond. The mother of three then took her children and fled town.
The case was recently picked up by the Harris County District Attorney’s Cold Case Fugitive Apprehension team, who went to work to track her down.
An investigator first found one of Rivera’s sons. Then they located her in Georgia, where she’d raised her kids and worked as a waitress. Her health had declined to the point where she was forced to wear an oxygen mask.
Too sick to fly by plane, Rivera was driven back to Houston to face charges in her husband’s death. Rivera was charged with murder by omission.
"It’s always good to get a case where someone has hurt someone in the past or killed someone, or is responsible for a death, to bring them to justice," said Tina Ansari, prosecutor. "It was very good that we have her here today."
The case will present some challenges for prosecutors.
"We do have some complications because of the age of the case and maybe some possible witness issues, but I’m not going to comment on that," Ansari said.
Ansari said Rivera has been cooperating with investigators.
"She didn’t seem like she was trying to conceal anything about her guilt. She admitted it voluntarily and free-willingly, and it didn’t take much to get her to admit what she did to her husband," Ansari said.
Authorities have said that Rivera had previously made some claims of abuse but that law enforcement was never called to the couple’s Houston home on allegations of domestic violence.
Lorraine Robertson, one of Rivera’s friends in Georgia, said the woman had indicated that her husband had slapped her once but "that was it."
Friends in Lake Park, Georgia said Rivera never spoke about her husband or her life in Texas until she was questioned by investigators before her arrest.
"It was a shock to me when I heard about it," said Lorraine Robertson, who knew Rivera for more than 25 years and lived in the same Georgia apartment building. "I was like, that’s not Mary. She wouldn’t do nothing like that."
Robertson was there when Rivera was arrested on October 11.
"Me and another neighbor walked her out. I could feel her whole body trembling," Robertson said. "We put her in the car. She cried. We all cried with her."
Robertson questioned why Rivera was being arrested after so many years and noted her frail health, including heart, back and breathing problems.
Hawkins, declining to address the health problems, said Rivera needs to face justice.
"The defendant was charged with committing a rather brutal murder of her husband. Although she was able to elude authorities for over 40 years, she ultimately must face judgment in a court of law for the murder of her husband," Hawkins said.
Rivera’s arrest was the second in less than a week in a cold case being investigated by the district attorney’s office’s fugitive apprehension section. On Thursday, the DA’s office said a 55-year-old man was arrested, also in Georgia, for a 1980 slaying near a Houston night club.
"If you are a fugitive from Harris County, you might as well surrender now," said District Attorney Pat Lykos.
Since the unit was formed in 2009, more than 40 fugitives have been arrested and returned to Harris County.