Mike Stackable had been on the job as an Ivy Lounge bouncer for about three hours Mardi Gras night, walking the perimeter of the East Sixth Street club and sometimes taking breaks to dance with his girlfriend, Christy Lynne Espinosa.
At the nearby bar, and in between dances, Espinosa and Carley Noonan, who had been best friends since the first grade, also enjoyed a couple of shots, a few beers and the excitement of the night.
About 12:30 a.m., as Noonan and Stackable remember it, another bouncer told Espinosa that she was too drunk and that she had to leave. Noonan asked him to reconsider. And Stackable told Espinosa he'd rather walk off the job than leave her alone.
"No, babe, I'm fine," Stackable remembers Espinosa telling him. "Make your money."
"I'll quit right now," he said he told her. "I don't really need this."
The couple would have one more conversation before Espinosa left with a woman she had just met outside.
Espinosa was found dead the next day.
In the 45 minutes after being kicked out, Espinosa settled at the bar's outdoor patio. Stackable and Noonan regularly checked on Espinosa, a 21-year-old former Crockett High School dance team member who had been working as a waitress at a Luby's and an Applebee's. By then, they said, she had traded alcohol for cigarettes and was chatting with other patrons.
Noonan said she asked once more if Espinosa could come back in but was again told no.
The last time he went to check on her, Stackable said, Espinosa told him she was leaving. She had made a new friend, a woman he would later learn was Martha Medina-Hernandez, and they were going to walk around or hit a couple of other clubs.
Medina-Hernandez gave him what she said was her phone number — he said it turned out to be wrong — and Espinosa told Stackable to call her when he was ready to go home. Stackable said he shook Medina-Hernandez's hand and told them goodbye.
"I wish I could go back and turn the clock back and leave the club with her," Stackable said. "I'm always going to wish that."
A grim discovery
Espinosa's body was found early the next morning.
A caller summoned firefighters at 5 a.m. Feb. 25 to what was thought to be a grass fire along North Imperial Drive, a two-lane road south of Lake Walter E. Long in eastern Travis County.
But when they arrived, the firefighters instead found Espinosa, her badly burned body facedown several feet west of the road. Red Mardi Gras beads that she had been wearing were nearby. They also discovered an ID card belonging to Medina-Hernandez, according to court records.
Travis County deputies last week arrested Medina-Hernandez and her husband, Kenneth Hernandez, a medical assistant for an Austin pediatric group, on murder charges. They remain in the Travis County Jail with bail set at $250,000.
The couple have talked to detectives separately and given different accounts about what happened that night. Their accounts include that Espinosa died accidentally and that they tried to conceal what happened by burning her body, that she was killed to steal her identity and that she was killed because she was flirting with Hernandez.
In one interview, Hernandez told investigators that his wife reached from the back seat with Saran Wrap to suffocate Espinosa, court records said. He said his wife forced him to buy gasoline and then she lit Espinosa's body on fire, the affidavit said.
"She just met the wrong two people," Stackable said.
'She was happy'
Espinosa and Stackable met in elementary school.
Stackable, 22, said they attended Boone Elementary in South Austin and lived a couple of blocks from each other. Frequently, they walked home together and talked about their day, teachers, friends and homework, he said.
The two fell out of contact as teens. Stackable finished high school through correspondence courses.
About four months ago, Stackable said, he was at a friend's apartment when Espinosa showed up with some mutual friends. The two quickly got reacquainted and talked about their regrets that they had not stayed in touch through the years.
By Valentine's weekend, they were dating seriously.
Stackable said they had a way of boosting each other's spirits. She frequently told him how handsome she thought he was. He told her she had endless job potential and encouraged her to follow her dream of entering Austin Community College this fall.
"I'm really glad I got to spend her last few days with her," he said. "I knew she was happy."
On Mardi Gras morning, Stackable, a musician, left Espinosa alone at his apartment for about three hours while he went to record a song at a nearby studio. When he got home, they rested before getting ready for the night.
Stackable had agreed to work as a bouncer that night at Ivy Lounge, where the couple frequently partied with friends.
Espinosa wanted to join him at the club and knew Noonan would be there with a friend who is a disc jockey.
Noonan said she met Espinosa in the first grade, also at Boone Elementary, and said the two had been best friends for most of their lives.
"We had our own language, little silly inside jokes that only we understood," Noonan said. "It was never Carley. It was never Christy. It was always Carley and Christy."
As teenagers, the two frequently joined other friends to sunbathe at Barton Springs Pool. They'd go wakeboarding on Lake Travis.
Noonan called Espinosa on Mardi Gras morning to make sure she was still planning to head to the Ivy Lounge. She called her again about 9:15 p.m. to make sure she was on the way.
Noonan said that when Espinosa walked in, they both screamed, "Happy Mardi Gras!" and that she gave Espinosa some beads.
"We were having a good time," she said.
By 3 a.m., Stackable said, he was worried.
He had called the cell phone number Espinosa had given him but was told by the person who answered that he had a wrong number.
He and Noonan looked for her along Sixth Street but couldn't find her.
They decided to go home, thinking that Espinosa would eventually call them.
The next morning, Stackable checked his phone. No call, no message.
He dialed Noonan and asked her to check hospitals and the county jail. Maybe Espinosa had been in an accident or had been arrested.
When they still couldn't find her, he talked to Espinosa's parents — they could not be reached for comment last week — who said they would call the police if they had not heard from her by 1 p.m. By then, a full 12 hours would have passed.
Noonan spent the day focusing on work — she's a cashier and waitress at a Chinese restaurant.
Stackable said he stayed home, just in case Espinosa showed up.
Then about 7 p.m., a team of detectives arrived at his South Austin apartment. Espinosa, they told him, was dead.
He called Noonan at work.
"She's gone," Noonan remembers him saying.
The next thing she recalls was waking up with her boss pressing an ice pack on her forehead. She had passed out.
"It still doesn't add up in my mind," Noonan said. "I never thought I would have to get used to the word murder."
Regrets and questions
In the three weeks since her death, Noonan and Stackable say, they have replayed Espinosa's last night in their heads, sometimes minute by minute.
Partly, they say, they blame themselves for what happened.
Noonan asks: If I had fought harder for her to get back in, would she be alive today?
"Or I should have stayed with her?" Noonan said.
"There are so many itsy-bitsy tiny things I could have done that could have changed the whole thing," she said. "I feel like I'm in a bad movie and I can't wake up from it."
She wonders if she'll ever allow herself to have another friend like Espinosa.
"I can never deal with losing a best friend again," she said.
Similar regrets, questions and guilt have weighed on Stackable, who plans to visit the site where Espinosa's body was found later this month with friends to place a cross.
What if he had insisted that he quit and leave the bar? What if he had stayed with Espinosa? Should he have sensed something was wrong?
"I still feel like I could have prevented it," he said.
Friends tell him that he should forgive himself, that it's not his fault.
But to Stackable, Espinosa lost her life so he could earn $63 that night — his hourly wage, plus his portion of the bar tips.
He has never gone back to pick up his check.