On the morning of February 10th, 1990, a few staff members were preparing to open the Las Cruces Bowl for the day. However, at 8:29 AM, emergency dispatchers would receive a panicked 911 call. Inside this New Mexico bowling alley, investigators would uncover one of the most heartless crime scenes of all time…
Editor’s Note: Micheal Whelan (yes, spelled correctly) is a valued author and American Crime Journal contributor. He is the creator, writer and host of Unresolved, an investigative podcast that aims to tell stories which have no ending.
Las Cruces, New Mexico is a city roughly 45 miles north of the US-Mexico border.
Just a short drive away from El Paso, Texas, Las Cruces has a population of around 100,000, making it the second largest city in New Mexico. However, 30 years ago, the population was roughly half that – just a tad over 50,000 – and a good chunk of those residents were due to the nearby school.
New Mexico State University is the state’s only land-grant university, and the city of Las Cruces has really grown around it. In the mostly-rural desert state of New Mexico, it seems to be a bit of an outlier that also doubles as an oasis, in a way, as the city sprouted up along the Rio Grande River over the years.
In Las Cruces is a building that is now-abandoned. However, it is located along 1201 East Amador Avenue – what has been a busy shopping and recreation center for some time. For several years, this building was known as the region’s most popular bowling alley. Originally named the Las Cruces Bowl, it was usually full of competitors dueling each other in bowling tournaments – or full of groups of family and friends that bowled for fun.
But on one day almost 31 years ago, the Las Cruces Bowl was home to one of the most brutal and tragic incidents in New Mexico state history.
This is the story of the Las Cruces bowling alley massacre.
Early on the morning of February 10th, 1990 – a Saturday – 34-year old Stephanie Senac arrived at the Las Cruces Bowl.
Stephanie was the manager of the bowling alley; also happening to be the daughter of the bowling alley’s owner, Ronald Senac. With her on this day in-question was her 12-year old daughter, Melissa Repass, as well as Melissa’s 13-year old friend, Amy Houser.
Melissa and Amy, who were close friends, worked in the bowling alley’s day care section, helping supervise some of the kids in there when they can. Because this was a Saturday, it was a good chance for them to get out of the house and help out, helping watch the kids of employees and some others.
It was just 8:00 in the morning, and both Melissa and Amy were with Stephanie in the manager’s office. There, Stephanie was preparing to open for the day – going through the receipts from the prior night, and making sure everything looked good on the books. 12-year old Melissa and 13-year old Amy, meanwhile, were just waiting for the bowling alley to open, going in and out of the manager’s office, looking for snacks and trying to occupy their busy minds.
Two of the people they crossed paths with in the early morning hours were Steve Senac and Ida Holguin.
Steve Senac was the brother of Stephanie, the opening manager, as well as the uncle of 12-year old Melissa. He wasn’t working on this morning, but had dropped by earlier that morning to pick up some stuff and left a short time after 8:00 AM. More on him later.
Ida Holguin, the other person that the two girls encountered, was the 33-year old snack cook at the bowling alley. She spent the hours before opening preparing their food options for the day, and getting the kitchen up-to-speed for the upcoming lunch rush.
It was in this early morning quiet – a short time after 8:00 – that the relative peace of the Las Cruces Bowl was interrupted and broken.
At around 8:20 AM, two strange men stormed into the Las Cruces Bowl. Neither of the men were wearing masks or gloves, but they stormed in through the bowling alley’s unlocked front door without a care in the world.
One of the men was holding a .22 caliber pistol, which he raised at Ida Holguin, the cook who was currently at-work in the bowling alley’s kitchen. He demanded the grown woman head towards the manager’s office, where his partner had corralled the two girls, Melissa and Amy.
It wasn’t until Ida, Melissa, and Amy were ordered into the manager’s office that Stephanie Senac had any idea there were intruders inside the bowling alley. Now, the two gunmen demanded the four women lie down on the floor.
The men promised to let the women go if their demands were met, but it seemed liked their purpose wasn’t quite clear. They took several moments to get to the point, rummaging through the room, as if they were looking for something. After a minute or so of this – which felt like a lifetime to those involved – the men then began demanding access to the bowling alley’s safe.
Only Stephanie could open it.
Stephanie opened up the safe for the gunmen, allowing them access to thousands of dollars. It was estimated that the men stole somewhere between $4,000 and $5,000 – the total amount isn’t quite clear – but most intriguingly, the men left behind some cash. They didn’t steal all of it, implying to investigators that robbery wasn’t their sole motive.
After they had gathered up bundles of cash, the men seemed poised to make their getaway. But in the confusion of these few minutes, their robbery was interrupted by someone entering the bowling alley through the same unlocked front doors that the gunmen had just walked through.
Steve Teran was a 26-year old mechanic at the bowling alley, whose job it was to fix the machines and make sure the lanes themselves kept operating.
Known as a stern-but-loving young man, Steve was known for upholding a rigorous moral code, always insisting that those around him “do the right thing,” as his brother later put it. He had recently attended a military university, and was in the New Mexico National Guard. His loved ones stated that he planned to become a police officer in the near-future, not only for him, but his family.
In addition to being married, Steve had two children: his 6-year old stepdaughter, Paula Holguin – of no relation to Ida and his 2-year old daughter, Valerie.
On this Saturday in-question – February 10th, 1990 – Steve had been unable to arrange childcare for his two daughters. His wife, Audrey, was attending class at the nearby university, so Steve was in-charge of watching the girls. Unable to arrange a sitter, he decided to bring them to work with him and drop them off at the day-care.
So, just after 8:20 AM, Steve entered the Las Cruces Bowl with 6-year old Paula and 2-year old Valerie in-tow. As they walked through the unlocked front doors, they were surprised to see nobody in the lobby or the kitchen, so Steve began walking towards the manager’s office… where he stumbled upon this evolving crime scene.
The two armed men inside the manager’s office began grappling with Steve, and within moments, they had overpowered him. He and his daughters were cornered along with the other victims, and it was just after this that the carnage began.
The two gunmen opened fire on the victims, shooting each of the 7 hostages multiple times. Each of the victims were shot in the head, execution-style including the teenage girls – Melissa and Amy – as well as Steve’s daughters – Paula and Valerie. Nobody in the room was spared, and the gunmen left the room believing that they had killed each man, woman, and child inside.
Before the two gunmen left the bowling alley, however, they had begun gathering some papers on top of the manager’s office desk… which they then set on fire. It is believed that they were hoping to destroy any evidence of them having been there, and over the next several minutes, the fire would continue to grow.
Now, with all of the victims supposedly subdued and a fire started, the two gunmen took this opportunity to make their getaway… absconding with a grand total of $5,000 from the bowling alley’s safe.
At around 8:29 AM, Las Cruces emergency dispatchers received a 911 call from a phone inside the bowling alley. On the other end of the phone, 12-year old Melissa Repass told a dispatcher what had just unfolded.
Melissa Repass, the 12-year old daughter of Las Cruces Bowl manager Stephanie Senac, had been shot five times in total. However, even after witnessing this brutality firsthand – and surviving – she thought back to what she had just been taught a few weeks prior: call 911.
This quick-thinking ended up saving not only Melissa’s life, but two others, as emergency services were able to arrive to the crime scene in a little over a minute. As you just heard from that call, police officers and firefighters were able to arrive at the Las Cruces Bowl in near-record time, and went to work on those inside the manager’s office.
Because of the fire that had been started, first responders radio’d in for immediate backup, and then began hauling all seven of the bodies inside the manager’s office out into the lobby of the bowling alley. Once out there, they were able to begin treating each of the victims, who were – for the most part – bleeding profusely and unconscious.
12-year old Melissa Repass, her 34-year old mother Stephanie Senac, and 33-year old Ida Holguin were all stabilized and rushed to Memorial General Hospital in Las Cruces. Valerie Teran – Steve Teran’s 2-year old daughter – went along with them, but would end up passing away in the hospital later that day.
The other three victims – 26-year old Steve Teran, his 6-year old stepdaughter Paula Holguin, and 13-year old Amy Houser – were all pronounced dead at the scene. Paramedics and EMT’s had responded quickly, but not quick enough to save them.
Firefighters were quickly able to drown out the fire inside the manager’s office, but investigators would later worry about the cost of the fire and the later firefighting effort. It was unknown how much evidence had been washed away battling the fire, but that would end up being an issue for another day.
For the meantime, police officials began coordinating with the local U.S. Border Patrol in spreading through the area, establishing roadblocks and keeping an eye out for local suspects. In her panicked 911 call, 12-year old Melissa Repass had identified the victims as black men, but that would change in just a few hours – with police believing the suspects to be Hispanic men with dark complexions, who might be planning to leave the area – or the country – in the very near-future.
The events of February 10th, 1990, would continue to shock and terrify the region for months, years, and even decades after the fact. For obvious reasons, it was dubbed the “Las Cruces bowling alley massacre” by the press in the days after.
The “massacre,” as it was known – had taken four victims: Steve Teran, Paula Holguin, Valerie Teran, and Amy Houser.
Amy’s parents and other loved ones were now deprived watching the 13-year old grow old. She had become such a fun-loving and heartwarming presence in all of their lives, and her infectious singing was missed immediately.
Meanwhile, Audrey Teran – the widow of Steve, and mother to 6-year old Paula and 2-year old Valerie – had lost her entire family in one fell swoop. Personally, I can’t even imagine the pain and anguish that she must have gone through in the immediate aftermath of this heinous crime, and she would understandably refuse to speak to the media for years afterwards.
The other victims – Stephanie Senac, Ida Holguin, and Melissa Repass – would also be facing a number of issues in the days, weeks, and months after the fact. In addition to the trauma that they would have to work through in the long-term, they would have to face more pressing issues in the short-term. They had each been shot several times, and would be looking at lengthy stays in local hospitals in their road to recovery.
While funerals and memorial services were arranged for the deceased, the wheels of justice began kicking the Las Cruces Police Department into action, with every local police officer and detective being called in, regardless of days off.
The fire inside the manager’s office – at the Los Cruces Bowl – had ended up destroying a lot of valuable evidence. Almost all of the interactions between the gunmen and the victims/survivors had been inside the manager’s office, and the fire had burned a lot of it away.
Then, when firefighters arrived, they had inadvertently ended up dispersing or diluting a lot of evidence that remained. It was an understandable decision, of course, but one has to wonder just what was lost in the efforts to quell the flames.
Detective Mark Myers, who took over the investigation years later, stated about this:
“It was a very complicated crime scene.”
“They lit the office on fire. That’s a clear indication they were thinking about destroying evidence they had left behind. They weren’t going to leave any witnesses, no matter how young. I have no doubt when they left, they thought everyone in there was dead.”
In the time since the massacre happened, police officials have confirmed that forensic evidence was found inside the manager’s office. They have also stated that this evidence has been submitted to state databases for analysis and further testing, but – when pressed about specifics – have refused to reveal what, exactly, they found. The closest thing I can find to any cohesive evidence claim is Detective Mark Myers stating:
“We did recover fingerprints but it was a bowling alley. You would expect to find that.”
So, it seems clear that, with this investigation kicking off in 1990 – well before DNA revolutionized crime-solving – began began taking a more personal angle to this case. They canvassed people in the surrounding area, looking for anyone that might have seen or heard anything.
They were able to find a couple of witnesses, at least. One who claims to have heard the shots happening, from a nearby business, where he or she had been working on the morning of the massacre. The other witness, who also worked nearby, claimed to have seen two men running away from the scene at around the same time that Melissa Repass was making her 911 call. Their account would be added to one other’s – a man close to the crime scene, who had left the bowling alley just before the crime unfolded.
Steve Senac was the brother of Stephanie Senac – the manager that had been opening the bowling alley on the morning of the attack. She had been shot, as had her 12-year old daughter, Melissa (Steve’s niece). Well, on the morning of the attack, Steve had stopped by the bowling alley to pick up some stuff, and had left just before the two gunmen entered the bowling alley.
Steve claims that he had seen two Hispanic men walking in the region of the bowling alley – perhaps even headed to the entrance. He claims that one of the men was carrying a briefcase, which he handed to the other as they walked.
Steve Senac didn’t piece together the dots until after he learned about the crime, but stated that the two men had very distinct features – one was older and one was younger. Steve’s descriptions would end up forming the basis of the upcoming police sketches.
Suspect #1 was a young Hispanic male, between 28 – 34 years old, who stood around 5’10”, weighed between 160 and 170 pounds, had wavy brown hair and brown eyes, with a mustache and no detectable accent.
Suspect #2 was an older Hispanic male, who seemed to be between 48 – 54 years old, who stood around 5’6″, weighed around 140 pounds, had thinning salt-and-pepper hair with brown eyes, and who spoke English with a slight Spanish accent.
Both men were depicted in sketches, which were dispersed to the media in the weeks after the crime spree.
Based on additional witness sightings, it was believed that these two men had fled from the scene in a green four-wheel drive vehicle – perhaps a van.
In the hours after the reporting of the massacre in the bowling alley, Steve Senac gave his description of these two men to police. A short time later, he was called to the scene of the police roadblocks, where a single vehicle on the outskirts of town had been pulled over. Inside the vehicle were four Hispanic men, who had thousands of dollars in cash on their persons. Steve could not identify any of the men as being the ones he had seen earlier, and this group of men was allowed to leave.
Soon enough, the descriptions of these two men were verified by shooting survivor Ida Holguin, who had survived multiple gunshots. She had been present at the bowling alley for the massacre, and was able to add to the descriptions of the two gunmen.
Ida believed that she had seen these two men at the bowling alley some time prior to the shooting – in the days, weeks, or months before the horrific crime took place. She and other employees believe that the men might have been casing the joint, and had been there to get a feel for the bowling alley: it’s layout, schedule, and regular staff hours.
Ida and others believe that the gunmen had not gone to the bowling alley to simply rob the place. She would later state that the two gunmen:
“… were looking for something else before they went to the safe.”
Statements from Ida and the other survivors have hinted at this being something more than just a simple robbery-gone-wrong.
Because of the circumstances of this brutal crime, investigators were left puzzled.
I’ve already detailed the event itself: how the two gunmen entered the bowling alley, held seven people captive, and eventually made the decision to shoot all seven victims. They had left with somewhere between $4,000 and $5,000, but had – for some reason – decided to leave money in the bowling alley’s safe.
Because of this, investigators were unable to determine if this was a planned robbery, or a robbery-gone-wrong. It become theorized by some that violence might have been the gunmen’s motive, as they had left behind an undisclosed amount of cash in the bowling alley’s safe. They would not have done so intentionally if this was a simple robbery, investigators believe.
It remained possible that the two men had planned to rob the bowling alley, and then became overwhelmed once they were inside. Perhaps they had not planned for there to be so many people present, and had lashed out violently as a result.
Nonetheless, the case began to pivot away from being focused entirely on the robbery motive. That was when investigators began to narrow in on some specific rumors, which alleged that the setting of the crime – the Las Cruces Bowl – was somehow connected to organized crime. Either directly or indirectly.
Shortly after the shooting took place, rumors began swirling that the owner of the establishment – Ronald Senac – had some kind of shady business ties. Perhaps, even being linked to the cartels, who were undoubtedly active in the region.
Because the gunmen had mercilessly shot at all of the people in the bowling alley – including Ronald Senac’s daughter and granddaughter – this led police to believe that there might be some truth to these rumors. Investigators looked into Ronald Senac, his family members and associates. They were looking for any sign of impropriety, which could illuminate detectives with an possible explanation.
Unfortunately, it seems like all of the attempts to investigate Ronald Senac led to dead ends, as explained by Detective Mark Myers of the Las Cruces Police Department:
“We investigated all of those angles at the time. Thousands and thousands of man hours went into trying to prove those theories, but we couldn’t prove anything. We put Ronald Senac under a microscope and we couldn’t find anything. To date, all we know for sure is it was a robbery-homicide.”
In the months after the case, investigators began to focus in on RJ Senac, the younger son of the bowling alley’s owner, Ronald Senac. He tended bar at the bowling alley, and several tips had been received by police, claiming that RJ was involved in some kind of drug activity. Police looked into this, and discovered that – other than RJ seeming to have a cocaine addiction – there was nothing definitive linking him to this case. RJ was cleared of any wrongdoing and died of a drug overdose in May of 1997 at the age of 36.
Another lead came via a local woman named Irma Tijerina (whose name I hope I am pronouncing correctly). Shortly after the shooting inside the Las Cruces Bowl, she made contact with police, and claimed to have encountered two men that matched the descriptions of the shooters.
According to Tijerina, she claimed that the two men had stayed with her at around the same time that the massacre happened, and provided police with details of the men. She would even undergo a polygraph, which meant a lot to investigators at the time. Polygraphs are notoriously unreliable, but in the age before DNA testing became commonplace, polygraph tests carried a lot of weight with police departments.
After taking this polygraph and providing police with details of the two men that had stayed with her, Irma Tijerina recanted her claims. Police made note of her frequent drug use, and later stop speaking with her about the crime. Like RJ Senac, Irma Tijerina would pass away at an early age due to drugs. She died in May of 2001 from an accidental overdose, taking whatever possible secrets she had with her.
Over the next several months, the investigation continued into the crime dubbed the “Las Cruces bowling alley massacre.” However, as the days began to bleed into one another, it became apparent that investigators were no closer to solving the case than they had been on the day of.
Perhaps it was just a robbery-gone-wrong: a heinous crime committed by two men with no remorse. Perhaps there was some explanation to them leaving behind money in the safe, and leaving with only a fraction of the possible take.
One of the prevailing theories that emerged in the years afterwards is that a gang had decided to exact some revenge against specific people in the bowling alley: perhaps, family or friends of the owner, Ronald Senac. Perhaps a business deal had fallen apart, or a drug deal had gone south, and the victims from the Las Cruces Bowl were collateral damage.
It was alleged by some that the two gunmen were involved with a regional gang; perhaps, even hitmen that had been brought in from Mexico. With the border so close, it remained a likely possibility even years after the fact – as admitted by police officials close to the investigation. This was a very real possibility. After all, the survivors of the ordeal recall the gunmen seeming to look for something inside the manager’s office – perhaps, something they were tasked with bringing back. Money seemed to be a secondary goal for them, anyways – maybe they took money to simply cloud the overall investigation.
Because of the brutality of the crime, it seemed like the shooting of all seven hostages might have been meant to send a message. Maybe a former employee or acquaintance of the bowling alley staff was involved in some way.
But – again – this was all based on guesswork. Investigators had very little to work with, based on the patchy testimony of witnesses and the forensic evidence – which, itself, seemed to be speculative. There was no clear evidence pointing to a single suspect, and that would not change in the ensuing years.
The case of the Las Cruces bowling alley massacre was featured on “Unsolved Mysteries with Robert Stack” shortly after it happened, in April of 1990. Funnily enough, that episode aired on the day I was born, highlighting just how long ago this happened – and how long the loved ones have been eagerly awaiting answers.
The story would be featured on “America’s Most Wanted” on multiple occasions over the next couple of decades, as well as being highlighted in some local news coverage. But other than the occasional mention, the story began to fade into the background of current events, and the families had to settle with there being no answers for their questions… and no justice for their lost loved ones.
Stephanie Senac, the opening manager of the bowling alley on the morning of February 10th, 1990 – and one of the three survivors – had been seriously wounded in the ordeal. Having been shot multiple times, including in the head, Stephanie would suffer through several long-term health complications.
Additionally, for the next nine or so years, Stephanie Senac remained frightened – choosing to barely ever leave home. When she did, she show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, having to endure lengthy battles with stress and fear. Her loved ones recall her once carefree, fun-loving attitude being permanently changed after the incident; with her having instant reactions to anything that sounded like gunshots: fireworks, cars backfiring, etc.
Stephanie Senac would pass away in 1999, due to complications from her shooting-related injuries. She was survived by her family, including her daughter, Melissa Repass – who had made the panicked 911 phone call close to a decade beforehand.
Melissa and Ida Holguin remained the sole survivors of the shooting – a cross they continue to bear. Even though close to three decades have passed, they remain traumatized by the shooting, and remain hopeful that justice can be found for those whose lives were lost and affected by the brutal incident.
In 2010, a documentary was released about the incident. Titled “A Nightmare in Las Cruces,” the film was directed by Charlie Minn, who had learned about the case back in 1990. He had been a college student living on the other side of the country, who was watching “Unsolved Mysteries” and learned about the traumatic event. It continued to stick with him years after the fact, and he remained emotionally interested.
Shortly after the 20th anniversary of the crime, the documentary was released, and seemed to spark a new wave of interest in the Las Cruces bowling alley massacre. Figures related to the case began to speak openly for the first time, including Audrey Teran – the widow of shooting victim Steve Teran, as well as the mother of Paula and Valerie, their two daughters that also perished. She had had to bury her entire family in the wake of the incident, and remained affected by the events from twenty years prior.
“You wait and wait and wait. The first few years, maybe the first 12 years, there was always a lot of anxiety. I was always very antsy and wanting to know more. But after that, I had to put it aside and deal with my anxiety. We’ve gotten to a point where we just don’t get any answers.”
Audrey wanted the rest of the world to remember how violent the incident was.
“My 2-year old – she was shot in the forehead, but she wasn’t killed immediately. Her spinal cord was severed, though. Had she lived, she would have been a quadriplegic.”
“Maybe people in the Southwest didn’t know just how horrible it was; how my daughters were mistreated.”
“It’s been 20 years and people will still stop me and tell me they are praying for me… praying that there will be closure.”
Speaking to the press in 2016 – twenty-six years after the shooting – Anthony Teran spoke to the Las Cruces Sun, a local newspaper. Anthony, the brother of victim Steve Teran, had long been an advocate for the victims of the massacre, and remained troubled that police were no closer to solving the case than they had been in 1990.
“In this day and age, things like this don’t go unsolved. How did we not get these guys? That’s the question I ask myself every day. Numerous people saw these gunmen, so someone out there knows something, and they need to come forward.”
The building that was once known as the Las Cruces Bowl continues to stand in the same spot it did then. It has changed ownership more than once in the interim three decades, though, and gone through two different iterations: the Sun Lanes and the Ten Pin Alley.
In June of 2018, the bowling alley was permanently shuttered, bringing an end to the establishment that had once housed so many smiles… and then so much suffering.
The case known as the “Las Cruces bowling alley massacre” remains an active investigation with the Las Cruces Police Department. It’s case file, #N04840, remains open and active, with investigators insisting that the case is always being worked on – meaning it isn’t a cold case.
Lt. Casey Mullins, who supervises all of the detectives with the LCPD, says that investigators were able to recover evidence from the scene – including forensic evidence – but insists:
“… a lot of this case is dependent on someone coming forward with information… We’re really counting on the public.”
Despite police having no active leads of inquiry, Lt. Mullins remains hopeful that the case can be solved in the near-future… hopefully, before the 30-year anniversary comes around next February.
“It’s extremely frustrating because it’s a horror story. Four innocent people lost their lives that day. It’s what we’re supposed to do: put the bad guys in jail. When we don’t do that, it’s like we’re not doing our jobs.
“This is still an open first-degree murder case, and the statute of limitations will never run out on these murders.”
A $25,000 reward exists for any information that can help identify the men responsible for this crime. If you may have any information, you can find the necessary resources online, or call Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477 or 575-526-8000. You can also text your information to CRIMES – 274637 – and your information will remain anonymous.
Any other information or inquiries can be sent directly to the Las Cruces Police Department at 575-528-4222.
The men responsible for this crime continue to elude investigators, but Audrey Teran – the widow and mother of three of the victims – envisions them living in a lot of fear and misery.
“I picture them hurting and hiding. It can’t be too easy. Everyone is looking for you while you’re trying to make a normal life for yourself. I picture them in a lot of misery.”
One can only hope that these sick, selfish bastards find themselves behind bars in the very near-future. Until that comes to pass – fingers crossed it happens soon – the stories of Stephanie Senac, Melissa Repass, Amy Houser, Ida Holdguin, Steve Teran, Paula Holguin, and Valerie Teran remain unresolved.