Raul Briseno was one of 11 siblings raised in a small town in Atolinga, Zacatecas, Mexico.
With $100 in his pocket and a new bride in 1987, at about 21 years old, he climbed aboard a bus and traveled to the U.S.
Along the way, Briseno spent much of his pocket money. When they arrived in Las Vegas, his wife, Leticia, said she was hungry. Without the heart to tell her he had less than $10 in his pocket, Briseno risked all he had left and took a gamble on a slot machine. To his amazement, he won $400. Then he said, “OK, we can eat now.”
This is one of many stories Briseno’s son, Raul Briseno Jr., 31, shared in describing his father’s humble beginnings.
Raul Briseno would go on to move to McHenry County, open three Mexican restaurants, buy rental properties and care for his large family, including siblings and his parents, who eventually moved to the area.
Raul Briseno Jr. recently reflected on his father’s life after learning a federal judge had vacated the conviction of Kenneth Smith, 44, who was convicted and sentenced to 67 years in prison for the elder Briseno’s slaying.
Briseno was 34 when he was fatally shot March 6, 2001, in a botched robbery at Burrito Express in McHenry.
Raul Briseno Jr. said the month of March always is “depressing” for his family, especially for his mom.
“I can see it on her face, the way she carries herself,” he said.
Raul Briseno Jr. and other family members expressed shock and frustration that they may have to sit through yet another trial.
“It’s been hard,” he said of the past 19 years since his father was killed and all the legal wrangling that his family has had to endure. “It just baffles me that we have another appeal. … We have been through here one too many times. It’s been hard, emotionally draining.”
Raul Briseno Jr. and other family members said they believe Smith is guilty and reject defense attorneys’ suggestion that his father was selling drugs at the restaurant, leading to his death.
Raul Briseno Jr., of Schaumburg, said his father was a “people person,” a hardworking man who died with callouses on his hands to prove it. He was a loving man who “carried himself well” and took care of everyone, including members of the Hispanic community.
One time, a man unknown to the elder Briseno came into the restaurant and asked his father for $500 to pay his rent. Not sure he ever would be repaid, Briseno gave him the money.
Raul Briseno Jr. said his father could see the man needed the money, “so he gave it to him.”
Another time, a few teenagers entered and demanded tacos. His dad replied with, “What is the magic word?” The teens said, “Please,” and he gave them tacos.
Today, the younger Briseno works as a car sales manager, a life far from the restaurant business his father was grooming him for, he said.
There are eight restaurants in the Lake and McHenry County area and Chicago owned by Raul Briseno Sr.’s siblings and inspired by their late brother.
Although Raul Briseno Jr. is not currently in the restaurant business, he said he plans to buy back from an uncle Raul’s Burrito Express in Wauconda next year. That was his father’s first restaurant.
Yet he thought at this point in life he would have owned a couple of restaurants. But without his father’s guidance, he said, that plan was sidetracked.
“My dad was my rock,” he said. “If I was slipping up, he would catch me with a leather belt, and I miss that.”
Raul Briseno Jr. recalls the night of his father’s murder.
It was three days before his sister Alexandra’s sixth birthday, and they were driving past the restaurant. It was 6:45 p.m., and he saw his father through the window, standing at the cash register. He begged his mother to take him inside to see his dad, but she continued on the road home.
Shortly after, he tried calling his father several times, but his father did not answer. He told his mom he thought something was wrong, that he felt his father was being robbed.
His mother drove him to the restaurant, where he saw his father being lifted into the ambulance, blood on the ground and police officers.
Authorities said his father was killed about 7:15 p.m.
Raul Briseno’s daughter, Alexandra Strohmaier, 26, is married with two children and living in Algonquin.
She said she is “disappointed” that Smith’s conviction again has been overturned.
“It’s like we will never find peace,” she said. “It will never be over. … It is salt in the wound for sure.”
Strohmaier, then 18, spoke in court before Smith’s last sentencing.
“My life is like a puzzle, and the most important piece is missing,” she said.
Now, she recalls playing with her father in the yard and the fun she had when he took her for rides on his motorcycle. Her last memory of her father is of him planning her sixth birthday party at Just For Fun Roller Rink in McHenry.
She looks at her two children, especially her 5-year-old son, Jordan, who is the same age she was when her father was killed. She said she can’t imagine him not having his father.
She often thinks of how her life would have been different had he been alive. She said the thought especially hit her when giving birth to her
“I gave birth to my children in the same hospital my dad took his last breath,” she said. “It’s sad, and they are missing out on a grandpa. He would have loved having grandkids.”
Kathleen Kramer, a former business owner in Wauconda, said she knew Raul Briseno for about 15 years before he died. She described him as “charming and handsome” and an “excellent cook.”
The community first came to know him when he worked at McFeely’s.
She said he was a hard worker and very involved in the Hispanic community. When he died, she said, “the word spread like wildfire,” and the entire community mourned.
“Everybody loved him,” said Kramer, who became Raul Briseno Jr.’s godmother.
Paul Briseno, the youngest sibling, said his brother was “outgoing, the light of the show.”
“The party didn’t start until he got there,” said Paul Briseno, adding that he and his other siblings looked to him as a parent figure.
He said the recipes in each of the sibling’s restaurants came from people in their small hometown in Mexico.
Paul Briseno said his brother knew it was his responsibility and helped the siblings out and “gave them the tools they needed” to be successful in the business.
Gus Briseno, 38, of Fox Lake is a nephew of the late Raul Briseno, who owns Taco and Burrito Express in McHenry. He and his family moved to the area from California when he was 14 years old because his father, Alonzo Briseno, wanted to own a restaurant like Raul.
“Raul basically started everything,” Gus Briseno said. “It was all inspired by Raul.”