It's was nearly eight years since the San Antonio resident had last seen little Nathalie Garcia. Nathalie had come into Villarreal's life by fortunate accident, after an unfortunate beginning to the baby's life. Vivian's mother, Gloria, worked at a day-care center with a friend named Angie. Angie had a maid from Mexico, who was in the country illegally. That maid, Theresa Guerra, had a child with Angie's brother.
Guerra had her troubles. In 1993, she went to prison for shoplifting, her six-month conviction later extended to 31/2 years because of prior convictions. Nathalie was just 4 months old.
An uncle took care of her at first, but hospital officials intervened after he was involved in a car accident with her. Before Nathalie went into the foster care system, Villarreal, then 27 and already a national champion, offered to take in the baby.
She took Nathalie to her tournaments. Nathalie always took her crayons. Competitors took turns looking after her. Nathalie took to her new guardian quickly, calling her "Mami." More than four years passed.
When word came that Guerra would be deported, Villarreal visited the prison, begging the birth mother to leave the child. Guerra agreed. But when Guerra got out of prison, she went looking for Nathalie.
"I went into hiding," Villarreal says. "I was her mother. I told Theresa, `I'm not going to let you take her just like this. She doesn't know you.'"
The case went to court. A judge, after hearing a child psychologist argue that taking the child away from Villarreal would be "psychological death," granted primary custody rights to the billiards pro, with Guerra settling for visitation. For nearly a year, they shared the child this way, with Guerra crossing the border for supervised time with Nathalie.
"Nathalie didn't want to go," Villarreal says. "She would call me from the house."
Eventually, the court dropped mandatory supervision from Guerra's visits. On July 23, 1997, Villarreal dropped off Nathalie in the morning, then returned to pick her up after pool practice.
"I haven't seen her since," said Villarreal. "For eight years, I looked and looked and looked for her, spent every penny I had -- bounty hunters and investigators, writing down license plate numbers. We knew she was in Mexico, but my mother told me to stop, because she thought someone would get killed."
Villarreal didn't stop playing pool throughout her ordeal. How could she? After first picking up a cue at age 5, she had made a habit by 8 of hopping on her father's Harley in the name of finding a game. So, even after her life had been ransacked, the adult Villarreal kept up the flamboyant, aggressive style that earned her the nickname "The Texas Tornado," continuing to wear her signature red and chat with fans.
At first, her game did suffer, as she failed to win a tournament in 1997 for the first time since turning pro. She has won several since, finishing 2004 at No. 4 in the world before slipping back to No. 7.
She has helped raise other children, including those of a cousin who died of pancreatic cancer, yet has no kids of her own.
"Too heartbreaking," she says.
Memories of July 23, 1997 still sting too much.
"I will never have closure until I see Nathalie," Villarreal says, "because she was my child."
In November 24th 2005, Nathalie Garcia, 12 years old at the time was spotted on a milk carton "have you seen me" by one of her classmates, and found living with her mother, Maria Guerra, in Malvern.
Nathalie was reunited in Malvern with her legal guardian, Vivian Villarreal. An emergency custody hearing was held in Hot Spring County Court.
Villarreal said afterward that she allowed the girl to choose whether to stay in Arkansas with her mother or return to San Antonio with Villarreal. She said Nathalie decided to remain with her mother but also wants Villarreal to be part of her life. Villarreal said she was happy with the outcome and would help Guerra and her daughter financially. "She's a very blessed child. Even the judge says she's very fortunate that she has two families that love her," Villarreal said.
Now Nathalie is a mother and has an excellent relationship with The Texas Tornado. This hard time has made the pro player stronger and grateful for every wonderful moment she lives.