IMAGE IS EVERYTHING

FRIENDS OF A MURDER VICTIM SAY POLICE LABELED THEM AS GANG MEMBERS--AND IGNORED OPPORTUNITIES TO CAPTURE THE KILLER

Suzzane Rivera knows people look at her funny sometimes. Maybe they feel threatened, think they see a hard-core gang member. She says to herself: Go ahead. Get a good look. See the bandanna, the proud tattoos, the dangling crucifix. I may surprise you.

She sees the impressions form behind those stares, images of gangbangers cut from the pages of newspapers or screenplays. The impressions are rarely what she intends, and yet, at 35, her look is carefully maintained, not so much crafted as it is preserved, a statement of pride.

You have to understand, she says, we wear the bandannas for a reason--to remind us, no matter what we have, that the sweat of our ancestors nurtured the ground. You don't do anything to bring down la raza, the race.

It is a look her children's teachers flip out over when she shows up for field trips, and she has to say: Hey, what matters is I'm here. Not how I'm dressed. How many other parents do you see here? Sometimes her kids get teased--your mother's a gang member, your mother's a gang member--so they turn it into a joke: You think she's one, you should see my dad.

Rivera's appearance helps her get the attention of the kids she lectures to discourage gang involvement. At first, they want to know who does this little woman think she is, telling them their business, but then they hear she joined a gang herself at age 14, and so she knows. Be proud, she says. Don't be ashamed to dress the way you want. But make of yourself something positive. If I can make it, so can you.

Her style is untempered for her Phoenix College instructors, who have come to know her as a talented writer, among the best in her class. They encourage her to major in English. Between classes, she joins other Chicano students on campus; many belong to student groups like Movimiento Estudiant¡l Chicano de Aztl n, or MEChA. It was through that organization that she befriended Tommy Espinoza, who, at 21, was just beginning to focus his considerable energy on antigang activities and absorption of Mexican history. Pretty soon, like her other friends, Tommy was dropping by her place, or she'd see him at school on Monday and he'd go, hey, I went by your house after work Saturday but the lights were out.

And finally, her appearance is simply her, a look she and her husband, Carl, wear in their west Phoenix home. It is the look police officers saw on a December night when the temperature was 50 degrees, and it was a sweat shirt that had to be torn from Tommy Espinoza as he lay near Rivera's patio, dying of a bullet wound. That was after a volley of gunfire had shredded the fence and jolted the Wedgewood neighborhood awake, a bloody end to what had been a peaceful backyard party.

The irony is this: Suzzane and Carl Rivera believe their physical appearance--a look Suzzane Rivera uses to divert kids from mortal trouble--prompted officers to dismiss the incident as another episode of gang violence. They say that's why the cops ignored repeated pleas that they look for Tommy's killer--or find out who he was--by checking a house, two doors away, where a party had just concluded. It was a lapse in time that could have been crucial in catching the killer, who remains at large.

Instead, Tommy Espinoza's friends say police pursued lines of questioning that assumed they were members of a gang; initially, the investigation targeted one of their own friends--Alex Contreras, who was shot in the face during the fusillade--as a suspect. They say officers made callous and demeaning remarks at a time of grief and anger and confusion.

Tommy Espinoza's friends say the Phoenix Police Department has treated them more like annoyances than citizens, witnesses or victims. They say it seems like police were more interested in classifying the crime--another gang hit--than solving it. Alex Contreras did fire back after being shot himself, but being 27 and carrying a gun for protection doesn't make somebody a gangbanger. He figures it was the only thing that prevented the killer from claiming more than one victim.

Neighbors and possible witnesses weren't interviewed right away; as of last week, some still hadn't been talked to at all. As a result, they say, investigators have nothing but spotty details provided by eyewitnesses and word-on-the-street information.

"Several people saw the guy in front of the party [down the street] afterwards," says Linda Espinoza, Tommy's mother. "At the very least, the police could have gone over there and asked about it."

"But they didn't," says George Diaz Jr., a friend of Tommy's who interned under Phoenix city councilmembers Thelda Williams and Duane Pell in 1990-91. "Right away, they wrote it off as a gang murder."

Suzzane Rivera, whose friends know her by the nickname "Triste," says: "When they come into my home, I see a uniform. I see, 'To Protect and to Serve.' I don't see black and white. My problem is, when they come into my home, all they see is color. That's my problem."

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