IMAGE IS EVERYTHING

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

Triste is a Spanish word meaning "sad," and in the weeks following Tommy's murder, it was apropos. Suzzane Rivera, a mother of five, says she picked up the nickname because of perpetual sorrow over the state of her raza. A small teardrop tattoo spills from the edge of one eye, typically a sign that one has done time; hers, she says, reflects her nickname and character.

She has a reputation among the neighborhood kids. They talk to her; some of them belong to gangs. For instance, maybe they were involved in a shooting and the wrong person got hit and they feel bad, so they call. She listens, and she tries to tell them what's best, but she also tries to understand why they do what they do.

People say, Triste, how can you hear all this, aren't you just as guilty for knowing? But if she starts betraying them, then what? She wouldn't know where to draw the line. If she doesn't have their trust, she has nothing.

They tell her 16-year-old daughter, Sena, your mom's so cool, she loves me, my mother hates me.

She returns from classes at Phoenix College to her home at 51st Drive and Palm Lane, and the neighborhood kids will be there with her own kids, vacuuming, mopping, peeling potatoes, getting things ready for dinner. A lot of them started calling--Sena, can I talk to your mom? She figures word just got around. In her home, she fostered an atmosphere of warmth and safety.

She got into gangs in the Seventies, at a time when guns were not part of the protocol, and even then was dutifully paying back the guy at Circle K for stuff her friends had stolen the day before. As the oldest sibling in her single-parent family, she steered her younger brothers and sisters toward more promising futures. One is a surgeon. Her mom would tell her, you want to save the world.

She started giving lectures. She compiled information and advice and her own streetwise writings, poems with titles like "Where Is the Pride?" The gangster kids tell her, we're tired of people telling us, don't do this. She says, well, how would you like it said? They meet at her house to brainstorm, producing the antigang pamphlets she distributes at her talks.

"She still considers herself a gang member, but in a positive way," says Louella Carpio, an academic adviser and tutor with the Laveen School District who extols Rivera's lectures. "Let's see--how do I explain that? She has the outfit . . . but her goal is to make kids proud of their heritage. The first thing they say is, what gang are you with? But she tells it like it is. Her goal is to turn those kids around."

The feelings of warmth and safety were felt not only by the neighborhood kids, but by her adult friends. Which is why, on the night of December 3, 1994, as he and his friends prepared to pull out of the driveway, Alex Contreras decided he'd rather spend the rest of his birthday kicking back at Triste's house than dealing with crowded dance floors.

They were joined by friends of the Riveras, Rhonda and Tony Deleon, while Betty and Alex Contreras had brought over Betty Contreras' cousin, Josie Ayon, and her husband, Richard. They listened to oldies. Suzzane Rivera made chicken wings and a beer run.

Tommy Espinoza, doing a late shift at Pizza Hut, had gotten off work about 11:30 p.m. and was watching TV with his uncle, Randy Espinoza, at his grandmother's house, where Tommy lived. He got the call maybe an hour later. "Somebody called him, this couple, they were going to school with Tommy," Connie Espinoza, his grandmother, recalls. "I had already gone to bed, but I could hear him. Randy was saying, 'Don't go. It's late, why do you go?' Tommy says, 'I'll be right back, it's not that far. I'll be right back.'"

Forget any notions you might have about how police are all over the area asking questions when somebody gets killed. For at least two hours after Tommy was shot, the closest police got to the party house two doors away from the Riveras' house was when an officer cordoned off the crime scene. The yellow tape was extended to a point in the street just bordering the other residence, which belongs to a young woman named Cristal Grende.

Instead, police focused on the Rivera home. Controlling the scene is the top priority of arriving officers. Medical needs and initial interviews come next.

Police Detective Robert Mills, the lead investigator in Tommy's murder and a nationally recognized expert in child-abuse murder cases, says he can't speak to what field officers did or didn't do, but he guesses they spent considerable time locating and securing the multiple weapons at the Rivera home--one each belonging to Carl and Suzzane, plus Alex Contreras' .45. Mills himself didn't arrive on the scene until 3:20 a.m., about 90 minutes after the shooting, and he says that, in general, officers arrive not knowing people or what their penchant is for violence. Quick judgments have to be made based on brief impressions.

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