By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
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."
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.
Whatever judgment was made, it apparently did not include checking out the claims those at the Rivera home say they made about the assailant having retreated toward Cristal Grende's house. It also did not include the immediate questioning of neighbors who could have verified those claims--despite one who called 911 and requested police contact.
"If the police had listened to us," Suzzane Rivera says, "there was enough officers here to leave some and send some over. I mean, they secured the crime scene, supposedly. . . . What is it to send two policemen over there? Sure, we're suspects, but at least check out our story."
Linda Espinoza, who has spent hours combing through the police report for answers, is incensed. "If this is the routine way investigations of murder are handled, no wonder gangs are getting away with it," she says.
Tommy Espinoza was the kind of guy who was still going when everyone else was dead tired. By the middle of his 21st year, he'd made productive use of his energies, going from underachieving slacker to social whirlwind. He joined groups like MEChA and the Brown Berets and participated in efforts to prevent measures like California's Proposition 187 from spreading to Arizona. He helped out on political campaigns and talked to the neighbor kids when he knew they were having a rough time at home; he told them to stay in school. In the evenings, when he knew his grandmother hadn't had time to make dinner, he'd make a Taco Bell pit stop and bring her some Dr Pepper, her favorite.
After Tommy was killed, his friends launched a phone attack on the police department, looking to vent their frustrations over the way the incident was handled. Through the efforts of John Loredo, who made use of contacts gleaned in two years as a city council intern, they were finally able to arrange a meeting with Gerald Richards, the department's head of community relations.
Prior to their January 11, 1995, meeting with Richards, four of the people at Suzzane Rivera's home the night of Tommy's death wrote individual accounts of the event, which they submitted to Richards at their meeting.
Based on those accounts (some details of which either conflict with or are absent from police records) and on subsequent interviews with New Times, here is their version of what happened early on the morning of Sunday, December 4:
Tommy arrives about 40 minutes after midnight. He teases Sena Rivera for monopolizing the phone, then follows Suzzane Rivera to the backyard, where she introduces him to her friends, who are scattered around a bonfire inside a 55-gallon drum.
A little earlier, a car had driven up to the fence, which borders Palm Lane. It's one of those chain-link fences with slats inserted; you can't see through it, although silhouettes would have been visible to outsiders because of the firelight. Someone called out for "Bobby." Suzzane and Carl Rivera and Alex Contreras stepped atop a metal picnic table near the fence to peer over; they saw a white Mustang convertible in the street with two Hispanic males inside. They told them, sorry, there's no Bobby here.
Throughout the night, they'd noticed cars driving west along Palm Lane, and, looking that way now, they noticed several parked outside the residence of Cristal Grende, two houses away. Maybe that's the party you're looking for, they told the guys in the Mustang. Right then, someone over there in a flannel shirt came out and flagged them down. And Suzzane Rivera and her group went back to talking, and some of the little kids were running around the yard and playing tetherball. Then Tommy arrived.
About 40 minutes after that, Rhonda Deleon decides she wants gum, and it has to be Big Red. So Tony Deleon says, okay, he'll go to the store, and Carl Rivera says he'll ride along so he can get cigarettes. They walk through the arcadia doors into the house on their way to the carport, Josie Ayon right behind them on her way to the kitchen.
Those still outside then hear arguing, expletives, coming from Palm Lane. "At first," Suzzane Rivera says, "we said, 'Oh, somebody's fighting,' and we paid it no mind. But it got louder, and louder, and it was, like, next to our fence. . . . So we got up [on the table] again. And we saw a guy and a girl, and he had a gun to the girl's head. And then I said, 'Hey, he's gonna kill her.'"
Alex Contreras, on the other hand, says the arguing is just a backdrop, that instead, he and Richard Ayon and Tommy, who were sitting on the other side of the bonfire, hear someone outside the fence talking at them, cussing and saying in Spanish, "Here's Hollywood," a reference to the Hollywood street gang. They climb up on the table. Alex sees a short, stocky guy and a couple arguing behind him, so he and Tommy tell him: Hey, there's nothing but raza here--why don't you go back where you came from and just have a good time?
The trash talker only gets more belligerent.
"This guy--he didn't know who we were," Alex Contreras recalls. "He didn't know who was back there [behind the fence]. So I knew he had to have a gun or he was very stupid."
Alex turns and tells Rhonda Deleon and Suzzane Rivera: Get the kids, there's gonna be trouble.
Suzzane Rivera says she hears a click from the street, "like he cocked back the gun, and I said, 'That's it, I'm calling 911.'" She runs in. She doesn't know who rounded up the kids; her concern was for the girl in the street. She pries Sena off the phone, calls 911 and describes the scene in the street, a conversation her daughter recalls overhearing.
When Alex turns back around, he sees Richard Ayon trying to climb over the fence to confront the guy in the street. "He couldn't take any more, I guess," Alex says. "He took a step off the table and put a foot to the wall and put one foot over the fence." Alex and Tommy pull him off the fence, Tommy still atop the table bench, Alex and Richard on the ground now, and Josie is just stepping out the arcadia doors to yell for her husband to come down when Alex notices Tommy sort of quickstepping it toward the other end of the table.
Suzzane Rivera hears gunshots, two of them, boom, boom, then a bunch of louder ones.
Having warmed up Rhonda Deleon's 1967 Chevy truck on their way to go buy gum and cigarettes, Carl Rivera and Tony Deleon are backing out of the driveway when they hear the shots, too.
In the backyard, Alex Contreras says he hears three shots. He sees Tommy fall to the ground flat on his face. He feels a powerful sting in his jaw, like somebody slugged him. He realizes what has happened; he instinctively pulls out his .45. It has never been used for anything but target practice. Tracing the muzzle flashes, he fires back into the darkness.
Inside the house, Suzzane Rivera is saying to the 911 operator, where are you? He killed her, he killed her.
But people are running inside now and screaming, he's shooting at us. She tells the operator, oh, my god, he's killing us, he's killing us.
Richard Ayon is putting out the bonfire, to drown out the backyard silhouettes, visible from outside.
The door handle on the old truck is broken, and Carl Rivera has to roll down the passenger window to get out. He and Tony Deleon see the Riveras' 51st Drive neighbor at the time, Adam Tarango, hopping the fence and running across the yard toward the sound of the gunfire.
Bloodied, with a slug fragment in his jaw, Alex Contreras comes inside the Rivera house, his wife, Betty, seeing him for the first time since the shooting began. Alex's father died of a head wound a decade ago, a stray bullet into his bedroom on New Year's Eve. Now she sees blood all over her husband and becomes hysterical. "I thought, 'Oh, my God, he's gonna die just like his dad,' and I don't know, I just went crazy."
Adam Tarango, the neighbor, looks down Palm Lane, and later tells police he sees a girl pushing a Hispanic guy toward a house about two houses away from the Rivera home. He sees the grip of what he figures to be a large handgun sticking out of the guy's pocket, white Levi's, white tee shirt.
Rhonda Deleon comes inside the Rivera house, sits down, blank stare. I think they killed your friend, she says to Suzzane. Your friend from school. That kid who just got here.
Oh, my god, Suzzane Rivera screams to the operator. I have to go.
Carl Rivera now is at the side of the house, too, looking down Palm Lane. He looks over his fence and doesn't see anyone, not even Tommy, who is lying just on the other side. He glances down the street and sees a guy on the sidewalk two houses down, holding his arms out wide in provocation. "I didn't know if he was taunting me," he says.
He runs inside, sees Contreras with blood on his face. Contreras says, those guys are shooting at us. Carl Rivera goes to his room and gets his shotgun, takes it outside to the back and puts it inside an old Chevy, in case they come back.
Suzzane Rivera runs outside, sees Tommy on the ground, face down. Sena Rivera is outside now, too, screaming, Mom, don't let him die, do something.
Suzzane Rivera grabs Tommy's arms and tries to pull him toward the patio. Tommy, shot once near the base of his neck, grabs blindly, seizes her rosary and breaks it free of her neck.
Not knowing this, Tommy's grandmother, Connie, says later: "I think the good Lord gave him time to talk to Him, to say, 'Lord, if You're going to take me, I want to be ready.'"
The first officers arrive. One officer swings through the back gate, gun drawn, sees Carl Rivera wearing his bandanna, says, "You! Inside!" He does not say the same thing to Richard Ayon or Tony Deleon, who aren't wearing bandannas.
Josie Ayon is on the ground with Tommy, covering him with a blanket, trying to keep pressure on the wound. "Please," she says to the officer, "what do I do? Please help us."
The way she remembers it, he just shone a flashlight on her and said, "`Aw, you're doing all right. You're doing fine.'"
The paramedics arrive, do what they can. Tommy is taken away.
A couple of hours later, Suzzane Rivera is sitting in Detective Robert Mills' car, and the interview is over. He hands her his business card. It reads "Homicide."
"You mean he's dead?" she says.
At first, everyone is herded into the Rivera house. Everyone remembers the Ayons and the Riveras telling the officers to go to the other house, that the trouble came from over that way. The response was, yeah, yeah, go sit down, somebody will be with you.
No one will say the gunfire was returned until Alex Contreras tells one of the officers, I'm going to be honest with you--I did shoot back. He tells them Josie Ayon put his gun away, and she finds it for them. A minute later, he's on a stretcher on his way to the hospital.
Carl Rivera tells the officers his shotgun is in the old Chevy but that it hadn't been fired. Suzzane Rivera says she has a gun in her room. Both are secured by officers.
The questioning starts right away. Suzzane remembers them asking: "First of all, 'What gang are you guys from?'"
"Everybody kept telling them, go over there, two houses down, that's where they came from," Carl Rivera says. "I was sitting right here going, 'God, how could this happen?' And this officer goes, 'Oh, you know how it goes, ese, you know how it is to be a gangbanger.' The sergeant told him [that officer], 'You apologize, and then you leave.'"
"Oh, he left," Suzzane says. "But he didn't apologize."
Betty Contreras is near the doorway, telling the officer there she wants to accompany her wounded husband. I just want to be with him, she says. Why can't you let me be with him? What if he dies and I'm not there because you won't let me be with him?
They keep pushing her back in, saying, go sit down, laughing, saying, man, did you see her? She's drunk.
"I said, 'Forget this,'" Betty Contreras says, "and I walked out the door and said, 'Somebody take me to the hospital.' And they said they were going to arrest me. They brought me back inside. I said, 'You can't keep me here. I want to be with my husband.'"
Josie Ayon finally grabs the keys and takes her.
Suzzane Rivera: "And Richard [Ayon] by this time had called Josie's brother-in-law to come pick up the kids, and he went to hand him the keys. They [the police officers] said, 'No,' and he said, 'I'm just handing him the keys,' and they got him in an armlock and put him face down. And they kept pushing him and telling him he was going to jail."
Suzzane's neighbor says to her later, "You should have heard them saying, 'Aw, they're nothing but a bunch of cholos, anyway.'"
Here is how secure the crime scene was: As the commotion settles and the questioning begins, Suzzane Rivera notices someone she doesn't recognize standing behind her kitchen counter, laughing amid the grief and shock, eating the chicken wings she'd set out for her guests. "I guess he had come in with the police," she says. "I looked at him and I said, 'Who are you?', because he didn't fit in. And he came over here and got some dip, and he was laughing. He said, 'I'm Mart¡n.' I go, 'I don't know you. Who are you?' He goes, 'I was here, at the party.' I said, 'There was no party here.' He said, 'Bobby sent me. To watch you.'"
She finally figures he's from the other party, and she tells an officer, who says to her, he was here with you guys. And she says to him, no, he wasn't. Why does he have to stay here? He's from next door. "But they sat him down and made him very comfortable," she says. Mart¡n Galas, whom police had picked up hopping nearby backyard fences, was finally taken in for questioning; he told police his cousin had driven him to a house party, and that when he heard shots go off down the street, he just took off running, not knowing who was involved. Eventually, police match his prints with those on a beer cup found in Cristal Grende's yard.
When Detective Mills arrives at 3:20 a.m., it all continues--which of you fired the shotgun? and so on. Nobody had. Finally, Tommy's friends realize that no one is going to go looking for anyone outside of the house anytime soon. And they can't, for the life of them, figure out why.
Suzzane Rivera: "Detective Mills was saying, is this a gang hangout? I said, no. I work with gang members. We get together. Some of the kids. I write pamphlets, you know . . . and when I do gang seminars, I use their work. And I said, they don't sit here and get drunk. And he said, well, what types of people hang out here? And I told him; I named a couple of the gangs. And he was like, he was writing them. And that's the first time I seen him really show any interest. He was like: 'Oh.' And, you know: 'Who else?' And he got the other officer--`Oh, yeah, these gangs hang out here.' He didn't listen to what I was saying.
"They come in here, and all of a sudden, they see color. Oh--well, black bandanna, blue bandanna. You know, brown skin. We don't see that. I don't understand--are they conditioned to do that? We were really angry. Because we weren't expecting that. We weren't heard. We weren't listened to. We were taken for granted. I told the officers: Look, I work with kids--what do you mean, what gang am I from? Josie was dressed in jeans and--just like Betty, jeans and a blouse. And she goes, excuse me, officer, but could you tell me if I'm wearing the wrong color or something? I don't understand--how dare you insinuate I'm from a gang. And she's a Head Start teacher. She couldn't believe it. She said she's heard about cases like this, but she never would have believed it."
People say the Wedgewood neighborhood was fairly quiet until a few years ago, when the elderly folks and young families with little kids started moving away. The people that took their place tended to be a little more rowdy, loud music at night, thumping car stereos and so on. John Loredo, a friend of Tommy's who lives in the area and has been trying to elicit a response from the police department, figures just about every other house has guns for protection.
"It's very common," says Loredo, who, like George Diaz Jr., is a former president of MEChA at Phoenix College and spent some time as a Phoenix City Council intern. "It's pretty obvious on the Fourth of July or New Year's Eve. It sounds like a war movie--machine guns, shotguns, pistols."
But this little stretch of street was particularly quiet, some say, until the people down the road and on the corner and across the street moved in, and now it gets to be 3 in the morning and the music is blaring, and you just have to complain to somebody.
Some speak specifically of the Grende home as a turning point, saying young men started congregating there on weekend nights late last summer, looking too young to drink but drinking anyway, one kid especially belligerent after a while--just one of those drunken voices that stands out, as one neighbor put it.
And that was the voice the neighbor remembers the night Tommy was killed, the one that was still bellowing, punctuating the phrases "leave me alone" and "get off me" with profanities as others pushed him into a car and whisked him away not long after the shooting.
"This kid with the big mouth, I think he wanted to stay and go back and fight some more," the neighbor says. She has no idea what he looks like. "It was not just a little pop gun."
Victoria Hansen, another neighbor, thought for sure police would talk to her, because when she called 911, she requested police contact, so she stayed up for a couple of hours, looking out the window, waiting. "I never saw police go and talk to them [the people in the Grende house]," she says. "We were just sitting here. We thought police would come talk to us. Finally, we figured, they're not coming." As of last week, they still hadn't.
Yet another neighbor wasn't interviewed until Suzzane Rivera told police the neighbor might have important information. This neighbor saw the same person Adam Tarango saw, a guy holding out his arms and facing the Rivera home from the driveway of Grende's house. His left shoulder was bloodied.
The neighbor says several vehicles were still at the Grende home when the police arrived at the Riveras', that one of them--a Chevy Blazer--had its parking lights on, and that a Mustang convertible left and then returned, all while the cops were grilling those in the Rivera home. She says she knows this because she was on the phone with a friend after the shooting, watching until 3:30 a.m.
When Detective Mills questioned her, she told him: Nobody ever went over to that house and investigated. "He said, 'Yes, we did. I went over there myself and knocked on the door. No one answered.'" The neighbor says she told Mills, "`I didn't see anybody right away over there . . . I was up a long time.'"
If Mills did knock on Grende's door, he didn't mention it in his report.
For her part, Grende, who is 21, tells New Times that she allowed Bobby Casarez, the father of one of her two children, to have a birthday party at her home the night of December 3. However, she says, he did all the inviting, and she guesses word spread, and pretty soon, strangers were showing up.
"Finally, we said, 'The party's over. Everybody's gonna have to go home.'" And except for a few friends, she says, everybody left. A little while later, they heard gunshots, then people at the carport door, trying to get in. There were noises in the backyard. "I didn't open my door," she says. "I didn't go outside. I didn't know what happened until the police came."
But according to Grende and police reports, that didn't happen until the evening of Tuesday, December 6, two and a half days after Tommy was killed.
Told by New Times that several witnesses saw people running into her carport that night, Grende says no officers came to her house that night. "You'd think they would have raided my house [if they thought someone was there]," she says.
"They made it seem like it was my fault," Grende says of the questioning by detectives. "Like everything I said was a lie. . . . Gosh, I'm sorry for what happened, but I don't think there's anything I could have done."
The day after Tommy's funeral, Suzzane Rivera showed up with her own gun, a Tec-9, at Grende's door, because juveniles were congregating on Suzzane's sidewalk, laughing, playing with the bullet holes in her fence as if it were a spot where a hunter had felled a prize deer. She told herself, this is crazy, this has got to stop.
Grende: "I said to her, I'm sorry. I can't help what happened, I can't help what happens in the street. I didn't do it--I don't know who did it. The reason we broke [the party] up was because there was people we didn't know. It could have been anybody out there."
Detective Mills: "It's a tragic situation, where a young man was apparently gunned down. It's frustrating not to have the resources of people able to identify the person involved."
As to why officers didn't approach the Grende house or the people that witnesses say they saw milling around that night, Mills responds: "I've been there [the neighborhood] many times [on other cases], and talked to those people. They are not exactly prone to making spontaneous and culpatory statements.
"There's a supposition in the first place that, one, the suspect is identifiable, and, two, that the people down the street would talk to you in the first place. Because you live in a different world than the Hollywood gang members."
Although neighbors of the Riveras say otherwise, Mills says, "Those folks down the street obviously didn't hang around. They weren't waiting for officers to come interview them. It's not reasonable to think that; you're talking 20-25 minutes, maybe more."
But why not try?
"My recollection is that they did [knock on Grende's door], and they got no response," he says. Like Mills' claim to a neighbor that he had knocked on the door himself, this reference to other officers doing so is not supported by the police report. Officers, however, did collect several beer cups similar to one found just outside the Rivera fence after the shooting, he notes.
But again, he says, you're presupposing they would even talk to you.
But journalists, it is pointed out, have to try speaking to sources they're sure won't talk to them, just as a matter of course.
"Sometimes," Mills says, "it's a matter of timing."
John Loredo returned from a day trip on Sunday, December 4, to find a series of telephone messages alerting him to the death of his friend, Tommy Espinoza.
He was on the phone immediately, urging those of influence to write to the police department so it wouldn't take the case lightly. Working under then-city councilmember Mary Rose Wilcox in 1990-91, Loredo had overseen funding to police and fire programs, and part of his job was to ride around with various officers to see what they did.
Since then, many of them had moved into prominent positions. So when he heard about Tommy being killed and the way his friends had been treated, he started calling everyone he knew, home numbers, the whole bit, to try to arrange some sort of resolution.
He peppered the Maryvale precinct with calls, never getting any response. He swamped gang-squad detectives with voice mail. Finally, someone put him in touch with Commander Don Swanson, the department's liaison to the city manager, who listened patiently, and told him he'd have someone call to hear him out.
So the next day, he says, which was December 20 (the day the report clearing the department of wrongdoing in the Edward Mallet choke-hold case was released), Loredo gets a call from police spokesman Sergeant Mike Torres, who tells him he understands Loredo is having a lot of problems. So Loredo says, yeah, and all the time, he's wondering why it's Torres, the press guy, calling him about this, and the way he remembers it, Torres asks him to fill him in on the situation.
So he does, and Torres says he'll have to get a copy of the report to review the details, and then Loredo says he can't get any response from the Maryvale precinct or the gang squad or anybody else.
"`It's because you don't know what you're doing,'" he remembers Torres telling him. "`You don't know who to call.'"
"`I don't know what I'm doing?'" Loredo remembers saying, because by now, he's completely ticked. And George Diaz Jr. is sitting right next to him, laughing at the whole thing. "I said, 'You know what? I worked for the city council for two years. I don't know who to call?' And I just went off. And George is just laughing, he's dying. I said, 'I know exactly who to call. This is not because I don't know how to do casework, and it's not because I don't know who to call, it's because you guys, you're just not being responsive.' And right away, it's a totally different attitude: 'I'm sorry, Mr. Loredo, I didn't mean to imply--if I can be of any help. . . .' And then he hung up."
Loredo says he came away from the call feeling like Torres had called to intimidate him into backing off. "Like he was the department hit man or something. Like I was making too many calls."
Torres says Loredo did call him, and that he was returning the call as a favor. He says he did tell Loredo he didn't know what he was doing, but says it wasn't an attempt to intimidate anyone. "I told him he wasn't calling the right people. He was calling the Maryvale precinct repeatedly, and they respond to radio calls, they don't do investigations. So I said, 'You don't know what you're doing.' I told him, 'That's not the way you do business.' I explained the protocol.
"I hope he didn't misunderstand me."
But there's plenty to misunderstand and wonder about in a case like this, and even now, the friends and family of Tommy Espinoza are left wondering why no one has been arrested. The grapevine has identified a shooter, but Detective Mills says without someone being able to clearly identify him as the triggerman, none of that information does any good--not the calls to Silent Witness, not secret notes concealed in gum wrappers, not even claims that the guy is out there bragging about having committed the crime.
Mills does note that based on the information collected at the time, the reputed triggerman was not included in a photo lineup shown to Alex Contreras the day after the shooting, and that there's not enough reliable new information to have another lineup at this point.
Alex Contreras says he probably couldn't pick the guy out of a lineup, anyway, even though he probably got the best look at the guy. He figures it was a good thing he had his beloved .45 with him, though he says he never thought he'd have to use it. "I think that's what scared them off," he says. "I think that's what stopped them, made them run. I wished it would have helped out more."
It wasn't until Suzzane Rivera and Linda Espinoza obtained copies of the police report that they realized that Alex Contreras had finally been eliminated as a suspect, a notion they say insulted them at the outset. The last supplement of the released report noted that tests showed that the bullet that killed Tommy did not come from Alex's gun.
"That doesn't apologize," Suzzane Rivera says. "That doesn't take away the hurt."
She says it's funny, really, because now the department, through other channels with which she has worked before, wants her help on another case. "All of a sudden, they're asking me to help. Yet they don't believe what I told them that night. It's too weird. It's too, too, too weird."
There are inconsistencies in accounts given by the people who were there that night--what time the Mustang first came by, which of the people in the street had a gun, how many shots were fired--and nowhere in the report do initial field officers say anything about Tommy's friends urging them to check out the other house. Detective Mills points to Richard Ayon's attempt to scale the fence as "not what I would call an unaggressive act," and notes that Suzzane Rivera wouldn't have heard the "click" of a semiautomatic if the shooter did, in fact, use a .44 revolver and fire first.
One interesting discrepancy is that the 911 tape released to Suzzane Rivera by the department is surprisingly different from versions she detailed in previous interviews and the testimony she penned for Gerald Richards, the department's community relations head. For example, the chaos is already in progress when the operator answers; the tape does not include the physical description she says she provided of the people in the street. For this, she has no explanation.
A February 1 follow-up meeting between Richards and the friends of Tommy Espinoza has been rescheduled for this Tuesday, February 21; assistant chief Dave Brewster is now heading the liaison.
The character of Tommy's old room, in the house where he lived with his grandmother, already has changed. She rearranged it for company. His tee shirts and flannels, however, still hang in the closet, and inside a top drawer are remnants of his life: an asthma inhaler, a book by Carlos Castaneda that he got for Christmas, some MEChA notes explaining the transition from gang to school, Drakkar cologne.
Connie Espinoza misses finding her grandson asleep in front of the TV in the morning or hearing him talk to his girlfriends long into the night. Everyone who knew Tommy talks of his boundless energy--an enthusiasm that burned after everyone else's had flickered away, that sometimes grated on their nerves until, suddenly, it wasn't there anymore.
"He went to church with us every once in a while," Connie says, "and I used to kid him: 'You know, Mijito--the way you talk, the way you do so many things, you would be a good leader, a good Christian leader.' And he says, 'Nana, don't lose hope. I may be one.'"
Meanwhile, the character of the neighborhood where that hope was dashed has changed, too. The drinking, the partying, the intoxicated voice that stood out--"That has all completely stopped," one neighbor says.
"I'm not having any more parties," Grende says.
Suzzane Rivera says she's usually the one to call 911 in her area, but admits police have been called to quiet her backyard gatherings from time to time. The last time, she says, was three weeks before Tommy died--Tommy had been out there with them trying to wail Mexican music. The neighbors had complained there had been fighting.
She still can't forgive the police, though, for not following through on their pleas to check Grende's house for the gunman. People were in the woman's backyard, she says; Grende told police later she heard noises. Someone could have told police something that night, or they might have found evidence. Later that morning, a neighbor of Grende's did find spent .44 shell casings and a cardboard sign reading "Hollywood" in a trash can behind Grende's house and gave them to police. None of it produced any new leads.
Suzzane Rivera says, "Some of the cops I work with, like one officer in the DARE program, he says, 'Great work, I love what you do, but the dress--sometime, you're gonna have to change a little.' Hey--when the last kid is out of a gang, I'll lay down the bandanna. This allows me to go into places the police can't. This allows me to touch hard-core kids. This allows the kids to confide and trust in me.
"You know, they know where I'm coming from. They know I've been there."
She sits in her kitchen, where so much happened that night, and remembers Tommy. He had come up with an idea she'd still like to follow through on. He wanted to produce a tee shirt, she says, as a moneymaker for one of the student organizations. He told her about it one day, asked if she'd pay $15 for it. She told him, I'll be first in line.
On the front, the shirt would say: "I love my raza." And on the back: "Enough not to kill them.