Mrs. Phelps' Kids

Five years after the kids last left her class, a veteran teacher catches up with former pupils from a tough grade school

Five years from now, I'm gonna be drawing something. I'll be the best artist in my school.

Jaime Bustamante,
November 15, 1990,
in Mrs. Phelps' fourth-grade class

Jaime Bustamante stares across the Plexiglas window at his visitors at the Madison Street Jail. It's a Sunday evening, one week before Christmas, and almost one year since he participated in a robbery-murder that landed him here.

Jaime turned 16 in jail. His face is scarred with acne, and his pasty pallor looks like yesterday's oatmeal. He's about five feet five, and says he weighs about 120.

He describes how he passes time awaiting disposition of his case: "I got my eighth-grade diploma a while ago. Now, I listen to the radio a lot."

But what about the skill that made Jaime stand out in Mrs. Phelps' class during the 1990-91 school year?

"Oh, I don't draw no more," he says, shrugging his small shoulders. "I haven't been drawing for a long time."

Jaime manages a smile for his 23-year-old sister, Maria Peralta, who visits him religiously. He tells her he's heard that the alleged mastermind of the Taco Bell murder is going to take all the blame.

"He's gonna own up," Jaime tells Maria over a telephone. "I'm gonna get out of here, I really am. And I'm gonna stay out of trouble. Run with the right crowd."

Maria just nods. She knows the score, and it doesn't look good for Jaime.
Months ago, a judge agreed with prosecutors that Jaime should be treated legally as an adult instead of a juvenile. He may spend much of his life in prison if a jury convicts him.

On December 30, 1994, Jaime was one of four young men who participated in the murder/carjacking at a Taco Bell on Ninth Avenue and Camelback.

Their leader undoubtedly was Albert "Chino" Contreras, a 26-year-old felon nearing the end of a murderous weeklong rampage. The quartet devised the idea of stealing the car, a 1993 Honda Civic, and killing its owner if he resisted. Jaime and Gilbert Brown walked up to the car, as their cohorts waited nearby.

Jaime later told police that Brown shot the 17-year-old victim twice in the head, yanked him from the car and dumped him on the pavement. (Others may testify that Jaime pulled out the dying victim.) As planned, the pair then stole the Honda.

Police nabbed the gang within hours.
During a tape-recorded confession, Jaime told police he was a member of the West Side City Chicanos, a powerful gang.

Mrs. Phelps was horrified, but not flabbergasted, when she learned about the Taco Bell murder.

"I had bumped into Jaime a few months before, and he was the same as always to me--polite and warm," she says.

"I knew he'd gotten kicked out of Hamilton, and everyone said he was in a gang. They talk themselves into thinking the gang is all that loves them, when the gang would turn on them in a minute. But I don't preach, don't lecture. They're not gonna listen to preaching anyway. I just treated him with respect, like he always treated me."

She'd always had a fondness for the boy, touched by his introverted nature and his facility for drawing. In turn, Jaime once wrote a poem for Mrs. Phelps. He called it Club House:

I had a big tree/I made a club house/That was my favorite tree/It gave me fruit/Sometimes I share my water/Sometimes I climb its trunk/It looks like a family tree.

Mrs. Phelps had known that the odds against Jaime staying out of trouble were long. He was reared in the Coffelt, a project that houses about 1,500 people in one-story brick duplexes.

Only one street goes into and out of the beat-up old project.
"It's hard for a lot of people to go out and stay out," Maria Peralta notes wryly.

Jaime's mother, Ramona Peralta, is a Mexican native who migrated to Phoenix with her first husband when Maria was about 3. Neither that union nor a subsequent marriage, to a man who fathered Ramona's two youngest children, survived.

Clearly, her children are her life. But Ramona seems a bit befuddled that her two oldest sons are behind bars. (Lorenzo Peralta, now 26, is doing a long stretch at Arizona State Prison.)

Most of her days are a whirlwind: Ramona cleans offices at a building near Sky Harbor International Airport. She looks after daughter Maria's two youngsters for a few hours. She visits her imprisoned sons in Florence and Phoenix.

Smiling photos of her children and grandchildren dominate the decor at her residence in the Coffelt. Atop a microwave in the kitchen, Ramona has lighted three thick candles. A wallet-size baby picture of Jaime leans against one of the candles.

"It's for prayers," she explains in Spanish.
Maria Peralta expresses apprehension that her youngest sibling, 13-year-old Eddie Bustamante, may succumb to the same fate of his older brothers.

"I've told him a lot because I've experienced a lot," says Maria, a determined and gracious young woman, "but some kids don't think anyone else knows nothing. I tell him to stay cool, that shootings happen and people die. I just don't want the people I love to be into that stuff anymore."

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