Human Target

The young man lies dead at the end of the room. I can't stop looking at him.
He's lying in an open casket in front of the altar in the church. His face is unmarked. The bullet that killed him tore into his chest. Although the face is intact, something makes it hard to believe this was a living person less than a week ago. Whatever made him human is gone. He doesn't look like he's asleep. He's dead.

I stare at him from my seat on a pew. Near me, a bunch of his friends cry in each other's arms. Their hurt is almost physically tangible, like a strong odor. I want to move away from them or go toward them. I don't move.

The church is in Tolleson. It's packed. The dead man was a few weeks from his 21st birthday, and most of his friends are around the same age. His father tells me he didn't realize how many friends his son had before now.

Father and son shared the same name, Abdiel Burgueno. A week ago the son was eating, drinking, playing guitar, writing, smoking, applying for jobs, using the toilet, sending letters to friends, planning the rest of his life. Now he's only a collection of anecdotes told by those who loved him, and empty flesh and bone that will be buried tomorrow. His friends stand by the casket and look at the dead face. Nobody knows how he got there.

Imagine this:
You're a cop. You're young, just 32 years old. You've got eight years' service behind you already. You were once honored for resuscitating a suspect who had stopped breathing. You've recently been promoted from detective to sergeant.

There's a 911, and you get called to a scene at five in the morning. It's a street in Scottsdale. A young man has reportedly been trying to break into an apartment using a two-and-a-half-foot-long machete. Other cops are dispached to the scene too.

You find the guy on 78th Street. He's 20 years old, and weighs only about 110 pounds. He's barefoot. He's holding the machete, and he's acting weird. He runs toward you, and you step aside. You keep telling him to stop. Then he charges at you with the machete.

You shoot him. And your shots kill him.
Who could reasonably blame you? It's not like you acted rashly. The kid was using deadly force against you. Even after your bullet dropped him to his knees, he still threw the machete at you--missing you--before he fell over and died. Tragic, sure. But it was him or you. The facts speak for themselves.

But they don't really.

Abdiel Burgueno was killed by Scottsdale police sergeant Scott Popp around 5 a.m. on Sunday, August 2. When I heard about it later that day, my initial reaction was, "So what else is new?" So many people are shot by the police in the Valley that you become hardened to it.

On Monday morning, I read the newspaper reports, and it all seemed pretty cut and dried. There was a photograph of the kid lying dead where he'd fallen, covered by a blanket, one bare foot sticking out from under it, the brown skin against the green grass. The report painted a picture of a psychotic, machete-swinging young thug who'd wrecked his own apartment before taking his madness outside and being brought down by a heroic police officer.

And I bought it.
At first, I wasn't going to write about it. For once, I thought, a police shooting seemed to be justified.

I investigated the incident, not expecting to find anything untoward. I just looked into it as a matter of routine. And found it to be one of the most baffling and terrifying incidents I have ever encountered.

Abdiel Burgueno wasn't a criminal. He was a kid who wrote poetry, took photographs, painted and dreamed of working for National Geographic. He brought out a 'zine, a collection of drawings titled Robots need dreams, too . . . As far as his friends know, he didn't do drugs. When he drank, he wasn't aggressive. He'd just want to talk or play his guitar.

His father doesn't recognize the person described in the newspaper reports. Burgueno Sr. is a minister at Living Word Tabernacle. He's a quiet-spoken, solemn-faced man with a Mexican accent he brought with him when he came to the U.S. more than 20 years ago.

In his house near Deer Valley Road, he tells me what happened when he got home from church that Sunday.

"At about 4:15 p.m., I found a message from the police, asking me to call them. I did, and they said, 'We believe your son was shot and killed by the police.' They said he was waving a machete and refused to obey the police officers.

"Do you mean to tell me that these highly trained men couldn't subdue him? They told me the incident lasted for a couple of minutes. Why did the officer get so close to him? Was there no other option than to kill him? This is a kid I raised for nearly 21 years. He was very intellectual, very brilliant. I can't believe that overnight he became a wild man."

Burgueno saw his son three days before he was killed. "He was here Thursday night, excited about learning French. He was at the stage of his life when he wanted to explore things."

Was his behavior normal on Thursday? "Yes." He pauses. "I'm not bitter or angry against the police officer. But I think it was irrational, a lack of judgment, and they don't want to admit it."

What about the machete?
He smiles sadly. "The machete was left to him by his grandfather. That's why he had it in his apartment. . . . I want witnesses to come forward. Anybody who saw what happened. I think the police are being evasive. You're talking about a young man's life here. The police told me he'd been banging neighbors' doors with the machete. Then why was there no damage to doors? They said he'd trashed his apartment. My son wasn't strong enough to do some of the damage that was done."

Abdiel was the eldest of his kids. He has three others. Naomi is 18, Joanne is 17, and Abraham is 14.

"I love all my kids," says the father. "But Abdielito was the closest to me. For years, I would visit prisons to preach, and he'd go with me. He carried my Bible and my guitar. My little shadow. I feel honored by God to have had him as a son."

This could be dismissed as the sentimentality of a bereaved father. But, in the days that follow, I will meet scores of people who knew Abdiel Burgueno. And they will all say similar things.

This is what is known about the last night of Abdiel Burgueno's life:
He was alone in the apartment. His roommate, Chris Collins, had gone to Las Vegas for a computer convention. Collins' girlfriend, Jen Manning, was having a party, and she expected Burgueno to be there.

He called her at 3:30 a.m. and said he wasn't going to come, because he'd been drinking and didn't want to drive. "He said he'd probably see me the next day," she says. How did he sound? "He sounded pretty happy. Quite intoxicated."

About 20 minutes before he was killed, he talked to his friend Steven Serrano on the phone. "He wanted to go out and have breakfast or something," Serrano remembers. "I said no, I had to work in the morning. We were just talking, like we normally talk. It was a five-minute conversation."

And that is as much as we know. We are expected to believe that, in the 20 minutes following a mellow conversation with a friend, Burgueno trashed his apartment and became a machete-wielding maniac.

We don't know why he went out without his glasses or contact lenses ("He was blind without them," one friend says), or why he put on mismatched shoes which he apparently kicked off while chasing or being chased by a couple of teenagers. All we have from the police is a press release describing the incident, as I have already presented it from Popp's point of view. Popp himself isn't talking. The police report is not yet complete, and it will be weeks before the results of a toxicology report are known.

All we know amounts to this: Abdiel Burgueno was killed as an outcome of something sudden and bad that happened at the end of an ordinary night.

Although his parents and siblings are adamant that there was nothing unusual about Abdiel Burgueno's mental state, this might normally be taken with a grain of salt. Everybody has a secret life his family doesn't know about and isn't privy to. Could Burgueno have been slowly going postal without his parents' knowledge? Possibly. But could it have happened without his friends knowing? Not likely.

Some people are reclusive, spending a lot of time alone and seeing their friends sparingly. Abdiel Burgueno was not one of those people.

Some of his closest friends were very different from he. Burgueno was technophobic. Rather than use a computer, he collected old typewriters and used them for his writing. But his friends were computer geeks. Some of them talk fondly about how tolerant he'd be when they'd "geek out" and talk about computers around him.

One of those friends, Andrew Kornuta, tells me about the effect meeting Burgueno had on him. "I came out here from California for a year of high school, met Abdiel and wanted to stay." So he did. His younger sister, Sarah, still lives in California. Burgueno visited her there shortly before his death. She shows me some photo-booth pictures of the two of them. They're clowning, pulling faces. I read a letter he sent to her. In it, he talks about how he loves the rain, how he's looking forward to Christmas, how great he thinks The Little Prince is. He talks about problems that mutual friends are having, and tells her about an impending gig at Stinkweeds.

Chris Collins was Burgueno's roommate. Now he can't stand to be in the apartment and is living with his mother. Collins is an amiable 20-year-old, a hybrid of punk and preppie who works as a computer consultant. I ask him how he and Abdiel spent their time, and he answers, "We were at coffee shops almost every night, getting all philosophical and stuff."

What does he think happened?
He sees two possible scenarios that, at least, explain factors that go unexplained in the police version. One is that someone realized Collins was out of town and came into the apartment looking to steal his expensive computers, not knowing that Burgueno was still around, and that Burgueno panicked and ran to get help. There might have been a struggle, which would explain the apartment being wrecked. This scenario would also explain the mismatched shoes and the machete, which he may have grabbed to protect himself. "He could have been running to the cop for help," says Collins. "He couldn't see shit without his glasses or contacts."

Collins' other theory is even more ironic. "There'd been vandalism in the neighborhood before," says Collins. "I've got a school bus, and somebody vandalized it and some cars. So, when we heard noises, Abdiel and I would go down to investigate. He may have gone to check out whatever noise it was that got the cops called. He might have taken the machete. He liked to play samurai, and he was kind of naive about the way the world works. But, man, that machete couldn't have cut through cardboard."

We're sitting in Andrew Kornuta's house. "I'll tell you what I want to ask Popp," says Kornuta. "I want to ask him if he shot him because he felt threatened, or because he knew he was technically allowed to."

Collins points to a computer monitor. "That's the same size as the one that got tossed around my apartment," he says. "Abdiel was 110 pounds. See if you can lift it."

I try. I weigh 145 pounds, and I'm strong. The monitor is heavy and awkward, and I can hardly get it off the ground.

In the afternoon, I prowl Abdiel Burgueno's apartment. The air conditioning is fierce.

A lot of the contents are gone, taken by the cops. There are rubber gloves strewn around, from the search they made. Ashtrays full of cigarette butts. A clock on the wall, with all the numbers painted out except for eight and three, and the hour hand painted white. Burgueno did that in high school.

In his room, I find an issue of this newspaper.
In the living room, I find the resume he'd typed. Under the heading "OBJECTIVE," it says, "To write articles, columns and short stories, and eventually becoming a full-time freelance journalist." Under "PERSONAL INTERESTS," it says, "Music, Literature, Photography and Movies."

I sit at the memorial service, and look at the body. I talk to people about Abdiel Burgueno. There's no questioning that he was an extraordinary person. Everyone talks not only about how they loved him, but how he influenced them. A young woman tells me she wants to be a writer, but doesn't know how she'll do it now without Abdiel's encouragement.

An older woman tells me she'd be more willing to believe that her own son would do what the cops allege Burgueno did than to believe it of Burgueno. "It's just not possible," she says.

As to what did happen, we're probably never going to know. The cops probably don't know, and there's no reason they'd tell us if they did. The only one who really knows is gone, destroyed. The answer may be buried with him tomorrow morning. But we do hear a last word from him at his memorial, when his sister Naomi stands up and reads a poem that was found in one of his typewriters.

how do you expect me to feel, I've a lump in my throat
From the words I can't speak, I mustn't exorcise from deep inside
I say, "We are living on the cusp of the now"
And recede to the quiet solace of my room
Words are just words, memories tainted with glory
Can you mar feelings, though they ruthlessly lurk below
how do you expect me to feel, I can't do it on my own

Reach down and lend me your hand, I can go on from there
Maybe down a path less trod
Or perhaps the direction of the waning sun
Maybe I really will meet god
Maybe he isn't so bad

Contact Barry Graham at his online address: bgraham@newtimes.com

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