A Life That Almost Happened

A Phoenix cop gunned down Alfonso Celaya four months ago. His family still waits for justice, or at least an explanation.

 The dead Hispanic male lay face up in the grass, one bullet in his brain. He was a young man, barely 20, wearing a blue-and-white-checkered shirt and the new white jeans his sister had recently purchased for him.

Phoenix Police Sergeant Lowell Spalla was not absolutely certain that the bullet he had fired into the back of Alfonso Celaya's head had permanently stilled the young man. Approaching the body, Spalla saw a semi-automatic pistol on the ground, next to the dead man's left hand. Spalla moved the hand six or seven inches away from the gun, in case Celaya might summon the energy to again pick up the weapon.

He would not. Spalla's shot, the only one of three to find its mark, had done the job quickly, blowing away the back right portion of Celaya's head.

A Phoenix police officer frisks patrons on their way into Club Orfeón. The club hires armed, uniformed, off-duty officers to work outside the club at 16th Street and Monroe in Central Phoenix.
Paolo Vescia
A Phoenix police officer frisks patrons on their way into Club Orfeón. The club hires armed, uniformed, off-duty officers to work outside the club at 16th Street and Monroe in Central Phoenix.

Dozens of threads of circumstance and choice wove together to decide Celaya's fate that early March morning. Ten pairs of eyes each saw a different ending to his life. But the result is the same.

Alfonso Celaya is dead, shot during the early morning hours outside a shady nightclub in one of Phoenix's worst neighborhoods, one more Latino felled by a Phoenix cop's bullet. His death is one more police shooting that doesn't make sense.

Phoenix police say Celaya was shot because he pointed a gun at a group of people. Eyewitnesses say that never happened, and that Spalla shot an innocent kid.

The circumstances surrounding the shooting are rife with unanswered questions, like why Spalla never even shouted for Celaya to drop the gun before opening fire. Or why another cop who was there says he saw nothing, while at least five eyewitnesses contend the killing was unwarranted. Or why police did not bother to interview many of the witnesses to the shooting.

Or how Celaya, a stone-sober, right-handed young man, would end up dead on the ground with a gun next to his left hand.

Or why, when a Latino kid is dead, shot in the back of the head by a Phoenix officer, the police do so little to answer such questions, and the Hispanic community does almost nothing to demand justice.

The only time anyone can remember Alfonso Celaya getting into a fight was when he was a little kid. A bully was beating up his older brother, Hugo, so the smaller Alfonso picked up a dirt-covered rock, hit the bully over the head with it, then ran away, crying. "He wanted to do the right thing -- to be the good guy," his brother Hugo Celaya says. "He was a natural good guy. I've never seen him lose his temper."

The youngest of nine children in a family that immigrated from Sonora, Mexico, Alfonso was the first child born in the U.S., and one of the only family members to graduate from high school.

Because his father was an alcoholic, the youngest son stayed away from booze growing up; his friends say they always counted on him to be the designated driver. He was a regular at the Methodist church up the street from his house. He gave part of his paycheck to his mother, who is divorced from her second husband and suffers from depression.

At 20 years old, Alfonso already had a résumé. It only listed jobs in food service, supermarket cashier, but the mere fact that he had a résumé at all is evidence that he had set goals and ambitions. It tells the story of potential -- the story of a life that almost happened.

After graduating from North High School in 1999, Alfonso moved out of his mother's house in the government project where he grew up. He said he didn't like living on a government handout. Instead, he went to work, driving a delivery truck for Albuquerque Tortilla. Even then he wanted to be more than a delivery boy. For a while, Alfonso had considered going into the Marine Corps, but decided instead to go to college once he paid off his truck. In the meantime, he moved in with his sister, Miriam Celaya, and her two children.

Miriam took care of her youngest brother as if he were her oldest child. In return, Alfonso took care of his sister. "He was always helping me and my mother," Miriam Celaya says. "He was always trying to make us think a different way. I trusted him with my car, my kids. I trusted his decisions."

At first glance, Alfonso Celaya's life was unremarkable. He was simply a young man who owed money on a used Chevy Silverado, delivered tortillas, and had a plan for the future. But at 20 years old, he had already proven he could overcome harsh reality, stay in school and keep clean. By doing this alone, Celaya had beaten the odds. But he had accomplished an even more difficult task. He had nurtured a dream that had no visible origins in the barren landscape of a government housing project.

Alfonso Celaya was intent on joining the FBI, and that dream kept his energy focused.

On Saturday, March 10, seven members of the Celaya family gather for dinner at Miriam's home. Alfonso eats what will later be described in an autopsy report as 180 cc of beige-brown material and fluid. Nobody imagines Carl's Jr. hamburgers will be his last meal, and such a family dinner isn't an unusual ending for a routine Saturday.

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Is Lowell Spalla related to the special operations officer Leon Spalla in Tucson?

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