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.

Earlier that afternoon, Alfonso had gone to his friend Rafael Espinoza's house at 31st Avenue and Washington Street. Twenty-year-old Rafa wears tattoos of skeletal faces on either shoulder: one laughing, one crying. "Asi es la vida," Rafa says, explaining the bipolar tattoos. That's life -- it has its ups and downs. He sports a less profound tattoo of a woman with waist-long hair wearing nothing but a thong, bent over on his forearm.

At 20, Rafa has three kids, twins on the way, a wife and a girlfriend on the side. He's not a bad guy, he says -- he's stayed away from gangs and drugs. "I have tattoos because I like them, not because I'm in a gang," Rafa says. "But the police always think it's a gang sign."

Alfonso's family isn't convinced, either, so on that Saturday Alfonso has to go to Rafa's house, because Miriam doesn't approve of the friendship and doesn't want Rafa in her home.

The Phoenix Police Department prohibits its uniformed, off-duty officers from working inside the nightclubs they are hired to guard.
The Phoenix Police Department prohibits its uniformed, off-duty officers from working inside the nightclubs they are hired to guard.
Alfonso Celaya
Alfonso Celaya

Late that afternoon, Alfonso and another friend, Narvel Murrieta, head toward Rafa's house in Alfonso's white pickup. Narvel arrived in Phoenix less than two weeks ago from a small ranching community called Pantanito, in Magdalena, Sonora, where Alfonso's family also has a home. Alfonso has offered to show Narvel around, and help Narvel get acquainted with life in Phoenix.

The two arrive at Rafa's small gray house around 4:30. The three men talk outside for a while about their plans for the evening. Narvel has never been out in Phoenix, and wants Alfonso to show him around. Today is also Rafa's girlfriend's 21st birthday. The trio makes tentative plans to meet up later in the evening to celebrate. Then they head to the nearby house of Rafa's cousin, where Rafa plays the accordion, while the cousin gives Alfonso a guitar lesson.

Not far from Rafa's house, 18-year-old Jesus Maris is getting gas at the Texaco at Stapley and Broadway. Jesus didn't plan to buy a gun that day. That he did, Jesus would later tell investigators, was more a product of chance and opportunity than anything else.

As Jesus pumps gas at the Texaco, he is approached by a black man selling jewelry, a watch, some bracelets, chains and a semi-automatic handgun. The man wants $100 for the gun, but Jesus talks him down to $40. Jesus sticks the gun in the waistband of his pants, pleased with the bargain. He hopes to sell the gun for $100 himself and make some money.

Jesus heads home around 6 p.m. and gets ready to go out for the evening.

Around the same time, Rafa is calling his girlfriend, Estrella, to make plans to celebrate her birthday.

As dinner time approaches at the Celaya house, the family sends Noel Caudillo, one of the brothers, out for Carl's Jr. hamburgers. They have to call him several times on his cell phone to send him back for more food, as more family members arrive at the house.

After dinner, Narvel brushes his teeth, and Alfonso gets dressed to go out. He puts on the new white jeans his sister just bought for him. He doesn't go out often, and says he doesn't really feel like it tonight, but he wants Narvel to have a good time. Narvel and Alfonso leave together, and don't tell the family where they're headed. It is the last time Alfonso's mother will see her youngest son alive.

Around the same time, Jesus Maris, Omar Mendez and his brother Antonio have just finished drinking a couple of beers at Omar's apartment in Mesa. They head to a party. There, they meet up with another friend and have a few more drinks. About a half-hour later, the four cruise toward Phoenix in a Chevy pickup.

And in another part of Mesa, Estrella Sanchez is at her house getting ready to celebrate her birthday. She dresses in a sleeveless red plaid shirt and jeans. She says goodnight to her 2-year-old daughter, Natalie, picks up two girlfriends and drives to the house of her boyfriend, Rafa, in Phoenix.

Alfonso and Narvel, Estrella and her two friends, and Rafa's 15-year-old sister all wind up at Rafa's house. They get into two cars, heading out for an evening at the Mexican clubs.


The exterior of Club Orfeón looks like a crime scene on any given Saturday night. Marked police cars are parked outside, and at least four off-duty, uniformed police officers patrol the entrance of the club.

Orfeón, at 16th Street and Monroe, is one in a constellation of nightclubs in the Phoenix area popular within the Mexican community and problematic for the police. Each spot attracts a different crowd and offers a different atmosphere: The Scoreboard is mostly a Sinaloan crowd, the Bronco Bar, Sonoran. Orfeón is popular with predominantly Central Mexican patrons. Cancun offers special events such as rodeos, and Fiesta Latina turns into a strip club on Thursdays for its wet tee shirt contest.

The bars attract both Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans, and a rare white face begs the question, "Are you lost?" These clubs comprise a Mexican social circuit that mimics much of the rest of Mexican culture in the Valley. It is separate.

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

 
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