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.

Since leaving Mesa to head into the city, Omar Mendez, his brother Antonio, Jesus Maris and a friend have been cruising around Phoenix, looking for girls outside the clubs. They happen to be driving by Club Orfeón just as Estrella is walking out to comfort her friend.

Omar sees his ex-girlfriend walking with her new boyfriend. Estrella may be with Rafa tonight, but she used to be his. That was two years ago, but they have a history. They met at a wedding when she was 13 and he was 18.

Ordering his brother to pull up next to the couple, Omar jumps out of the pickup, landing heavy in a pair of boots. Underneath his red checkered shirt, on his right arm, is a tattoo that says "Natalie." It makes Omar mad to see Estrella out tonight. She should be home watching their 2-year-old girl. Who is watching Natalie while she is out having fun?

Alfonso's brother Noel Caudillo and sister Miriam Celaya outside the home Miriam and Alfonso shared.
Kevin Scanlon
Alfonso's brother Noel Caudillo and sister Miriam Celaya outside the home Miriam and Alfonso shared.
Twenty-year-old Alfonso Celaya became one of the first members of his family to finish high school, when he graduated from North High in 1999.
Twenty-year-old Alfonso Celaya became one of the first members of his family to finish high school, when he graduated from North High in 1999.

Omar has been drinking since around 7 p.m. and it's midnight now. He tries to provoke Estrella by telling her he saw Rafa at a club the night before with a different girl. He wants to know why she left Natalie tonight. After talking to his ex-girlfriend for about five minutes, Omar gets back in the pickup. He tells his brother and friends that there is going to be trouble.

Estrella's sobbing friend heads toward the parking lot and Estrella and Rafa go back inside the club to round up their group. They are ready to go home.

Noel, his wife and Miriam leave first. Noel tells Alfonso, "Take care of yourself; I'll see you tomorrow." Miriam waves goodbye as she and Noel exit the club.

Alfonso, Mariana and Narvel leave the club, cross 16th Street and stand at the corner of 16th and Monroe, where they wait for Estrella and Rafa to join them.

The whole group has fled the din and smoke of Orfeón and gathered on the corner. Sunday has just begun, the night is winding down, goodbyes are being exchanged.

Omar Mendez's truck appears again, cutting off Rafa and Estrella's group in the middle of Monroe Street.

Omar, his brother and their two friends spill out of the truck, and Omar grabs Estrella by the arm. He wants to know about the baby, again. Why isn't she home with the baby? Omar slaps Estrella several times.

All four of the men approach Rafa and Omar starts to shove Rafa. It is Rafa against all four men. Rafa challenges Omar to fight alone.

Rafa and Omar start swinging, and the drunken pair moves down Monroe Street, followed by a small group of onlookers. A line of cars is parked on the south side of the street. Rafa grabs Omar by the throat and shoves him in between the third and fourth parked vehicles.

When Sergeant Spalla notices that a crowd has formed on Monroe, he and Officer Benjamin Mayer alert the other two officers standing at the entrance of Club Orfeón that there's a fight. Spalla and Mayer head across 16th Street toward the action.

Standing among the crowd, watching his friend Omar fight Rafa, Jesus remembers the gun he bought earlier that day. It is nestled in the back of his waistband. Jesus reaches to the small of his back and pulls it out.

"Here it comes, cousin," he says, handing the gun to Omar. Then Jesus gets into the truck and leaves the scene.

Omar chambers a round. He fires the gun.


Omar's wild shot is not the one that will take Alfonso Celaya's life, but it may as well have been. When it rang out, Lowell Spalla, Benjamin Mayer, Victor Escoto and Nick Wubker stopped being security guards on their way to break up a drunken brawl. They quickly became City of Phoenix police officers, weapons drawn, approaching a potentially deadly scene.

Only a few minutes elapsed between the time Omar drew the gun and fired, and Celaya fell dead on the ground. But those moments were so frantic, so charged, so intense, that no two people present remember them exactly the same way.

The following accounts -- pieced together from police reports, face-to-face interviews with witnesses, and statements given to private investigators -- highlight two troubling questions that cut to the heart of whether Spalla was right to shoot: How did Alfonso end up with the gun, and what was he doing with it when he was shot?

Narvel Murrieta watches Rafa and Omar struggle over the gun. Rafa pushes Omar up against a car. The gun fires. Narvel sees Alfonso climb on top of the car and retrieve the gun, which has come loose from Omar's hand. Alfonso backs away from the fighters, onto a grassy area near the sidewalk about one car length west of where Narvel stands.

Narvel sees that Alfonso has one hand on the grip and one hand on the barrel of the gun, pointing it at the ground. Alfonso looks confused, and Narvel is about to tell him to just put the gun on the ground. Then Narvel is kicked out of the way by a police officer. Narvel hears shots, and sees Alfonso on the ground shaking. At no point does Narvel hear the officer order Alfonso to drop the gun. At no point does he see Alfonso point the gun at anyone.

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

 
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