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.

Spalla observes a black, semi-automatic pistol fly through the air. The person on the south side of the vehicle catches the gun in both hands, fumbles with it, raises it to shoulder level and points it back toward the fighters. Feeling that the subject is about to shoot, Spalla fires three times. The subject immediately falls to the ground.

Approaching the body, Spalla sees a black semi-automatic gun next to the young man's left hand. Spalla moves the dead hand approximately six to seven inches away from the gun.

Hugo Celaya and Jonathan Kraut at the scene of the shooting with witness Narvel Murrietta.
Paolo Vescia
Hugo Celaya and Jonathan Kraut at the scene of the shooting with witness Narvel Murrietta.
Alfonso loved to visit the family ranch in Magdalena, Sonora, Mexico. The Caudillo-Celaya family immigrated from Sonora, and Alfonso was the first to be born in the United States.
Alfonso loved to visit the family ranch in Magdalena, Sonora, Mexico. The Caudillo-Celaya family immigrated from Sonora, and Alfonso was the first to be born in the United States.

The morning papers sealed Alfonso Celaya's fate.

"A Phoenix police sergeant shot and killed an armed man who pointed a gun at a group of people early Sunday at a nightclub. Alfonso Caudillo-Celaya, 20, died in the 1500 block of East Monroe Street after leaving the nearby Club Orfeón and becoming involved in a fight, apparently over a woman, police said," reported the Arizona Republic.

An Associated Press article contributed much of the same. "Sgt. Randy Force said Caudillo-Celaya was in the midst of a fight outside Club Orfeón when he was tossed a gun, which he pointed at a group of seven or eight people."

The report went on to explain that Sergeant Force said this was not the first killing in the neighborhood. "This is not an isolated incident," Force added. "That's why we have off-duty officers working there to try to maintain order."

Nothing that would make someone set down the morning coffee cup and question what had happened. Some crazed, drunk macho Mexican kid started a fight over a girl and pulled a gun. It happens all the time in that neighborhood. Thank God off-duty officers were there to keep the peace.

But for the Caudillo-Celaya family, the idea that a good kid who had never been in trouble would suddenly snap and menace people with a gun just didn't make sense.

Alfonso's brother Noel Caudillo had arrived home and was just sitting down to take off his shoes when the phone rang. A phone call at 1 a.m. Sunday isn't likely good news, but Noel never dreamed it would be that his youngest brother had been shot by the police.

His wife called Miriam to pass along the news that Alfonso was shot.

"I asked her where," Miriam says. "That was my first question."

Alfonso's brother Hugo had been asleep for hours when his pager started beeping. It was another brother, Leo, calling to tell him Alfonso was shot.

"I would have thought if anybody would get shot it would be me -- not my brother," Hugo says. "He was the most calmado of us all."

The family converged on the Jack in the Box next to Orfeón, where police were interviewing Estrella, Rafa and Omar. Noel saw Narvel outside, and Narvel explained that he witnessed the shooting. Noel brought Narvel to the cops and convinced them he was a witness. Noel listened while an officer struggled to interview Narvel in Spanish. "I wanted to get up and translate," Noel says.

Around 4 a.m., after police released Narvel, he told the family what he saw. That Alfonso never pointed the gun at anyone. Alfonso was a bystander to a fight that had nothing to do with him, over a woman he hardly knew.

As more witnesses came to the family to dispute the police spin on the story, Alfonso's survivors began to wonder whether the police department would make a good-faith effort to find out what really happened.

But of the 10 to 15 people who saw the shooting, police detained only three for interviews -- four when Noel brought Narvel to the police. Sergeant Force, public information officer for the Phoenix PD, says he doesn't know why other witnesses weren't interviewed. Instead, police interviewed two of the regular security guards who work at the club, neither of whom was anywhere near the scene of the shooting.

The police report states a Spanish-speaking detective was brought in to interview witnesses, yet the gunman, Omar Mendez, who speaks little to no English, says that during nearly six hours police had him in custody, an adequate Spanish speaker never interviewed him.

Victor Escoto, one of the officers who witnessed the shooting, is a "certified Spanish speaker" for the police department. But in the police report he mentions he doesn't actually speak fluent Spanish, which begs the question -- what exactly does it mean to be a "certified Spanish speaker" for the Phoenix PD?

It means the officer has taken a class to learn important Spanish phrases, and gets an extra $10 an hour each time he or she uses Spanish in the line of duty. But as Escoto conceded, it doesn't mean the officer speaks fluently. In any case, it would have made no difference if Spalla had been a "certified Spanish speaker" since he did not order Celaya to drop the gun in any language before shooting him in the back of the head.

During an interview with police, Omar admitted drawing the weapon on Rafa, and admitted firing it. However, Omar was not charged with a crime, and was released after questioning, Force says, because police believed Omar didn't mean to fire the gun.

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

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