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.
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
"He was my favorite," says Lidia Caudillo, as she flips through photos of her youngest child, Alfonso. Her son was shot and killed by a Phoenix police officer outside Club Orfeón in March.
Paolo Vescia
"He was my favorite," says Lidia Caudillo, as she flips through photos of her youngest child, Alfonso. Her son was shot and killed by a Phoenix police officer outside Club Orfeón in March.
"They killed Alfonso como si fuera un perro," says Rafael Espinoza, explaining that police shot his friend like he was a dog. Rafael was a witness to the shooting outside Club Orfeón.
Paolo Vescia
"They killed Alfonso como si fuera un perro," says Rafael Espinoza, explaining that police shot his friend like he was a dog. Rafael was a witness to the shooting outside Club Orfeón.
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.
Family friend Jonathan Kraut helped convince Alfonso Celaya's relatives to hire lawyers and investigate the shooting.
Paolo Vescia
Family friend Jonathan Kraut helped convince Alfonso Celaya's relatives to hire lawyers and investigate the shooting.
Alfonso Celaya's brother Hugo watches as Narvel Murrieta acts out the fight that broke out just before Alfonso was shot.
Paolo Vescia
Alfonso Celaya's brother Hugo watches as Narvel Murrieta acts out the fight that broke out just before Alfonso was shot.
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.

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.

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.

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.

Situated in shady parts of the city, many of these clubs draw rough crowds. Both Orfeón and Fiesta Latina are notorious with the liquor board for violent fights and problems with underage drinking and serving liquor after hours.

As a kind of pre-emptive strike, says Phoenix Police Sergeant Randy Force, off-duty police officers -- armed and in uniform -- are hired by the clubs to provide security. "They're paid by the business, so it's not coming out of the taxpayer dollars, so to speak, for them to provide extra service to a business that's creating an atmosphere that generates a lot of criminal acts," Force says.

At Club Orfeón, the "atmosphere that generates a lot of criminal acts," as Force puts it, most likely has to do with the long wait to use the men's rest room. People line up to buy coke, crack, crystal. Most of Club Orfeón's clientele are decent people there to dance and enjoy themselves -- not to cause trouble. But the club is also a hot spot to buy and sell drugs.

The police can't do much about the drug dealing that's going on in the Orfeón rest rooms. In fact, they can't even use the rest rooms.

Allowing armed, uniformed police officers to act as security guards for nightclubs is a practice that is explicitly banned by some other police departments -- Los Angeles, for instance. Phoenix does allow it, but, as remarkable as it sounds, Phoenix PD officers are not allowed to go inside the clubs. Force says this is to prevent the appearance that the officers are drinking inside the bar. It seems an uneasy compromise for the sake of keeping up appearances -- particularly when the root of the violence outside the club may be directly related to laws being broken inside.

Nonetheless, when the off-duty cops guarding Club Orfeón need to use the bathroom, they go a Jack in the Box next door.

The wisdom of the police approach seems even shakier considering that armed officers are in a situation where they often don't speak the dominant language, don't understand the culture, and are surrounded by drunken clubgoers who don't trust them, don't like them, and may not know the difference between a city police officer and a Border Patrol agent.

This volatile mix blew up for the Phoenix PD last year at Fiesta Latina on McDowell Road. Undercover officers began conducting surveillance of off-duty officers when complaints came in that one of the officers was taking bribes in exchange for not turning patrons over to immigration. Bribery was not observed, but a surveillance video caught officers throwing a patron down a flight of stairs.

Two officers were fired after the incident, but it didn't inspire the PPD to re-examine its policy about allowing officers to work the clubs.

Club Orfeón has hired off-duty officers since 1994. That year there were two shootings at Orfeón, and police were called once to break up a fight. Since the police presence began, three more acts of violence and one fatal shooting have been reported.

On the evening of March 10, Alfonso Celaya would make his first and last visit to Club Orfeón.


When Miriam Celaya, her brother Noel, and his wife pull into the Club Orfeón parking lot about 10:15 p.m., they park near a white pickup, not noticing that it is their brother Alfonso's.

On the way into the club, they pass Sergeant Lowell Spalla, a 10-year Phoenix police veteran and one of four officers working the outside of Orfeón tonight. Typically, Spalla works Friday nights, but he's picked up an extra shift this weekend.

A security guard frisks patrons on the way into the dimly lighted club. People line one side of a mirrored wall, resting cans of beer -- no bottles here -- on a small ledge. A bar, bordering the back wall, and an elevated DJ booth frame a dance floor where couples grind to a constant stream of cumbias.

Noel Caudillo has been coming to this club for nearly 10 years. When he and his sister Miriam arrive tonight, they are shocked to see their youngest brother, Alfonso, standing along the wall of the club. With him is his friend from Mexico, Narvel.

Alfonso has never been to this club before, and he isn't 21. Miriam and Noel approach their brother, and Alfonso explains that a couple of people in the group he's with tonight are underage. They couldn't get into the Macarena, so they came to Orfeón.

On the dance floor, Rafa is dancing with his girlfriend, Estrella, the birthday girl. Estrella's friends are in another part of the club. Alfonso dances once with Rafa's little sister, Mariana, but spends most of the evening standing along the wall. Around midnight, Estrella and Rafa go outside to check on one of Estrella's friends, who is fighting with her boyfriend and has run out crying to a phone booth outside the club.

The pair steps out into the cool March night, a quiet contrast to the stuffy club. They pass the police officers patrolling outside, awaiting drunken troublemakers. Estrella and Rafa walk over to join Estrella's friend who sits beneath the fluorescent street lamps.

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?

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.

Estrella Sanchez tries to get Rafa and Omar apart and yells for help. Omar is on his back, bent over the trunk of a red car, with Rafa standing over him. Next thing she notices, Omar has a gun in his hand and Rafa is trying to get the gun away. She sees Omar fire a couple times. Then he lets go of the gun, and it falls onto the trunk of the red car.

Estrella tries to lean over and get the gun. She barely touches the tip of it, but is beaten to it by Alfonso. Alfonso hops on top of the neighboring car, gets the gun and moves to the sidewalk. Estrella looks at Alfonso and sees he is pointing the gun at the ground, which assures her he isn't going to do anything stupid. She looks at him and hears him say, "Que hago?" What do I do? Estrella sees two cops advancing toward Alfonso. She sees the big, white cop fire a couple of times.

"He wasn't going to shoot nobody!" she yells, as Alfonso falls to the ground.

Rafael "Rafa" Espinoza grabs Omar's hand -- the one holding the gun -- with one hand, and his neck with the other. He feels Omar bring the gun up, and strike it against his face. Rafa just barely turns his head out of the way as Omar fires the weapon. Omar strikes Rafa in the head, and Rafa grabs his hand. Rafa manages to shake Omar's grip on the gun loose, and the gun falls onto the hood of a car. The two men struggle between two cars that are parked closely together.

Rafa sees Alfonso slide onto the neighboring car and grab the gun. Rafa keeps Alfonso in his sights, and sees him making an effort to pull the magazine out of the pistol. Alfonso is not aiming the pistol at anyone; it is pointed at the ground. Rafa sees one officer approach. The officer fires several times at Alfonso.

Omar Mendez holds the gun in his right hand and fires into the air once or twice while in the middle of his fight with Rafa. After firing the gun he gets scared and it falls loose from his hand. He isn't sure where it falls, and he doesn't see who picks it up. He continues to fight, and hears a series of gunshots from behind him.

Mariana Espinoza hears a gunshot and sees her older brother Rafa struggling with another man. From where she stands, across the street, she sees Alfonso has picked up the gun. She doesn't see him point the gun at anyone, or even have time to point the gun, before he is shot by a police officer who issues no warning.

Antonio Mendez is trying to separate his brother, Omar, and Rafa when he hears a gunshot, fired by Omar. After the shot is fired, Antonio sees several police officers approaching. He notices a young man about eight feet from him, standing on the sidewalk. Antonio looks at the young man and does not see him pointing a gun at anyone. He sees an officer coming on the sidewalk, pointing a gun at the young man. He doesn't hear the officer say anything, but he sees the officer fire, and he sees the young man fall.

Officer Victor Escoto is near a parked car on Monroe when he hears a gunshot. Three to four cars ahead he sees a subject standing south of the fight, near the sidewalk. He observes a gun being thrown or dropped on the grassy area, and the subject bends down to pick it up. The subject points the gun at the people still fighting. Escoto hears gunfire. Escoto does not see Spalla fire, but assumes the shots came from the sergeant's gun. Escoto does not recall hearing anyone order the subject to drop the gun.

Officer Nick Wubker hears a gunshot fired from a group of people on the south side of Monroe, about five to six car lengths ahead of him. He draws his weapon and ducks down behind a vehicle. Escoto is on his left, also behind the vehicle. Wubker sees one subject separate from the fighters, raise a gun and point it at back at the fighters. He sees Spalla fire three shots. Wubker is 40 to 50 feet away at the time of the shooting.

Officer Benjamin Mayer reaches the southwest corner of 16th and Monroe with Officer Spalla. Mayer hears a gunshot. Mayer continues on the street side of the vehicles, while Spalla goes west on the sidewalk. When Mayer reaches the driver's door of the second parked car, he hears three rapid gunshots. He does not see who shot. He is 30 to 35 feet away. He does not hear any commands, and he does not see anything.

Sergeant Lowell Spalla is 10 to 15 yards from the fight when he hears a shot and sees a muzzle flash. The shot comes from a group of four people fighting.

Spalla looks back to see where the other officers are, and notices they have taken cover behind parked vehicles. Spalla is on the sidewalk on the south side of Monroe. He observes one of the males that had been involved in the fight jump over the hood of one of the cars. Another male involved in the fight then throws a gun to this person.

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.


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.

Even though he picked a fight with his ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend, drew a gun, chambered a round and shot twice, police decided to take Omar's word for it when he said he didn't intend to fire the gun. It didn't matter that Rafa Espinoza says Omar was trying to shoot him in the head, and just barely missed.

Whether or not Omar meant to shoot the gun, or was trying to kill Rafa, Omar did recklessly fire a gun within the city, which could subject him to either a misdemeanor or felony charge. But instead of arresting Omar, police tested Alfonso Celaya's dead hand for powder residue, to determine if maybe he fired the gun. After all, in spite of witness testimony, Omar wasn't their gunman -- Celaya was.

Test results later confirmed Celaya did not fire the gun. A toxicology report also showed he was sober.

Celaya's killing was Spalla's second fatal shooting in the line of duty. The County Attorney's Office has not yet received the results of PPD's internal investigation of the Celaya shooting, but Spalla is back working at Club Orfeón. He cannot comment on his decision to use deadly force that night, as a civil suit is pending.

The family has hired lawyers Joel Robbins and David Don to investigate what happened to Alfonso and to pursue a lawsuit against the police. The police themselves, the family believes, have little interest in finding out what really happened that night.

Police investigators may be able to dismiss the eyewitness testimony of Narvel Murrieta, Estrella Sanchez, Rafael Espinoza, Mariana Espinoza and Antonio Mendez, all of whom agree Alfonso never pointed the gun at them. After all, it was a shadowy street, and civilians aren't trained to look for the details police officers seek when ascertaining a threat.

But Officer Benjamin Mayer is.

Mayer crossed the street with Spalla that night, and according to the police report, was actually closer to Spalla than Officer Wubker was at the time Spalla fired. If Mayer had a better vantage point than the other officer, why did Mayer report that he saw nothing? An officer trained to hone in on danger claims it was too dark to see anything at all. This, in spite of streetlamps on the southwest corner, northwest corner and mid-block of Monroe. If Mayer didn't see anything, how did the other officers so clearly see what they would later describe in their reports? For that matter, how did Spalla see a black handgun flying through the air if the street was as dark as Mayer claims? Mayer would not respond to any of these questions.

There are other troubling aspects of the police story. Spalla says he saw someone throw the gun to Alfonso, that it flew through the air and Alfonso caught it with both hands. Witnesses testify the gun was never thrown at all. But even if it were, why would Omar throw the gun to a person he didn't even know?

And why was the gun found next to Alfonso Celaya's left hand, when he was right-handed?

In the end, if the county attorney and the police use-of-force board find that Sergeant Spalla reasonably believed the shooting was necessary to defend himself or a third person from the use or imminent use of deadly force, then the official version of this shooting will be rubber-stamped.

Spalla says he believed Alfonso Celaya was about to use deadly force. But was that belief reasonable? And if it was, did Spalla have to shoot?

Most police departments follow what's known as a "continuum of force" policy. If a suspect is believed to be a threat, an officer is first supposed to issue a verbal command to drop the gun. A progression of force -- physical contact, pepper spray, use of a baton -- is supposed to be used before the officer actually shoots.

Last year, the Phoenix PD removed that continuum from its policy on the use of force. In the name of allowing officers to make quick decisions in the field, the policy was rewritten to eliminate the stair-step approach to violence, requiring only that officers take action that they consider to be justified. "In a case where a suspect is armed with a weapon, then the officer basically can use almost any means of force necessary to remedy that situation," Sergeant Randy Force says.

So because Alfonso Celaya was holding a weapon, Spalla was not required to order Alfonso to drop the gun. Spalla is not required to explain why he didn't first try to remedy the situation with any less severe, permanent and devastating tactic before killing Alfonso Celaya.

If a suspect has a weapon, the officer need not explain shooting first and asking questions later. That is something Phoenix police officers have done more than 100 times in the past five years.


Lidia Caudillo sits in her daughter Miriam's kitchen and flips through photos of her son Alfonso. She explains that he loved to visit the family ranch in Mexico, and she holds up a picture of Alfonso atop a horse. Tears slide down her cheeks and filter into the tributary laugh lines around her eyes as she smiles back at the photo of her youngest child.

"He was like my husband -- he gave me money, made the car payments," Lidia says. "It's more difficult without him for many reasons. I lost my husband, my child, my friend, my everything. And of all my kids, he was the most caring."

Lidia now has to explain to her young grandchildren why the police killed their uncle. Her grandchildren tell her that if they had been there, they would have killed the police. As children, they have already learned police are the enemy. It's a lesson many of the witnesses also took away from Alfonso Celaya's shooting.

"I'm scared now if a cop stops me on the freeway -- what if I go to get my license and he thinks I have a gun and shoots me?" Estrella Sanchez says.

Rafael Espinoza has learned the same paranoia.

"I'm afraid of the police -- it's the only thing I'm afraid of," Rafa says. "They killed Alfonso como si fuera un perro." Like he was a dog.

Alfonso's sister Miriam has turned to religion for answers to why her favorite brother is gone. "I guess God wanted him," Miriam says. "I want to believe that because I don't want to think the world is cruel."

It may have been God's will, but it was a Phoenix police officer's finger that pulled the trigger of the gun that shot and killed Alfonso Celaya. The family can't understand why the Hispanic community isn't expressing outrage. They think of the recent case in Cincinnati where a cop killed a young black kid, and rioters took to the streets. In Celaya's case, 300 people showed up to the funeral, but only a small fraction of that number went on to the march protesting his death.

The Hispanic community mourned Alfonso Celaya's death very well. But they aren't fighting for the truth about why he was killed.

Had it not been for family friend Jonathan Kraut, the Caudillo-Celaya family themselves might not be fighting for answers. Kraut, a private investigator out of Los Angeles, encouraged the family to hire lawyers to investigate the shooting. Otherwise, they may have believed they were powerless to challenge Alfonso's killing. The family may have accepted Alfonso's fate, continued to fear the police and left it up to God to sort out in the end.

Instead, litigation will sort out the circumstances surrounding Alfonso Celaya's death. Lawyers for the Caudillo-Celaya family plan to file a claim of wrongful death this week. For Miriam Celaya, the result of the lawsuit will be little consolation for the loss of her brother.

Miriam's waist-long, wavy black hair sways side to side as she makes her way through the small Central Phoenix house to her little brother's back bedroom. She cleared his things from his room after he died. The only remnant is the computer she bought for him to use when he went back to college. When she dreams of her brother now, it is always the same.

She pushes through the bedroom door and sees him lying on the bed, eyes closed, a smile gracing his lips.

"We love you," she tells him.

Then Miriam wakes up. And remembers her little brother is buried in Mexico.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
1 comments
Guest
Guest

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

 
Phoenix Concert Tickets

Around The Web

Loading...