Ruben and Concepcion Valencia find that the harder they try to reach for justice, the more elusive it seems.
Not only is their son dead, but a man they say pointed a gun at them not long ago was released by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office. The Valencias think the alleged gun wielder might have played a role in their son's murder and is trying to intimidate them, but a prosecutor decided those suspicions disqualified them as credible witnesses.
"I understand one thing," Ruben Valencia says. "He [the alleged gunman] knows he can get away with it."
A year ago, on a morning after their son didn't come home and didn't phone to say why, the Valencias got the news that Ruben Valencia Jr. had been found shot to death on a dirt road near Laveen, outside Phoenix city limits. Afterward, the proofless word on the street held that Ruben Jr. had been killed because he was a witness to a drive-by in which a 13-year-old boy, Jesse Sotelo, was killed, and that Ruben Jr. had said too much to police about it ("South Side Story," July 14, 1994).
Tommy Cruz, a 20-year-old member of the neighborhood gang, had been arrested after the drive-by and charged with murdering Sotelo. He is awaiting trial.
No one has been arrested in the murder of Ruben Valencia Jr., a 21-year-old grocery clerk and vocational student; sheriff's detectives say there are no new developments in the case.
But the name of Tommy's brother, Eddie, surfaced in the report on the drive-by shooting when a witness to Sotelo's murder told police she was afraid to talk because of Eddie Cruz.
"It should be noted," a detective wrote, "that [the witness] is very scared that Eddie, Tommy's brother, will retaliate against her if she testifies."
However, detectives say they have no reliable information linking Eddie Cruz to Ruben Valencia Jr.'s death, and in the weeks following the murder, the Valencias reported cars passing ominously in front of their home, where they have placed a memorial candle for their murdered son. For a while, there were threatening phone calls. They say their lifestyle has changed; they don't answer the door unless they know who is there, and they don't go out at night. Their daughter dropped out of law school for a semester, and their two surviving sons moved to new neighborhoods.
Then, according to the elder Valencias, came the most recent--and blatant--chapter of harassment. Last December 31, as they raked leaves and played in the front yard with their 3-year-old granddaughter, they say Eddie Cruz slowed his car to a stop in front of their home, aimed a gun at them for a frozen moment and then drove away.
"He just pointed the gun at us," says Ruben Valencia Sr. "I called the police."
According to the report filed by Christopher Luebkin, the Phoenix police detective assigned to the case, ". . . Ruben stated that he believes that Cruz is attempting to intimidate and/or kill him and his family. Ruben stated that he believes this because his son, Ruben Valencia Jr., was murdered approximately 9 months to a year ago, and that he believes that Eddie Cruz was involved with this murder as the main suspect."
Concepcion Valencia echoed those concerns. Detective Luebkin noted, however, that neither could say exactly how Eddie Cruz might have been involved in their son's murder. But the two separately picked Cruz out of photo lineups as the person who pointed a gun at them, and police took Cruz into custody on suspicion of aggravated assault.
During questioning, Luebkin's report says, Cruz gave varying explanations regarding his whereabouts on December 31. He first said he'd been hanging out with friends, then refused to name the friends and said instead that he'd been at home all day.
On January 15, after talking with police and Ruben Valencia Sr., deputy county attorney Leonard Ruiz told police he wasn't going to prosecute. Eddie Cruz was released after spending five days in the county jail.
But Ruiz didn't bother to inform the Valencias of his decision not to prosecute. Finally, Ruben Valencia Sr. called Ruiz to inquire about the case.
"He said that since we have an ax to grind, he was pretty sure the jury would not, you know--they want easy cases, I guess."
The prosecutor says he made that characterization as an example of a possible defense that would be offered, and says the real problem was that there was no corroborating evidence to back up the Valencias' story--no other witnesses, no confession, no bullets, no gun, no reliable description of one, nothing but their account. Two against one would normally be a pretty strong hand--except that "in this type of case, they're almost one," Ruiz says. "They both have the same feelings. They don't like him.
"When they know the alleged suspect and have had problems in the past, juries just don't like that."
Thinking somebody might have played a role in your son's death, yes, that's definitely a problem. And some prosecutors would seize "problems in the past" to establish a motive and build a criminal case; after all, most crime victims "don't like" their assailants, yet they are allowed to testify.
Not the Valencias.
The Valencias can't know for sure whether Eddie Cruz had anything to do with their son's murder. What they say they do know is that he pulled a gun on them and got away with it.
Ruben Valencia Sr. says Ruiz told him that it wasn't that he didn't believe their story. He just didn't think it was a winnable case.
"He said, 'Well, if this happens again, you have to pay attention to what kind of gun it is.' I said, 'Next time, he's gonna shoot me.'"
Eddie Cruz tells New Times he does not know the Valencias and that he never pointed a gun at them.
"They're falsely accusing me of shit I didn't do," he says. "That's why they [authorities] didn't keep me in jail."
Asked why the Valencias would make the accusation, Cruz says he believes they have "personality problems," then angrily adds, "I'm not a bitch. I'm not a woman. I don't talk about things."
Does it seem likely that the Valencias, a middle-aged couple who have already lost a son to gang wars, would fabricate a story to provoke someone whom others have professed to fear? Ruiz, the prosecutor, says he knows nothing about the murder of Ruben Valencia Jr., and didn't feel the details were relevant to this case. But based on what he does know about the Valencias' feelings toward Cruz, and with nothing to corroborate their stories, he figured the jury would be split over the issue.
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"You're always looking for something to put you over that edge," he says. "The bottom line is that in my professional opinion, there was not enough there to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.
"The easier thing to do is to charge it, because then you've delayed the inevitable or you've passed the buck. The harder thing to do is to admit it's just not there."
Detective Luebkin says he felt it was a good case and that he would not have booked Cruz otherwise. He thought the Valencias were credible witnesses; whether they were telling the truth should have been for a jury to decide, he says.
"What is frightening," he says, "is that if it did happen the way they [the Valencias] say it happened, they're now targeted to be victims over and over again.