Longform

Mrs. Phelps' Kids

Page 5 of 6

"I had bumped into Jaime a few months before, and he was the same as always to me--polite and warm," she says.

"I knew he'd gotten kicked out of Hamilton, and everyone said he was in a gang. They talk themselves into thinking the gang is all that loves them, when the gang would turn on them in a minute. But I don't preach, don't lecture. They're not gonna listen to preaching anyway. I just treated him with respect, like he always treated me."

She'd always had a fondness for the boy, touched by his introverted nature and his facility for drawing. In turn, Jaime once wrote a poem for Mrs. Phelps. He called it Club House:

I had a big tree/I made a club house/That was my favorite tree/It gave me fruit/Sometimes I share my water/Sometimes I climb its trunk/It looks like a family tree.

Mrs. Phelps had known that the odds against Jaime staying out of trouble were long. He was reared in the Coffelt, a project that houses about 1,500 people in one-story brick duplexes.

Only one street goes into and out of the beat-up old project.
"It's hard for a lot of people to go out and stay out," Maria Peralta notes wryly.

Jaime's mother, Ramona Peralta, is a Mexican native who migrated to Phoenix with her first husband when Maria was about 3. Neither that union nor a subsequent marriage, to a man who fathered Ramona's two youngest children, survived.

Clearly, her children are her life. But Ramona seems a bit befuddled that her two oldest sons are behind bars. (Lorenzo Peralta, now 26, is doing a long stretch at Arizona State Prison.)

Most of her days are a whirlwind: Ramona cleans offices at a building near Sky Harbor International Airport. She looks after daughter Maria's two youngsters for a few hours. She visits her imprisoned sons in Florence and Phoenix.

Smiling photos of her children and grandchildren dominate the decor at her residence in the Coffelt. Atop a microwave in the kitchen, Ramona has lighted three thick candles. A wallet-size baby picture of Jaime leans against one of the candles.

"It's for prayers," she explains in Spanish.
Maria Peralta expresses apprehension that her youngest sibling, 13-year-old Eddie Bustamante, may succumb to the same fate of his older brothers.

"I've told him a lot because I've experienced a lot," says Maria, a determined and gracious young woman, "but some kids don't think anyone else knows nothing. I tell him to stay cool, that shootings happen and people die. I just don't want the people I love to be into that stuff anymore."

Maria has relived the night of the Taco Bell murder in her mind untold times. Though she has her own apartment outside the Coffelt, Maria was staying that evening at her mom's. She recalls that Jaime was arguing with their mother.

"Mom was on him for drinking and for hanging with some bad people," Maria says. "She told him he was going to go to jail if it kept going that way. It got pretty bad."

She claims she'd told Chino Contreras days earlier to stay away from Jaime. But the boy apparently sneaked out that night with Chino after Maria and her mother went to sleep. (Contreras has been accused in four murders and an assortment of other serious crimes.)

A Phoenix police detective called the Peraltas just before dawn: Jaime had been detained on suspicion of murder.

Though she's still protective and caring toward Jaime, Maria also is realistic.

"I'm sad for what happened to the other boy, and I'm sad that my brother was involved in some way," she says. "It's all sad. I got my own kids now, and I want them to be respectful and to be good. I don't want my daughter to get pregnant at 14 or my son to be [gang] banging. I'm going to do my best."

This is what she faces: Two of her three brothers are behind bars for violent crimes, as is the father of her two young children. Her father and stepfather aren't part of her life. She dropped out of school at 16.

But Maria Peralta is attending school, and says she's about amonth from earning a GED degree. After that, she's hoping toget work somewhere as a nurse's aide.

"That girl doesn't want to be a nobody," says Mrs. Phelps, who has known and respected Maria for years. "Look at what she's gone through, surrounded by bad things for her whole life. But she's honest and is trying her hardest to do something good."

She pauses, as a stray thought momentarily grabs her attention.
"It just struck me," Mrs. Phelps explains, "that's what I always told my kids. 'Try your hardest and do something good.' Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin