‘Don’t ever think it can’t happen to you’: Families of gun violence victims share their stories | Local News
For the families of those killed by gun violence, the memories never leave. But the only thing worse than the longing is the knowledge that a future can never be realized.
Parents and loved ones of the state’s gun violence victims talked to The New Mexican about an all-too-common reality they say is beyond devastating.
Alicia Otero fell to her knees and let out a scream that all of Albuquerque must have heard.
It was an outburst of anguish, loss, sorrow. Her son, 24-year-old Elias Otero, had just been killed on the street, a victim of gunshot wounds outside his home.
“I watched my son die in front of me — I watched it,” said Otero, a retired postal worker and one of the co-founders of the New Mexico Crusaders for Justice, an advocacy group that helps those who have lost loved ones to gun violence.
“I will never get over it,” she said.
Her son, a former corrections officer who had recently begun working for the U.S. Postal Service, had come to the aid of his brother, who had been kidnapped by a band of youths intent on robbery, blackmail and, as it turned out, killing on that February night in 2021.
“He wasn’t really a people person,” Otero said of Elias. “He kept to himself. He worked a lot. We hung out as a family the vast majority of the time.”
There was no checklist handy to tell Alicia and her husband Luiz Otero what to do as they grieved and cried on the street. Emergency response personnel on the scene said they could not touch their son’s body because it was a crime scene.
“I sat there and waited on the street, and I had no idea what I was waiting for,” she recalled. “There was nobody to guide me, nobody to tell me, ‘You know what, you can go, there’s nothing you can do.’ ”
The wrenching experience led Otero to co-found the Crusaders group, which now has more than 800 members statewide — all of them people who have lost someone to gun violence. She said the group is not out to initiate legislation to take people’s guns away.
“It’s not the guns who are killing people; it’s the people who are pulling the trigger who are killing people,” she said.
Noting some of those involved in her son’s death were under 18, she is pushing for harsher penalties for juveniles who kill as well as funding for victims’ advocates around the state. Ideally, those advocates would be available 24/7 and show up at violent crime scenes to provide comfort and guidance — something she is willing to do now as a volunteer.
She said she is fed up with empty promises from lawmakers who say they will do something to ensure someone else doesn’t have to stand in the street in the middle of the night and watch their son die.
“It’s all show,” she said. “They come and tell us what we want to hear, and then they forget about us.”
The crusaders, she said, support one another with constant talks, texts and hugs. They live and thus understand the tragic common bond that unites them: the bloody, bullet-driven death of a loved one.
Well aware of the crime and violence issues darkening Albuquerque, she nonetheless believed for a long time something like this would never happen to her family. She knows better now.
“Don’t ever think it can’t happen to you,” she cautioned.
Josette Otero stands in her Albuquerque home. Her son, Kyle Martinez, was killed at age 15 in a road rage incident.
There are not enough tissues in the world to wipe away the tears — as Josette Otero discovered as she recounted the details of her son Kyle’s death on an Albuquerque street in April 2020.
The victim of a seemingly random vehicular shooting, 15-year-old Kyle Martinez harbored dreams of opening his own auto mechanic shop, Josette said. He was a jokester, an upbeat kid, a “very old soul” in a very young body who loved cars and life.
Her son’s suspected killer is finally going be tried next spring, she said — about three years after she got the phone call from her son’s friend that told her he and Kyle had been shot while driving in Albuquerque.
When she got to the hospital, a doctor came out to ask if she was his mother and say, “I’m sorry.”
“Thank you,” she said, misunderstanding his meaning. “But how is my son?”
“He didn’t make it,” the doctor said.
She screamed, yelled, begged to see Kyle. “I stayed with him for an hour,” she said.
“I was numb for days, for weeks, for months, just waiting for him to come through the door. … It was like he had just gone on vacation somewhere,” she said, recalling the aftermath.
Gun violence has permeated her life. Her father was shot in Albuquerque in the late 1960s and her nephew — Elias Otero, son of Luiz and Alicia Otero — was shot and killed in February 2021. In addition, her cousin Nelson Gallegos was shot and killed in Albuquerque on Oct. 6, 2021 — his birthday.
With each new report of another act of gun violence, she is reminded of Kyle and the way he died. Though she ages, he will be forever 15 in her mind and heart.
Being part of Crusaders for Justice gives her a focus, she said. And somehow, despite all the death around her, she keeps her son’s dream alive.
“I want to open an auto shop with my nephew in Kyle’s name,” she said.
Crystal Baca cuddles her 6-year-old son, Joseph Nash, who was 4 when his grandfather, Ruben Baca, was gunned down during a dispute with a neighbor at age 63.
Crystal Baca was scrolling though some of her favorite social media sites in January 2020 when she saw a headline about a man and his dog being shot to death. Despairing of such regular news in Albuquerque, she chose not to read the story.
Later, she discovered the man was her father, 63-year-old Ruben Baca, and the dog, Bandit, his beloved companion. A neighbor who had previous disputes with Baca killed them and then himself.
“Someone took his life for no reason,” she said of her dad.
Men with guns also threatened her 6-year-old son when he joined his father to go to a dinner party in Albuquerque. The two gunmen were apparently looking to settle a dispute with someone in the neighborhood and accosted the duo.
“So not only does my son have to deal with the trauma of my dad being murdered, he also has to have the trauma of knowing that he could just be walking outside, somebody pulls a gun and threatens his life,” she said.
She has little sympathy for those who pull the trigger and take a life and does not understand how those accused of such crimes could be let out of prison early or as they await trial.
“If someone is charged with murder, why do they get the option to get out of jail?” she asked. “That’s the ultimate crime, right? It’s not as if they stole something from Home Depot. They took a life.”
She wants harsher penalties for juveniles who commit gun violence and changes to the state’s bail system. She also wants prison programs in place to help those behind bars learn a trade so that if they are released, they have a chance to be rehabilitated and contribute to society.
How best to get more people involved in making change? The answer is simple, Baca said.
“Front page of the newspaper — the daily homicide rates in New Mexico,” she said. “It will go up every day. Put it in their face. I don’t know how else to make these people see. When COVID was going on, those [case] numbers were in our face to make people care. Why can’t homicide be in people’s faces like that?”
Sally Sanchez, a co-founder of New Mexico Crusaders for Justice, cries while speaking about her late son, Antonio Jaramillo, surrounded by the many items she has around her room in memory of him. Jaramillo was shot and killed at age 32.
What can you possibly give to someone when their deepest wish is to see a loved one again?
How do you shop for presents when the person you’re shopping for will only ever want one thing?
New Mexico Crusaders for Justice co-founder Sally Sanchez’s son, Antonio Jaramillo, was kidnapped and shot to death in his home Dec. 16, 2020.
She will never get to see her son get married. They will never be able to dance together during his wedding reception. She said she will never be whole again.
Her loss pushed her to help co-found the group, which has banded together grieving families to provide help for those with nowhere left to turn.
And it’s also led her to turn to an unusual source of comfort.
Fellow Crusaders member Josette Otero gave Sanchez a touching, if somewhat imperfect, birthday gift in 2021: A stuffed “Tony Bear” in honor of Antonio Jaramillo.
“I thought Sally needed one,” Otero said. “I don’t even take mine around the way she takes hers. Hers goes everywhere. He has the biggest wardrobe a bear could ever possibly have.”
It’s true. Sanchez says she takes Tony Bear everywhere. He goes with her to work, on shopping errands, even to the laundromat. Inside the toy, there’s a mechanism that imitates a beating heart.
It was through Tony Bear, on Aug. 20, that Sanchez could see her son get married and have that dance she always dreamed of. After being given a bear to be his bride, Tony Bear’s family rented out a wedding hall, got a wedding cake and hosted a full wedding reception.
No expense was spared: party favors, rings, a red table — Jaramillo’s favorite color — for the bride and groom to sit at. There was a miniature red car adorned with a “Just Married” sign on the back.
And Sanchez got her dance. Tony Bear and his mother celebrated the occasion by swaying to Brooks & Dunn’s “Neon Moon” — Jaramillo’s favorite song.
“I got my dance with him,” Sanchez said. “I can create some memories, even if it’s with my bear. Because he knows that that bear is him.”
Artist Ryan Saavedra works on a painting during a New Mexico Crusaders for Justice meeting earlier this month in Albuquerque. He was wearing an image of his late son, Ryan Saavedra Jr., who was fatally shot last year.
Ryan and Danielle Saavedra
Ryan Saavedra Sr. bought a ruby red 1966 Chevrolet C10 on Craigslist to give to his son, Ryan Jr. He picked it up in San Francisco, fixed it up and was looking forward to presenting it as a graduation gift.
“I told him, ‘Bring me the diploma, and I’ll trade you for the title,’ ” Saavedra Sr. recalled. “He had two weeks to graduate, so he was motivated to get this truck.”
Ryan Saavedra Jr. never graduated from high school.
He was shot and killed April 21, 2021, at an Albuquerque park.
“God takes the best,” his mother Danielle Saavedra said.
At a Crusaders’ meeting earlier this month, Ryan Jr.’s parents described their son as a vibrant 18-year-old who loved life. His mother recalled his prowess when it came to managing stocks, how he cared for his beloved dog Nipsey — named after late artist Nipsey Hussle — and the way he gave back to others less fortunate.
Ryan Sr. and Danielle also remember their son’s love for the finer things. Versace, Gucci and Air Jordan were brands Ryan Jr. enjoyed. His good taste extended into the kitchen, where he would sometimes text his mom what to cook and how to cook it.
“We’re the only ones in the neighborhood that would be eating lobster tail and steak on a Tuesday,” Ryan Saavedra Sr. said.
When asked if it gets easier coping with the loss of a loved one to gun violence, Danielle and Ryan Saavedra Sr. said it only gets worse.
“You see other kids, and they resemble your [child], and you’re like ‘Is that him?’ ” said Danielle Saavedra. “No, [he] just has his hair.”
When Melissa Hernandez talks about her nephew Joshua Vigil, she can’t help but mention him along with his twin brother, Antonio.
“I try not to call Antonio by ‘twin’ anymore because I don’t want to hurt his feelings,” Hernandez said. “But it’s hard. … It’s hard to think of one without the other.”
Joshua Vigil was fatally shot by a schoolmate during a New Year’s Eve party.
Hernandez said she and her siblings each raised their kids with one another always being present. She added she was the one to push Joshua and Antonio to do their schoolwork, as a parent would. Joshua’s death has hit her in ways she couldn’t have expected.
“Sometimes I do feel crazy,” Hernandez said of the emotions. “I go from happy to sad to crying to focused … to crying again. I’ve never been a crier.”
In what she described as the longest 10 months of her life, Hernandez has thrown herself into the role of the family’s spokeswoman when it comes to the New Year’s Eve shooting and the impending trial against the teenager accused of killing Joshua Vigil.
She started a fundraiser on Facebook to place a billboard on Interstate 25 with Joshua’s photo on it and the words, “VICTIMS OF GUN VIOLENCE DESERVE JUSTICE.” She talks to the media. She noted her efforts have resulted in Facebook threats being levied her way and fear that her expressing grief over the loss of a loved one will hurt judicial proceedings.
“I want to get my emotions out, and so that way they don’t stay bottled up, but it’s always so scary,” Hernandez said. “I don’t do what I do because I want to hurt anybody. … It really is an issue that people don’t pay attention to until it happens to [them].”
When remembering her nephew, Hernandez described him as “so childlike” but also incredibly mature. A conversation Joshua once had with a U.S. Marine Corps recruiter paints a perfect picture.
Hernandez said the twins’ older brother is a drill instructor with the Marine Corps, which made Joshua think about enlisting. He went so far as to talk to a recruiter but made sure to mention he had a “little problem.”
“The recruiter told him ‘Well, what’s your problem?’ ” Hernandez said. “Josh said … ‘Well, because I’m chubby.’ The recruiter said ‘We can work on that.’ “
After Joshua’s death, Hernandez said she realized the twins had never ordered their caps and gowns at West Las Vegas High School. She said she couldn’t bring herself to order just one set.
Antonio Vigil sat near an empty chair during his graduation. In it was a picture of Joshua Vigil, along with his cap and gown.