Friday, February 10, 2012

Shooting: February 11, 2011


For most of the last year I worked as part of Americorps VISTA in El Paso. I was assigned to the Boys & Girls Club in the Montana Vista area. And I had a great experience generally, but one day stands out as a particularly tough one. On February 11, 2011, I witnessed a 19-year-old attack a sheriffs deputy, take his gun and commit suicide.

I arrived to work and greeted my co-worker outside. Normally she would be inside getting everything ready for the kids to start, so this was abnormal. She explained that because one of our members was competing in the West Texas Youth of the Year competition, we were going to close in order to take her to an event in a few hours. I stood out there and helped my co-worker tell kids we would not be opened.

From Google Maps
Two more employees showed up and started hanging out with us. It was right before Valentine's Day and they were showing us the candies they had taken to give out at the school they worked at before coming to the Club. On the map you can see where we were standing, the green box marked "My starting point." As the four of us stood out there in the sun and wind, a normal El Paso day, we were met by three teen members, the girl competing in the competition, my boss' son and his friend.

Outside the chain link fence that separates the Club from the street, three gangster-looking kids were walking past. A sheriffs car pulled up beside them and made them stop. They were right beside the entrance to the Club. After talking to the kids for some time he had them kneel with their hands on the car. One jumped up and started running. However, due to the long fence on one side and the houses on the other, he did not get far. He ran into the yard of a house across the street, behind the house and back onto the street. During this time, the sheriffs deputy kept telling him not to run and that generally tried to calm him down. The deputy chased him at first, but quit soon after when it became apparent the runner would not be getting far. After maybe two minutes, the kid simply returned to the car, got on his knees and put his hands behind his head. At that point I figured that would be the interesting thing that happened all day. It is not often you get to see a guy run from the police. I remember making fun of the guy to my friends. From our distance, it seemed funny to run around and then quit and return passively.

It must have been thirty minutes later, our boss had arrived with another employee, we remain standing outside talking, joking, having a good time. The same kid jumps up and rushes the deputy, who looks caught off guard. We watch, frozen, as the two wrestled. The other two kids who had been pulled over and remain at the car, stay there and plead with their friend to stop. The attacker reaches for the deputy's gun. The deputy has his hand over it. He takes his taser out and slams it into the kid's side two, three times. I would hear later that it broke as he hit his attacker. Still, those are some strong punches to the ribs. In any event, the kid manages to upend the officer and fall with him.

My then-boss is a tough lady. She is from Los Angeles and at one time was the head of security for an L.A. nightclub. Her employee and friend an equally tough lady is also from California. And while both are short, it is not a  stretch to image they could hurt someone if need be.

As we watch the people now on the ground, my boss yells, "Let's go help him!" She starts running along with the other employee. I know I can not allow them to go alone, so I run towards the fight too. I get to the point on the map marked "Ending Point" when the kid emerges from the scrum, gun in hand. All of us running towards them stop. He points the gun at the deputy. The deputy is on his knees. I feel this kid is going to shoot the cop and then me and my boss and coworker. I know it.

Instead, he lifts the gun to his own head and pulls the trigger. He falls to the ground. I was ready to run, but now I relax and just stand there. The deputy stands up and walks around in a circle slowly, his hands on his hips. I look over at the kids who kept their hands on the car and stayed on their knees. They both have lowered their heads and begun to cry. I turn back to where my friends and coworkers stood. One of the girls sobs. There is a look of shock on everyone's face. Next door is a clinic. The workers come out with medical kits and the deputy waves them off. One of them comes back with a blanket to cover the body.

I expected the gun shot to be louder.

I turn to go back and my other two coworkers start crying. The third has lost control and goes to the restroom, overwhelmed. The rest of us go inside and wait. I can hear sirens as the police arrive on the scene. Crime scene tape goes up from the chain link fence to the wall across the street. The entire street is blocked off. Everyone starts calling and texting their loved ones and friends. I contact my friend who works for the local NBC affiliate news. She wants a picture of the scene to use for the web story.

We meet the investigators and they tell us they are questioning people and need us to sit in that room and wait to also be questioned. The reaction to all of this is interesting. The crying has stopped for two co-workers, the other one is freaking out. The teenage boys and I are serious at first and keep trying to make sense of everything. All of us (minus the one co-worker) talk about what we saw and felt. Then, as the day drags on, the boys and I begin making jokes and trying to lighten the mood. We joke about being able to become rappers now.

I get the nerve to go take the picture. Journalism was my major in college, but I have misgivings about taking a photo of a dead person. I decide just to do it and walk outside. On the map you can see where my car is. I start walking across the dirt lot and am stopped by a police officer. He asks where I am going and I say to my car to get my mp3 player. I receive permission and go to my car. I grab my mp3 player and take out my phone. It is not a great phone, much less camera, but it is all I have. The fence is serving as the police tape at that point. I walk up to the fence, point my camera and take two pictures. There is no zoom on my camera and even though I wanted to get closer, I kept my hand inside the fence.

Just then I hear two voices yelling at me. One is the officer who allowed me to go to my car, the other is coming from where the investigators have set up shop on the other side of the fence and down the street a little ways. They surround me and begin yelling at me. The younger one in particular looks like he wanted to tackle me right there. I am told I could go to jail. I say I did nothing wrong. I am told I lied. I say I did not not say I would take a picture. The older officer says he could have me thrown in jail and threatens to take me to his supervisor. I say, "Sure. I know my rights. Let's go." And I brazenly start walking towards where all the investigators are.

I have a degree in journalism; I know what my rights are. I took a law class and an ethics class. I know I did nothing wrong. It is a public place. I stayed behind the police line. I did not interfere in any way with the investigation. I did not even use a flash (I did not have one), nor a zoom. There were no people even near the body at the time. And the body was covered in a blanket too.

The younger officer tells me to give him my phone and I do. He asks, "What am I going to find on here?" I reply, "Two pictures of a blanket and a bunch of my cat." The older officer has calmed down and laughs. The younger one walks off, looking for my pictures. My boss runs over and starts yelling at them. She is often very protective when we deal with outsiders. The older officer and I try to calm her down and she finally goes toward the younger officer to berate him. I speak to the older officer and we come to an understanding. He says they overreacted, but did not want people in the neighborhood coming around shooting pictures and interfering. I say I was not interfering, but I can see how he needs to keep order. He also says that it is hard for them to do their job when the news media puts stories out before all the facts are in. I say nothing because that would just be another argument. I get my phone back and he did not erase the pictures. I am pretty sure he could not figure out how to. I send the picture to my friend. I hope that helps her and the station.

We end up staying there for hours and hours. I allow everyone to go first in their questioning. After I go we are allowed to leave in a caravan. By that time the sun had set and all the news crews were there. I drive to my parents' house to tell them I am okay.

I never watched the news after that night to see the story, nor did I read about it until writing this. The kid's name was Salome Alvarez, a 19-year-old. The strange thing is I kept trying to feel shocked or depressed or somehow affected, but I could not. I tried uncovering something. Perhaps I was traumatized and covering it. I could not. Here is what I feel now after thinking about it for some time:

  1. It is possible that I could have stopped this by either running to help earlier or running faster. I know I am considerably faster than I ran that day. That is always going to be on my mind. I could have stopped this from happening if only I realized the gravity of the situation. No way did I think the deputy would lose control of his gun. Still, I feel like a failure. That will never go away.
  2. Alvarez shot himself because he felt trapped. In a way I contributed to this by rushing him. And I can understand feeling trapped.
  3. People, even bad people who make bad decisions, can do good things. Somehow, Alvarez must have known he had a gun and could have killed all of us and run away. He did not. He chose not to take away the lives of four people. I do not know what he was thinking at that moment, it was not even ten seconds. But he made a decision to not kill me. And I am thankful for whatever made him make that decision.
  4. Seeing someone die is terrible. I can imagine when he was born his parents thought he would go on to do great things. And he dies at 19. I can not imagine the pain that caused. But he could have inflicted that pain upon the loved ones of multiple people and did not. I hope his mother can take solice in that as a positive thing. In the end he did not make a selfish choice. But I wish we could have had the time to talk him down. Everything happened too fast.
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