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Drive-by victim Karina Vargas is talking the walk

Drive-by victim Karina Vargas is talking the walk
Anthony Camera

From where Karina Sartiaguin Vargas is sitting, at a scenic overlook near the entrance of the expansive Bluff Lake Nature Center in northeast Denver, she can see the dirt path that she used to run every night before dinner. It's a warm day in November, and the nineteen-year-old is wearing a green skirt that stops above her knees, a yellow tank top, a fitted hoodie and sparkly black flats with no socks. Her long, dark hair is piled on top of her head in a tight bun, hiding the bleached streaks that match the stripe she dyed in her brother Danny's hair the day before. The sky is a nearly cloudless blue, and even though much of the vegetation is brown, the view is impressive.

See also: Karina Vargas: How to donate to a fund set up for teenager paralyzed in drive-by shooting

Karina points her cell phone west at the peaks of the far-off mountains and takes a photo. Danny, who's just a year older, does the same. In the opposite direction, the siblings can see the top of the University of Colorado Hospital out in Aurora, where Karina and her family were told that she'd probably never run again.

Neither of them takes a photo of that.

In December 2010, Karina was shot outside Aurora Central High School. The bullet wasn't intended for her, but it hit her anyway, lodging in her back near her spinal cord and robbing her of the ability to walk. Because Karina was an undocumented immigrant, having crossed the border with her family when she was a baby, she had trouble getting medical care beyond what was necessary to save her life.

Charity programs have since helped fill in the gaps, but what Karina needs most is ongoing home health care and physical therapy, both of which are easier to come by if you're a U.S. citizen. Because she was the victim of an attempted murder, Karina was able to qualify for a special visa, called a U visa, that allows her to live in the United States. But the visa is temporary, and she's now working toward becoming a legal permanent resident, a status that may increase her access to health benefits. She hopes.

She is convinced that with the right treatment, she'll be able to walk again.

As Danny pushes Karina's wheelchair toward the nature center parking lot, a woman in turquoise running shorts and neon-pink sneakers huffs past them, her eyes focused on the path. "There would be Karina, running right next to her," Danny says.

"Yeah," Karina says in that teenage way that often means yeah, right. But when she says it, she smiles, and the dimples in her cheeks deepen. Even though she's struggled to complete high school since the shooting, even though most of her friends have moved on, and even though she sometimes gets depressed about her situation, Karina rarely shows it. She keeps her battle scars hidden and her chin up. The face she shows to the outside world is one of a courageous, beautiful, self-assured young woman.

"My life has changed," she often says, the tone of her voice more matter-of-fact than pity-me. "But you have to make the best of it, because you're still alive."

**********

Karina's family is from the small Mexican state of Nayarit, a coastal area in the western part of the country, just north of Puerto Vallarta. Her father, Benito, first came to the United States in 1981 in search of a job. Her mother, Mina, followed fourteen years later with the couple's three children: nine-year-old Maria, two-year-old Danny, and Karina, who was just shy of a year old. They would have another daughter, Eli, in the U.S.

Mina says she brought the children here to learn English. Nayarit is a tourist destination, and it's easier to get a job in the resorts if you speak English, she explains. Her plan was to stay just long enough for the kids to pick up the language and then return to Mexico, as her husband often did. But once the children started school, Mina decided that it'd be unfair to take them away from the educational opportunities they were getting in the U.S. With that decision, Karina's family joined the 11 million undocumented immigrants estimated to be living in the United States today.

Her father, however, was not undocumented. In 1986, he was among the nearly three million immigrants granted temporary legal status thanks to a bill passed by President Ronald Reagan and Congress that aimed to stop illegal immigration. Later, Karina's father got his green card, which granted him permanent residency but not citizenship. His residency didn't immediately extend to his family, however, and cases such as theirs can take decades to resolve. At the time Karina was shot, their case was still pending.

 

As an undocumented kid, Karina grew up in the shadows. But she doesn't remember it being much of a problem. Her family owned their home, a small ranch house in north Aurora whose walls are decorated with family photos and religious paintings. At school, nobody made a big deal out of the fact that she didn't have papers.

"It wasn't a problem until I got shot," she says.

Karina remembers nearly everything about the shooting. It happened on December 6, 2010, a few months into her junior year at Aurora Central. Her last class that day, geometry, ended at 1:35 p.m., and she headed outside to meet up with some friends. She had just gotten an Australian shepherd puppy named Barbie, and she briefly went home to get her so she could show her off. The dog was so small that it fit in the front pocket of her sweater.

Karina was standing with her friends on a side street near the school and playing with the puppy when a passing black car made a sudden U-turn and headed straight toward the group. Karina and her friends scattered, and the next thing she saw through her peripheral vision was a guy sticking his head out the back-seat window. He fired a single shot. "I just remember hearing the gunshot, and I blacked out," she says.

She woke up on the ground, her ears ringing, unable to move her head. Still, she could see her friends running around, and she heard one of them scream her name. In her front pocket, she could feel her puppy shaking with fear. She could also feel that there was something wrong with her legs. "I felt like my legs were straight up, but when I looked down, they were flat on the floor," she says. "I already knew that something was wrong."

Afraid that the black car would circle back at any moment, two of Karina's friends dragged her behind a bush on a nearby front lawn. Karina wasn't visibly bleeding, and she wasn't in pain. Instead, she felt a deep aching. When one of her friends tried to help her stand up, she collapsed, as if her legs were made of cooked spaghetti.

"He was telling me, he was like, 'Quit playing! Quit playing! Just get up! Just get up!'" she says. "And I was like, 'I can't!' So he picked me up and threw me over his shoulder."

Her friend carried her to his brother's car, and his brother sped to University Hospital. The ride was short, but it felt like forever to Karina, who would lose consciousness only to regain it whenever the car stopped at a red light. Her friends hadn't yet realized that she'd been shot, because there was no blood. But Karina knew, and she was worried she was going to die. When her friend asked if she was going to be all right, Karina told him of her fear in a raspy, breathless voice caused by the blood that was flooding her lungs.

"He's like, 'Don't say that! You're not!'" she remembers.

When they arrived at the hospital, the paramedics tried to sit Karina in a wheelchair, but she fell out, scraping her back as she slid to the ground. The next thing she recalls is waking up to the blurred sight of the lights on the ceiling and the sensation of her clothes being cut off by the doctors. The doctors couldn't find any wounds, and they kept asking her where it hurt. My stomach, she told them. My stomach and my back.

"Then they turned me," she says, "and then they saw the hole."

Before Karina passed out for good, she remembers, the doctors cut into her side without anesthesia in a rush to insert a tube into her lungs to drain the blood. "I was cussing them out because it hurt so bad."

Karina came to in a hospital room, with braces around her neck and chest, an oxygen tube in her nose, and several IVs in her arms. After a little while, the doctors wheeled in a portable X-ray viewer and explained the extent of her injuries. "They told me that I wasn't going to be able to walk," Karina recalls, "and I remember that I spaced out. And then I just started crying. I was just in shock. I didn't say anything. And then my mom told me, she was like, 'The doctors say one thing, but God has the last word in everything.'

"She told me that I was going to walk again."

**********

It didn't take long for the TV news cameras to descend on Karina, the innocent sixteen-year-old girl who'd been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

News footage shows a pretty teenager in an oversized sweatshirt, her hair in a messy ponytail, sitting on top of the SpongeBob SquarePants blanket that covers her bed. Next to her is a pile of stuffed animals and a cardboard donation box covered in pink paper. "I got shot and got paralyzed from my belly button down," she tells the camera. Friends and family members huddle around her bed, just as they had when she was in the hospital.

 

After two weeks at University, Karina was transferred to Craig Hospital in Englewood, which specializes in rehabilitation for people with spinal-cord injuries. She still had the bullet in her back; because she didn't have insurance, she and her family say, the University doctors couldn't do much beyond what was medically necessary to save her life, and that didn't include removing the tiny wad of metal that left her paralyzed.

Her lack of insurance would have prevented her from going to Craig, too, if it hadn't been for a charity program that covered the cost of a month and a half there. At Craig, the therapists focused on the basics, teaching Karina how to dress herself, how to use the bathroom and how to move from a wheelchair to a bed. But they didn't have time to work on what Karina really wanted — learning to walk again — and besides, she wasn't the best patient.

"I was young and I was kind of snotty," she recalls, "and I think they would get frustrated with me. But what could I do? I couldn't control the way that I felt, because it was so fresh."

By the end of her stay, Karina was eager to leave. But when she got home, she realized there wasn't much for her to do. She didn't want to return to Central, and she didn't have the strength or the motivation to take classes online. The friends who'd swarmed around her all but disappeared. "I really didn't do anything," Karina says. "I'd honestly just be here at my house, and my mom would do her personal therapies on me."

Her mother, Mina, had experience recovering from a devastating injury: When she was a young woman in Mexico, she was hit by a truck that pinned her between its bumper and a wall. She broke both of her hips and couldn't walk for four months. "I always had in my mind, 'I'm going to walk, I'm going to walk. I'm the one that controls my body,'" Mina says in Spanish, pausing so her children can translate her words into English.

But for Karina, it was different. As the months passed, she didn't get better. She did, however, begin to change. Before the shooting, she was a tough kid who sometimes skipped school, who ran along the dirt paths of the Bluff Lake Nature Center for hours every day and who loved to fight so much that her friends nicknamed her Mike Tyson. She was a typical crazy teenager, she says, intensely focused on herself and the little dramas that made up her life. Now, she says, she takes the time to notice and appreciate the things she admires about other people. The teenage spitfire she once was has given way to a calm and introspective young woman who doesn't take things for granted. After the shooting, Karina began volunteering with an organization that advocates for undocumented immigrants. She also began speaking out about gun violence.

"She did a 180-degree turn," her mother says.

However, one thing that hasn't changed is how Karina feels about the man who shot her. She isn't mad at him, she says, and she never has been.

"Why am I going to be mad at something I can't change? I feel that for the most part, it's on me, that I need to make myself better. I mean, I could blame him, but I choose not to, because I don't plan on being here for the rest of my life. I don't plan on being in a wheelchair; I don't see it. I try to picture it, and it's like, hmmm, I can't."

A chiropractor who examined her told her that the bullet didn't, in fact, sever her spinal cord, she says. The X-rays, he told her, showed that the bullet was resting right next to it, and he said that her paralysis was likely caused by nerve damage from when the bullet ripped through her back. With therapy, he told her, she might recover.

But with no insurance and her father's modest construction wages as the family's main source of income, Karina doesn't have any way to pay for professional therapy. Barely sixteen when she was shot, she's never held a paying job (though she's eager to work now). She also has yet to graduate from high school. Last year, she attempted to attend an alternative school program in which students earn credits online. But she says she wasn't in the right frame of mind to do the work, and after a few months, she stopped going. Her emotions, she explains, can get overwhelming.

 

"This song reminds me of myself," she says one afternoon as she and Danny are hanging out in the family's living room, watching YouTube videos on the television that's mounted to the wall. The song is "Too Much," a sad, soulful slow jam by the rap artist Drake. There are a few lines in particular that hit home, Karina says. When Drake raps, "Hate the fact that my mom cooped up in her apartment, telling herself/That she's too sick to get dressed up and go do shit, like that's true shit," he could be talking about her.

**********

But others don't see Karina that way. Especially not Amy Ferrin and Andrew Lower, the Arapahoe County district attorneys who prosecuted the man who shot her.

"She was so strong of character in light of what happened to her," Ferrin says. "She remembers falling to the ground on the last day she was able to walk, and yet she comes in to the room and is bright and is smiling and is happy and is so composed and isn't angry, isn't vengeful. She had no sense of, 'I'm out to get this guy; let's get him.' That's not what she wanted. She wanted justice, and she wanted the person who did this to her to be held accountable."

Two days after the shooting, police arrested a nineteen-year-old reputed gang member named Luis Guzman-Rincon. More than a year and a half later, in August 2012, he stood trial for attempted murder in Arapahoe County District Court.

Several of the people who'd been standing on the street with Karina that day testified. Two of them said they recognized Guzman-Rincon from middle school, and they identified him as the guy who'd stuck his head out the back window of the black car and pulled the trigger. Prosecutors said Guzman-Rincon had a beef with a rival gang, and when he and his buddies came across two kids who were associated with that gang, they went after them. Those two kids were acquaintances of Karina's, and they'd approached her group minutes before the shooting, looking for backup against some guys in a black car who were following them.

Karina also testified at the trial, telling the story from beginning to end. The only time she choked up was when she talked about how her friends helped her. "They tried to move me out of the street, because somehow, I ended up almost towards the middle of the street," she told the jury. "And then Fernando and Jorge tried to pick me up but they couldn't. So they grabbed me from my legs and hands and dragged me behind a bush."

From the beginning, Guzman-Rincon claimed he was innocent. But after five days of testimony, the jury found him guilty. The judge sentenced him to 35 years in prison, after which he will likely be deported, because he is also an undocumented immigrant.

Karina's testimony was invaluable, the prosecutors say. "She was an utterly innocent victim," says Lower, who now works as a district attorney in El Paso County.

Ferrin, who is still in Arapahoe County, agrees. "She didn't bring it upon herself, she wasn't hanging out with bad kids, she wasn't running with the wrong crowd," she says. "She was showing some friends a puppy in a place that was absolutely normal."

**********

The prosecutors knew Karina was undocumented, and Lower, the lead attorney on the case, decided she was the perfect candidate for a U visa, which gives victims of certain crimes temporary legal status and the eligibility to work in the United States for up to four years. U visas are somewhat rare; only 10,000 are granted nationwide each year. Immigrants must meet several qualifications to get one. They must be law-abiding and they must have suffered mental or physical abuse or injuries as a result of the crime. But first and foremost, an immigrant must have certification from a law enforcement official stating that he or she is in fact the victim of a crime and that he or she has cooperated with the investigation of that crime.

In fifteen years as a prosecutor, Lower has only vouched for one or two other victims. In Karina's case, he went even further by connecting her with immigration attorney Joy Athanasiou, who agreed to work with Karina and her family pro bono.

Karina's case "is heartbreaking," Athanasiou says. "Karina has grown up in the United States; her family owns a home; they work hard; they pay taxes just like everyone else. But because she wasn't lucky enough to have been born here, she is deprived of all of this vital, vital medical care that she should be getting. If it had been the kid next to her that was shot that day in front of the high school, the U.S. citizen kid next to her, that U.S. citizen kid would be entitled to so much more medical care and would be able to benefit from so much more treatment and therapy and progress."

 

In February 2012, Athanasiou filed Karina's application for a U visa. She also helped Karina's father change his status from legal permanent resident to U.S. citizen. That move, which took effect in October 2012, opened the door for Karina, as his child, to file to become a permanent resident more quickly than if her father was not a citizen. As a resident, Karina could get a Social Security number, work permission, a driver's license and possibly even Medicaid, the federal health-insurance program for low-income families and people with disabilities. Undocumented immigrants aren't eligible, and most permanent residents aren't eligible, either, Athanasiou says. But some are, if they've been in the U.S. long enough or meet other requirements.

But because Karina entered the country illegally, she would have had to leave the country and apply for her permanent residency at a U.S. consulate in Mexico. And since she's been in the United States unlawfully for more than a year, that application would probably have been rejected. So Athanasiou filed a petition asking that the teenager be granted an exceptionally rare permission known as "parole in place."

Parole in place grants immigrants who entered the country illegally the equivalent of a lawful entry. In other words, it allows them to be treated as if they had entered legally. It's most often extended to the undocumented spouses of military members, but it can also be used for "urgent humanitarian reasons." Athanasiou thought Karina might qualify. In her application, the lawyer cited the severity of the crime that left Karina paralyzed and the fact that Karina was brave enough to testify against the shooter, who had gang ties.

The local U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Centennial granted Karina's request for parole in place. This past May, her U visa was also granted. (The U visa extends to Karina's mother, since Karina was a minor at the time of the crime.) And on October 30, Karina went to the Centennial office for an in-person interview related to her application to become a lawful permanent resident. The interview was relatively quick and easy, according to Karina and her lawyer, and Karina is now waiting for an answer.

**********

Karina hopes that permanent residency will take her one step closer to better health care — and one step closer to her goal of walking again. In the meantime, she's been able to patch together a handful of services with the help of people who, like the attorneys who prosecuted her shooter, heard her story and were inspired to help her.

One of those people is Nereyda Davila-Amaya, Athanasiou's paralegal. "When we first met her, she was very depressed," Davila-Amaya says of Karina. "She didn't really do her hair or her makeup. She would come here and just kind of lay on the table, like, put her head down." Much of the talking, Davila-Amaya says, fell to Karina's brother, Danny, who was her confidant long before she was shot and who became a sort of protector and communicator for her afterward.

"One day after talking to them, we were both just about to cry, just feeling like nobody was helping them," Athanasiou says. So they decided to organize a fundraiser to help pay for Karina's treatments, additional modifications to the family's home, and a wheelchair-accessible vehicle. The event, held in late September at the upscale Edge Bar inside the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Denver, ended up raising about $5,600 in cash and netting several offers from builders to make house modifications.

From the time they met her to the time of the fundraiser, Athanasiou and Davila-Amaya say, they saw Karina improve. One day, after not seeing her for a few months, they were surprised when she showed up at the office with her hair done and her makeup flawless. She was smiling. She was ready to speak for herself.

"Ever since that day, she's been the one that we communicate with," Davila-Amaya says.

Although Karina struggles to pinpoint exactly what caused her to change, she can identify the things that helped, including getting involved with the local advocacy organization Together Colorado. In August 2012, an acquaintance connected her with Rich McLean, a retired military-finance expert who works on health-care issues with Together Colorado. It was a few weeks after the Aurora theater shooting that left twelve people dead and dozens more injured, and McLean remembers that Karina called him out of the blue and introduced herself as the victim of a different shooting.

 

"She talked about how after the initial sensationalism of her incident died down, she couldn't get any help," McLean says. "That was quite a contrast to what happened after the July [theater] shootings, in which anyone who was touched got help. That aggravated that sense of hurt and pain that she had. She felt left out."

Karina explained that while she's been able to get some primary care through the Children's Hospital Colorado Charity Program, the co-pay for each doctor visit is $50, which often leaves her family with little money to pay for prescriptions and medical supplies. Plus, she hasn't had any luck in accessing rehabilitative programs or physical therapy, which she believes are necessary if she's going to leave her wheelchair behind.

After meeting her, McLean offered to help. But he admits that he hit some walls. "We were not terribly successful in getting her the help that she needed," he says.

But he was successful in getting her out of the house. Together Colorado does a lot of advocacy for the undocumented community, and McLean asked Karina if she'd like to volunteer to help young immigrants fill out applications for an Obama initiative known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA, as it's called, is a form of relief offered to undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children; it doesn't grant them legal status, but it gives them permission to live and work without the fear of being deported.

"I was like, 'Well, I mean, I don't do anything, so, yeah, definitely!'" Karina recalls.

Karina enjoyed volunteering, and through the work, she met Will Dickerson, a dynamic young staff member at Together Colorado. In the wake of the shootings in Aurora and in the midst of this year's contentious debate in the state legislature over stricter gun-control laws, Dickerson and others were organizing a campaign against gun violence. They were looking for people who had experienced gun violence firsthand to speak publicly about it, and Dickerson asked Karina if she'd be willing to do it. She said she would.

Since then, he says, he's seen her confidence grow. "Her voice, in terms of speaking in public, has grown more secure," he says. "She's bold. It used to be that she was so nervous, and now I'll ask and she's like, 'Yeah, it's fine.' She's a very powerful voice, so it's important for her to be at the table."

Karina spoke at her first gun-violence-prevention rally this past spring. She also testified in front of the state House Judiciary Committee on a bill to require universal background checks for gun sales. She says it was awkward to wait her turn in a crowded hallway surrounded by people who were there to criticize lawmakers for trying to take their guns away, but she stuck it out for the opportunity to tell her story.

Her message was straightforward: If universal background checks had been in place on December 6, 2010, she might never have been shot. "That day not only changed my physical life, it literally changed everything," she said. "I was left with nothing. My friends abandoned me. I was left alone. Never would I wish this on anybody, because it's no fun. To this day, there's not one second that passes by that I don't wish that I could walk....

"I am here today to share my story and to bring awareness of what gun violence causes to innocent people in our communities," she continued. "For those who oppose this bill, [they] don't think it's a problem because they haven't experienced gun violence. You take your kids to school, thinking that they'll be safe, and the unthinkable happens."

The bill ended up passing the committee and went on to become law. Karina is proud of her contribution and has a few mementos of that time tacked to the purple walls of her bedroom. The biggest is a black sign printed with a stark message: "Let Us Live."

**********

On November 25, nearly three years after she was shot, Karina is in her room, flat-ironing her hair as an episode of Maury plays in the background. Stuck to her mirror are two Post-it notes, on which are scrawled a single message in chunky marker: "You don't have to look perfect, but always look cute!" Her school clothes, a pair of gray skinny jeans and a striped button-down shirt, are laid out on her bed. Today will be Karina's first day of school since she stopped attending almost a year ago.

Karina changes out of her Hello Kitty pajama pants and reaches under her bed for her blue high-top Chuck Taylors. She hoists her right foot up to her left knee, wedges the sneaker onto it and then places it on the edge of her bed while she ties the laces, making sure she doesn't accidentally roll herself backward before repeating the process for her left foot. On her way out the door, she grabs a pen and a handful of candy from her dresser drawer. "I think I'm going to need candy for school, for real," she explains.

 

Her school, the Rebound Ombudsman Program, is just a short distance from her house, on Montview Boulevard in Aurora. A few minutes after noon, she finally rolls through the door and into the three carpeted rooms that house the program. It's the afternoon session, and there are already a couple dozen students working quietly on computers and several teachers roaming around, encouraging them to stay on task. Karina pulls up to a computer and jiggles the mouse. One of the teachers comes over and welcomes her back.

"Is this your senior year?" the teacher asks.

"Yeah, I think so," Karina says.

The teacher tells Karina to start by taking a literacy test and then to provide a writing sample in the form of a five-paragraph essay. "Your topic is, 'Why do you want to come back to the program?'" the teacher says.

On lined paper, Karina lays out her reasons. "Before I attended here I never thought I was going to be able to go to school like before," she writes with a sharpened pencil. "I was nervous and didn't want to go through the whole high school experience. Here it was different." Karina describes how she enjoys the flexible schedule, the four-hour school days and the fact that she can work at her own pace online. Last year, she explains, she wasn't in a good mindset to be in school.

But this year, she writes, is different. This year, she's determined to finish. "I'm ready for what the year has to come and I'm just ready to get it over with!"

Ready to get it over with and move on with her life.

Karina is supported by her family, including her mother, Mina (left), her older brother, Danny, and her little sister, Eli.
Anthony Camera

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