Richard Velarde, the 29-year-old father of two left paralyzed after a shooting on Market Street last Thanksgiving, was released from Craig Hospital in late January, several weeks earlier than expected. He'd worked hard in rehab and was eager to get on with his life and find a new way to provide for his children, seven-year-old Mia and twelve-year-old Carlos. Previously, he'd headed up air-conditioning and heating-installation crews, but that wasn't something he could do from a wheelchair. And he also moved back home with his parents, Jody and Butch Velarde, who, with the help of a victims' advocate and the Spinal Cord Injury Association, had raised the funds to make the necessary adjustments to their house: an entrance ramp, wider doorways, a handicapped-accessible bathroom.
One of Richard's first excursions out of the house was a trip with several friends to a tattoo shop, Bound by Design, on East Colfax Avenue. A longtime enthusiast whose torso was covered with decorative ink, Richard had a design in mind for his most elaborate tattoo yet: a detailed re-creation of the incident that put him in a wheelchair.
"People asked Richard why he would want a reminder of all that on his body," Jody Velarde says. "But Richard just told them that it was his way of dealing with it. That what happened to him was a part of his life, for better or for worse."
The center of Richard's back showed the face of Michael Rollie, the reported Crip charged with shooting Richard and three others in a melee outside of Market 41 early on the morning of November 24. The face was half flesh, half skeleton, and was veiled like the Grim Reaper. Below Rollie's head was a handgun, pointed directly at the spot where a bullet entered Richard's body, paralyzing him. To the left of the head was a green Market Street sign with an owl perched on top and the sun rising in the background. There was a cross hovering over the scene, as well as a praying Virgin Mary -- and above it all, a banner with the inscription "Only God Can Take Me."
The tattoo was Richard's way of mythologizing his struggle, a visceral and visual declaration that after the hell he'd gone through to stay alive, only a higher power could take him from this earth.
On May 16, a higher power did just that.
The autopsy report will not be available for several weeks, but Jody says that her son died as a result of the shooting. "He bled out," she explains. "He still had a bullet lodged inside him which apparently was causing the internal bleeding, and that blood had to go somewhere." The coroner told her that the backed-up blood and body fluids most likely flushed out of Richard's nose and mouth while he was sleeping, and he suffocated.
"Richard slept in the room right next to me, and I could hear everything in there, every little movement," Jody adds, "and I didn't hear anything that night. I hope that means it was quick."
If the autopsy report confirms the coroner's suspicions, Michael Rollie -- who had a preliminary hearing in April and is now awaiting trial later this summer on four counts of attempted first-degree murder -- could soon be facing homicide charges.
"We are aware of the changes in the case," says Lynn Kimbrough, spokeswoman for the Denver District Attorney's Office. "But the impact they will have on the criminal case is not clear. We will take it under review."
Richard's death could also affect the civil case that the Velarde family plans to file against the owners of Market 41, which was shut down for liquor-code violations last month and re-emerged as the Cowboy Lounge. Both Velarde and Rollie had been drinking that night at the club at 1941 Market and got into some kind of altercation. After they left the club just around Let Out, the street and parking lots outside turned into a terrifying, chaotic scene, with four people shot while hundreds of kids swarmed around ("It Happened One Night," January 19, 2006). Although Rollie will not discuss the shootings, he maintains that he was attacked at Market 41 that night and was not the aggressor.
"I've got to see what the autopsy report says," says Ray Solot, the family's attorney, who charges that the club acted negligently. "From the civil standpoint, that cause of death is going to be a big determining factor in terms of what is going to happen. If the cause of death was from the bullet, we have to move forward accordingly. It's a wait-and-see game at this point."
But Richard's friends and family members didn't wait to memorialize him. His funeral was held May 23 at a mortuary in the shadow of North High School, where Richard once attended school. With Richard lying in an open casket, clad in one of his signature football jerseys and surrounded by family photographs, Mia read a prayer.
"She told me the other day that she's not sad for her daddy," Jody says. "She said that he's no longer in a wheelchair now, and she's happy for him because she knows he is walking with God."
After that, people took turns at the podium. They told stories about Richard's competitiveness, about how he'd take his and everyone else's kids fishing and how, no matter how hard they tried, nobody but Richard ever caught any fish. They told stories of his enormous collection of jerseys and shoes, of Richard dressing to the nines for friends' concerts, bumping and representing in the front row. But most of the stories were about Richard's positive attitude, his acceptance of others, his honor.
"He's the strongest person I ever met," one buddy said. "And he still is. Even in that wheelchair, he was standing."
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Eric Johanson had picked all the music to play during the ceremony, burning a CD called Rest in Paradise. Injured in the same crossfire that caught Richard, he limped to the podium to address the crowd.
"I was with Rich the night everything happened," he said tearfully. "I carry so much weight with me because of it. I'm a rider, and I did the best I could that night. I tried to save everybody." He told Richard's parents and children that he would always be there for them, no matter what.
After the stories and music ended, more than 200 friends and family members moved outside, just off Federal Boulevard, for the release of thirty doves -- 29 to symbolize the years Richard was on this planet, and one to symbolize his journey into the next world. Many mourners wept openly, while others smoked cigarettes and stared at the ground as the doves swooped overhead, then disappeared over the trees in the distance. -- Adam Cayton-Holland