A gray Monte Carlo with a damaged front bumper rolled slowly through the McDonald's parking lot. It was Sunday night, and the fast-food joint on West Alameda Avenue was hopping with teenage cruisers, standing outside their cars munching fries and sipping sodas, listening to music and swapping stories.
Michael Martinez was there, hanging out with Terra Ramirez, a girl he'd met just a few days before, and his cousin David. "There goes your crazy bitch," David told Michael as the Monte Carlo circled the lot.
The car belonged to Monique Trujillo, Michael's former girlfriend, a seventeen-year-old senior at Westminster High School. On this night, April 3, 2005, her graduation was just a month away.
Michael, David and Terra watched the Monte Carlo circle a few times, then leave the parking lot. Terra was waiting for the girls' bathroom to open up. She wanted an orange drink, too.
But then the Monte Carlo returned, pulling up alongside the McDonald's lot. A Dodge Neon was right behind it. Some Latino dudes inside the Neon were all staring at Michael. Monique had told Michael she had crazy friends who could do things to him. Michael tried to avoid looking at the cars.
Then three guys sprang out of the Neon.
The one who jumped out of the front passenger door had an assault rifle like the AK-47 that Osama bin Laden totes in his videos. The guy who came out of the rear passenger door had a 9mm semi-automatic handgun. The guy on the other side had a .38 revolver. The guns started blasting. The assault rifle fired at least ten times, the 9mm at least eleven rounds.
Michael slammed Terra to the pavement. She's not sure if she was shot twice or if the same bullet that ripped through her left leg is the one that ended up in her right. David was shot, too. No one else was hit.
While Terra and David were rushed to the hospital, officers with the Denver Police Department started quizzing the crowd. A member of the Denver Gang Bureau on his way to the scene spotted a Monte Carlo and a four-door Dodge Neon parked outside a house fourteen blocks from the McDonald's. The Neon belonged to Monique's friend, eighteen-year-old Vanessa Marquez. Both girls were standing by the cars. So were three young Latino males. All three claimed GKI gang membership, according to DPD records.
Officers drove Michael over to the house, where he identified the cars.
Monique told the cops that she'd broken up with Michael because he'd been unfaithful but that she hadn't known he was in the McDonald's parking lot that night. She also said she didn't see anything, that she and Vanessa were in the Monte Carlo when the guys just jumped out of the Neon and started shooting.
The three shooters lived in the house where the cars were parked, Monique said; she couldn't explain why she hadn't called police to report their whereabouts.
Monique didn't know Terra Ramirez, the girl who'd been shot.
After they operated on Terra's wounds, doctors warned her mother that the girl might suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. She could act like a victim, or she could act tough.
Terra did a little of both.
Terra had been through tough times before. Her father, Anthony Ramirez, is locked up in the Kit Carson Correctional Facility, doing fifteen years for sexually assaulting his daughter. As a juvenile, Terra was arrested once for theft, when she and a friend got caught shoplifting. But still, she graduated from Arvada High School in 2004 with a 3.3 GPA. The following spring, she was working at Cost Cutters and planning to go to cosmetology school. She had a boyfriend whom she'd met at the Wal-Mart next door to the salon, and they were already talking marriage.
And then she got shot.
Self-conscious about the scars on her legs, Terra thought about covering them with tattoos. But other lingering effects were harder to deal with. Although Terra thought the shooting earned her some street cred, she also worried that she might get shot again. And so she started looking for protection. She also broke up with her boyfriend, a nice guy with no gang connections.
"I wasn't my sweet self anymore," she remembers. "All I wanted to do was go out and not face that I was shot. I hated my bullet wounds and I didn't want to get help. Everybody that I loved I pushed away from me, even my mom."
Terra soon found a new boyfriend, Tomas Martinez. She'd known him since she was fifteen, then got reacquainted at a party about six weeks after the shooting, shortly after she turned nineteen.
Tomas was a gangster, a Northsider. Although he wasn't yet twenty, he already had a lengthy adult arrest record: He'd been picked up for vehicle theft, larceny, damage to property and possession of burglary tools. Soon after they started dating, Terra used money she'd earned at Cost Cutters to bail Tomas out of jail, and when he was arrested again soon after, she was prepared to bail him out a second time.
But now Tomas was looking at doing time for another stolen-car case. So Terra gave up on bailing him out, and instead put money on his books and said she'd visit him in jail while he awaited trial.
She didn't sit at home waiting for Tomas to get out, though. On August 21, 2005, she was cruising Federal Boulevard when a car full of girls -- including a former friend of Terra's, Violet Garcia -- rolled up. Terra says that Violet and the other girls were calling and harassing her "24/7" because she'd decided she didn't want to be friends with them anymore.
Violet would later tell police that Terra was harassing her because Violet wouldn't help raise money to bail Tomas out of jail.
When Terra spotted the other car, she says, she tried to find a police officer she'd gotten to know when he did off-duty security at one of her hangouts on Federal, but he wasn't around. So she called another friend, Natalie McFarlane, for help.
Nineteen-year-old Natalie, who worked at 24-Hour Fitness while attending classes at Westwood College, had a clean record. But she also had a boyfriend, twenty-year-old Andreas "Andy" Rubio, who'd been picked up on a felony weapons offense in Lakewood that summer.
Terra had met Andy a few months earlier. He was homeboys with Tomas, and he'd sworn to look after her while Tomas was in the joint.
"I knew what he was capable of doing," Terra says of Andy. "The main reason why I called Natalie is because the girls were telling me on text messages and the phone when I answered that they were going to get the GKIs that shot me and tell them to go shoot my house up."
GKIs have been around Denver since Monique and Terra were born. The acronym has been interpreted several ways by three generations of gang members: Gangsters Killing Incas is the original definition, used to disrespect the Inca Boyz, an inactive Denver set. Some say GKI now stands for Gallant Knights Insane, others say it's Gangsters Killers Incorporated. The set grabbed headlines later that month when a federal indictment charged GKI members with distributing crack.
Although he never claimed GKI, Terra says, Andy was a "hood-hopper" who claimed Northside, Westside and Pimpin' Always, a newer clique that had started out as a tagging crew but was gaining notoriety as a gang last summer.
Shortly after Terra called for help, Andy and Natalie pulled up in Natalie's white Mitsubishi Lancer. Andy had an AK-47. Terra had a new text message from her rivals to show them: "Fuck you and your P.A. crew."
Andy and Natalie followed Terra to Ellsworth Avenue and Osceola Street, right down the street from where Violet lived. Andy got out and walked north on Osceola. Terra and Natalie could hear shots being fired. A car parked in front of Violet's house took some bullets.
Another bullet ripped through a house a couple of doors down, where sisters Kenia and Celine Venzor had just fallen asleep after a brief scare over a spider in their bed. The bullet sailed through a teddy bear and a speaker box, then hit an entertainment center, where it split in half. One half sliced through twelve-year-old Kenia's right arm, left breast and left hand, then entered six-year-old Celine's hip, narrowly missing the bone before it exited.
The sisters woke up screaming. Kenia knew right away that she had been shot. "I opened the door with my left hand," she remembers. "I don't know how I did it, because I could see right through my left hand."
"Kenia, don't die!" Celine yelled.
The floor of their bedroom was sticky with blood.
The girls' mother came in and saw that Celine's panties had been ripped away by the bullet. Kenia told her mother to call 911. It seemed like the ambulance took a long time to get there, but it was really only a matter of minutes.
"Mom, I'm dying," Kenia remembers saying. "I love you."
Soon after the cops arrived at the Venzor house, they interviewed Violet. After that, they decided to contact Terra and Natalie.
Officers knocked on the door of Natalie's parents' house and got permission to search her car. They found a live rifle round inside.
Natalie told them that Terra had asked her boyfriend, Andy, to shoot up Violet's house. Then she drew a map to Andy's house.
Terra, Natalie and Andy were each charged with six counts of attempted murder, two first-degree assaults, two charges of illegally discharging a firearm, one conspiracy to commit criminal mischief, and one count of conspiring to commit an illegal discharge of a firearm.
While Terra was behind bars in connection with the shooting on Osceola, the cops continued to investigate the incident in which she'd been shot.
Like Terra, Monique Trujillo was born and raised in Colorado and had done pretty well in school. She played basketball and had a 3.2 GPA at Westminster High School.
After the McDonald's shooting, Monique was held at Gilliam, a juvenile detention center in Denver, for about five days. But she was released in time to graduate from high school a month later. She'd already enrolled at Front Range Community College for fall 2005 classes when the Arvada police went to her house to arrest her.
Monique spent a couple of days in the Jefferson County jail before she was transferred to Denver and charged as an adult.
Monique's family bonded her out a few weeks later. For the past year, she's been awaiting trial on six counts of attempted murder, one conspiracy to commit murder, four counts of first-degree assault, an accessory to attempted murder charge and two sentence enhancers for the weapons used in the crime.
Police records show that Monique identified Javier Padilla -- a seventeen-year-old who claims GKI -- as the dude with the assault rifle, and Roy Acosta as the one who fired the handgun outside McDonald's. The DPD soon arrested both.
The cops had already interviewed Roy the night of the shooting. According to police reports, he was at the scene where the cops found Monique and Vanessa's cars. Roy had insisted he hadn't been at McDonald's -- but on September 5, the day after his nineteenth birthday, he was charged with 22 counts: six attempted first-degree murders, two conspiracies to commit the murders, four first-degree assaults and ten sentence enhancers for crimes of violence. He'd been with his parents when police stopped the car and placed him under arrest.
Roy had already spent two and a half years in the juvie system. If he was convicted of the McDonald's shooting, he could spend the rest of his life in prison. "I never thought I'd see the streets again," Roy says. "It was a big reality check."
Roy has GKI affiliations but says he's not a full-fledged gang member. The word "outlaw" is tattooed in script on his neck, where two praying hands are also inked on his skin. On one arm is his mother's name, with two faces -- a reverse of the usual smile now, cry later design.
For Roy, the toughest thing about jail was being away from his family on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
For Roy's mother, Renee Hicks, the toughest thing was the phone conversations with her son, who maintained his innocence. "We knew, we knew," she says, "but who's gonna believe us?"
A former Golden Gloves boxer, Roy wound up in the hole for thirty days after a fight. "My son's not perfect by any means, but he ain't no killer," Hicks told his public defender.
Three months after Roy was locked up, the Ignacio Police Department picked up eighteen-year-old Hector Cibrian in southwestern Colorado. According to his arrest warrant, Hector told the cops that he'd been a passenger in the Neon on the night of the McDonald's shooting.
On February 14, Hector met with Denver officers when he was in town for a petty-theft charge. They said he was being questioned as a witness to the McDonald's shooting and asked him to give a written statement and view a photographic lineup of people known to have been involved in the incident.
Hector viewed four photo lineups. He identified Javier Padilla as the right-front passenger who'd used the assault rifle. He identified Roy, too -- but said that Roy had been in the Monte Carlo with Monique and Vanessa, not in the Neon.
Roy was held another six weeks before all charges were dropped. He maintains that he'd never even seen Monique until one day in court when she identified him as the handgun shooter -- an act that sent him to jail for seven months.
Roy's looking for work as a welder, a skill he picked up in juvie. The last he heard about anyone in this case was earlier this summer. He was at a party, trying to pick up his life where it had left off, when someone with a cell phone asked, "Does anyone know Monique Trujillo?" Roy assumed Monique was on the other end of the call, casing the scene for potential trouble. Roy didn't respond. Instead, he left the party.
Roy's mother says that praying was the only thing that got the family through Roy's detention, and she continues to pray for Monique. "But you don't do that to people," she says. "You don't go around and jeopardize somebody's life like that. My son could've lost his life."
Hector was interviewed by the DPD again on June 1. He was told that they were still talking to him in his capacity as a witness, but that it seemed like his last statement was missing some information.
The officers noted that Hector seemed nervous but agreed to take a polygraph to prove that he'd told them everything he knew about the shooting. After he took the test, however, he told the cops that he, too, had fired a gun that night. He'd been sitting in the back seat of the Neon, on the right side, when they went to McDonald's. Hector said that he had the .38-caliber revolver, Javier had the assault rifle, and someone he knows only as "Louie" had the semi-automatic handgun. Hector insisted that he did not fire at the victims, but instead toward the parking lot.
Hector pleaded guilty to felony menacing in July. He's facing one to three years in prison when he's sentenced September 5, although prison time is not mandatory. He could not be reached for this story.
Javier Padilla is out on bond, scheduled for a trial starting October 2 on 22 charges, including six counts of attempted first-degree murder in connection with the McDonald's shooting. If convicted, he faces a minimum of sixteen years and a maximum of over 200. He, too, could not be reached for this story.
Through her mother, Vanessa Marquez, the Neon's owner, refused an interview request. Vanessa has not been charged with any crimes.
Andy Rubio went on trial in May for the Osceola shooting. Terra testified against him, as did thirteen-year-old Kenia.
"It was the hardest thing I could do," Kenia says. "I didn't see any emotion throughout the trial, and when I went and testified, I actually saw him cry."
Andy was convicted of five counts of attempted murder, two counts of first-degree assault and two counts of illegally discharging a weapon. Andy refused an interview request, as did Natalie McFarlane, his girlfriend at the time of the shooting, who's out on bond until her own trial in October.
On Tuesday, August 15, Andy was back in Denver District Court for his sentencing. The shooting forever changed Kenia and Celine, their mother told the judge. Every day the family worries; every night the girls say their prayers as if they could be their last.
When Andy addressed the court, he said that he had a daughter of his own and could never hurt a child. He even shed some tears as he told the judge, "Your honor, if it wasn't for Natalie or Terra Ramirez, I wouldn't be here talking to you right now."
As she handed down the sentence, Judge Christina Habas noted that Andy still wasn't taking responsibility for his actions. She'd heard him blame medication, attention-deficit disorder and Terra and Natalie for the shooting, yet it was Andy who ultimately pulled the trigger. The judge said she'd never forget the audiotape of Kenia and Celine's mother on the phone with 911, afraid that her daughters had just been killed in their own bed. And she sentenced Andy to 36 years in prison on each of the five counts, running consecutively for a total of 180 years.
On August 21, Kenia and Celine will mark the one-year anniversary of the shooting. They both take pills to fall asleep. Kenia also takes pills for pain and depression. She's had five surgeries so far, and although her hand is working pretty well, she still can't bend her pinkie all the way. Learning to tie her shoes again was particularly humbling.
"It's been really hard," Kenia says. "I've had physical therapy three times a week, counseling once a week, and school on top of that. I tell my mom all the time that it made me stronger. I feel like I can accomplish anything."
Monique Trujillo is facing a minimum of sixteen years and potentially more than 200 years in prison for her role in the McDonald's shooting. Through her parents, Monique declined to speak with Westword. Her mother, a case manager with the Denver Department of Human Services, says Monique is a good person who isn't tied up with gangs, despite the perception the media has perpetuated.
Monique's preliminary hearing is set for October 16, the same day that the victim in that shooting, Terra Ramirez, will be sentenced for her role in the shooting on Osceola.
Terra Ramirez has been in jail for almost a year. Before testifying at Andy's trial, she pleaded guilty to first-degree assault, a Class 3 felony for which she faces up to fifteen years in prison.
She didn't testify against Andy in order to get a better deal, she says, but because it was the right thing to do. She knew what Kenia and Celine were going through: She'd been an innocent bystander once, too, shot by someone she'd never met.
Terra knows how difficult it is to fight the hurt. If there were any advice she could give to Kenia and Celine, she says, it would be "Don't let the scars bother you."
Terra's mother, Teresa Ramirez, recruits nurses for a dialysis company. She says that her daughter is no gang member, but just fell into the wrong crowd after she was shot. "Myself and her doctor kept telling her to quit hanging out with Tomas and Andy," Teresa remembers. "I just got a real weird feeling about them. I didn't like them. I just kept telling her that she needed to stay away from them."
But in jail, Terra couldn't stay away -- and so she's spent most of her time in protective custody. Andy and Natalie were incarcerated at the same time and perceived as threats to Terra -- as were Roy and Javier, both in jail on charges of shooting her. Once, Andy got on a bus full of Denver prisoners -- all men but for Terra -- and told everyone that Terra was a snitch and said he was going to arrange for her ass to get whupped when she went to prison. After that, Andy caught another charge of obstructing justice for intimidating a witness. He pleaded guilty on August 3.
For the past eight months, Terra has had a roommate. They talk a lot. And Terra's recently started talking with the boy she was dating when she got shot. She'd stopped talking to Tomas, the gangster boyfriend she replaced him with, when she first went to jail, but they've begun writing to each other, too.
Mostly, Terra reads books. She stopped counting when she passed seventy but guesses she's read at least twice that many. And she tries to "work out" by walking back and forth in her cell. "That is therapeutic," she says. "I could just put my headphones on and walk and walk and walk."
She wishes she could talk to someone professionally. "I should've taken the help when I had it," she admits. "I was in counseling, and I let it go in one ear and out the other, and now that I need it, I can't get it. I'm so bitter about that situation. If I hadn't gotten shot, then I wouldn't have hung out with that group, because I wouldn't have felt like I needed protection. Before I got shot, I wasn't hanging out with gang members. I grew up in Arvada. I had it all going for myself when I got shot. And I'll always blame Monique for that."
Terra is convinced she's going to prison, and she hopes to study cosmetology while behind bars. If by any chance her sentence is suspended, she says she'd like to get into counseling, then go back to school and maybe become a counselor herself someday, to help children who are victims.
"I could relate to everything now," she says.
Victims and felons.
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