The first in a string of thirteen murders in Aurora that began Labor Day weekend barely made a ripple in Denver--six execution-style homicides the next day guaranteed that. But that first murder made headlines in Mexico and destroyed a family's nine-year-old dream of building a life in the United States.
On the night of September 5, Laura Rosa Martinez-Cuevas, 22, was stabbed to death in a domestic quarrel. The alleged killer wasn't even her lover; he was her friend's ex-boyfriend. In the tangled web of her life, he was also a cousin of the man who had fathered Laura's baby. Laura was trying to help her friend get away from him when she was killed.
And while the next day's murder of six people sparked a nationwide manhunt for suspects, those who witnessed Laura's death have slipped quietly out of Denver and back into Mexico or border towns in Texas. The suspected killer, eighteen-year-old Said Omar Hernandez-Montoya, whose street name is "Bozo," is being held in the Arapahoe County Jail without bail.
The only member of Laura's family who remains in Denver is her twenty-year-old brother, Guillermo Martinez Jr., who returned after his sister's September 9 funeral in Torreón, Mexico. Guillermo, the member of his family who was closest to living the American dream, is now giving it up. The only reason he came back to Denver after the funeral, he says, is to sell the family house and earn enough money at his assistant manager's job at Gart Sports to return to Mexico and take care of his sister's orphaned baby, Guillermo III, who was born last December 20.
"My whole dream was to stay here for the rest of my life," says Martinez, wearing wire-frame glasses and a soccer-ball pendant on a chain around his neck. "Now that whole dream is broke. Now we start from zero. I guess everyone in the family figures if we're going to lose something else, we want to lose it in our own country."
Despite the outpouring of help that his family received from Denver's Hispanic community (one anonymous person even paid for a funeral home to ship Laura's body back to Mexico), Martinez appears to be living alone in a bad dream.
The family's small house on Grove Street near Alameda and Federal looks like it was abandoned suddenly and unexpectedly. Several cars remain parked in the driveway with their windows partially rolled down. Toys are sprinkled in the yard as if it were still summertime.
"I was scared when I first came back to the house," says Martinez. "It wasn't like I was looking at Laura's ghost. I was just looking at reality."
Guillermo Martinez Sr. came to the United States in 1988. Two years later, after he'd saved and borrowed enough money to buy the house on Grove Street, he sent for his wife and three children.
"It was the typical Mexican dream to go across the border," recalls Guillermo Jr., "even though my dad is one of those super-patriotic guys who didn't really like the U.S. I think he wanted to go back to Mexico. And Laura didn't really want to come. I was twelve and she was thirteen when we came, and she hated it. The way of life was just too hectic for her."
The culture shock never faded for Laura, according to her brother. She held down menial jobs at a nursing home and at fast-food restaurants like Taco Burro. "I remember her last paycheck," Martinez says with a smile on his face. "It was for $141 for fifteen days of work. She thought it was a great paycheck."
After finishing high school, Guillermo studied computer science for a year at Metropolitan State College. "I was going to school from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30," says Guillermo, "and then working from 1:30 p.m. to 10 putting computers together. I got burned out. And because I was only making $5.50 an hour, I could barely make it. I was broke to the bone."
While he was struggling with school and work, his sister started dating "Cheo," the man who soon impregnated her. Guillermo thinks Cheo is now in Juarez, Mexico, but he isn't sure and doesn't appear to care. He says Cheo was never around, anyway. But Cheo's cousin, Omar ("Bozo"), was dating a friend of Laura's named Lydia Rodriguez.
Omar's mother was also acquainted with Laura's mother. Guillermo says that at one point several years ago, his mother asked Omar's mother to be her coyote--a person who brings people across the border illegally. Lydia Rodriguez and Omar's mother worked at the same cleaning company, Maid in America. (After the murder, Lydia gave her boss's pager number to police as a way to get in touch with her. "All of a sudden, Lydia quits and takes off to El Paso, and I'm getting all these calls from the cops," says the company's owner. "Nobody even told me there was a murder.")
"It was only after Laura died that I started thinking about all these connections," says Guillermo after arranging keys and silverware on a table to demonstrate the relationships between his family and that of the alleged killer's. "Life takes you strange ways."
It certainly took a bad twist for Laura the first week of September.
On September 2, Lydia had a fight with Omar that resulted in her kicking him out of the apartment they shared. But according to police reports, after the fight, 24-year-old Lydia moved in with Laura at the family's house on Grove Street instead of staying in Aurora. On the night of September 5, Lydia went back to her apartment. Later that night, Lydia called Laura and asked her to come pick her up. The plan was that Laura's mother would take care of Guillermo III and Lydia's three children while the younger women went out to a quincianera party.
While Laura, her mother and her infant son were on the way to pick up Lydia, according to police, Omar called the apartment and told Lydia he was coming over to kill her and anyone else who was with her.
"Omar had problems with Laura talking to Lydia to start off with," says Guillermo. "He was mad at Laura because he thought she was talking bad about him. He thought she was the one who got him away from his novia."
Guillermo says that when his mother and sister pulled into the parking lot outside Lydia's apartment in their red Plymouth Neon, Omar was right behind them in his red Buick. Seeing this from her apartment window, Lydia ran out of the apartment with her three children, ages nine, seven and four, screaming to Laura that they needed to get out of there. Laura helped get Lydia and her kids into the car, but as she scurried to get in the driver's side, Omar intercepted her. She got in, but Omar wouldn't let her close the door.
Guillermo says Omar often acted like a gang member, enhancing his attitude with what police describe as "tattoos consistent with gang-related activity" and carrying a red San Francisco 49ers handkerchief. But he says Omar was strictly small-time. Up until the night of the murder, his rap sheet consisted of three traffic violations. The Aurora police report says Bozo--the Spanish version, "Boso," is tattooed on his leg and his arm--didn't claim any gang affiliation after being arrested, and they don't have him in their gang database.
"He's just a typical pinche gangster," says Guillermo. "He'd been over to our house before, and I never thought he could do anything like this. My sister is a brave girl. She would fight any man. And since Omar is only 5-8, she wouldn't be scared of him. I think the way Lydia was screaming was what frightened Laura. But my mom said that Laura was sitting in the driver's seat looking straight ahead the whole time. My mom was the one who got out of the car with the baby and was telling Omar to get away from the car. Laura never said anything to him.
"All my mom remembers happening after that is Omar grabbing something from the front of his pants and reaching around her to thrust it at Laura. Laura grabbed her chest, and Omar started running. My mom started screaming for help, and Laura got out of the car. She kinda slumped over the trunk of this other car and was fading...fading... until she finally faded away."
Denver police and paramedics arrived on the scene to find Laura on the ground in a pool of blood, unresponsive. Her mother was sitting on the ground holding her. They found the murder weapon, a large kitchen knife, nearby and put out an APB with Omar's description. Omar was stopped at 10:18 p.m. by an Aurora police cruiser, about ten minutes after the stabbing. He was pulled over for running a stop sign. Based on the APB description and the fact that Omar was sweating profusely, the cops took him into custody.
At 10:56, Laura Rosa Martinez-Cuevas was pronounced dead at Columbia North Hospital, her heart having been stabbed "through and through," according to the police report.
"I don't think it was a case of mistaken identity," says Guillermo. "It would be too much of a coincidence. Omar knew Laura was talking to Lydia and that she was coming over to see her. He didn't confuse the two. My sister got stabbed instead of Lydia."
Guillermo Martinez was just closing up the sporting-goods store when he got a phone call from his mom.
"Mom called, and she was big-time crying," he recalls. "She didn't even know where she was, let alone where they'd taken Laura. She thought that Laura was taken to Denver General. Since none of the cops spoke Spanish, my mom didn't have any idea what was going on.
"My dad and I went to Denver General, and the cops and nurses on duty were total asses. I had to wait fifteen minutes before they figured out that my sister wasn't there. Then, when I asked if they could call to find out what hospital she was at, the cop told me to look in the phone book, and the nurses told me to call the operator.
"When we finally got to the right hospital, they brought me and my dad and my cousin into this little room. Then this doctor comes in and just says, 'She's dead,' or something like that. At least he could've told me she fought hard for her life or something. But instead he just told us she died after getting stabbed in the heart. My dad couldn't understand any of it, so I translated for him. Then they brought in this super-white priest to talk to my dad. He couldn't speak Spanish, either, and by that point, I wasn't feeling like translating."
While Guillermo was at the hospital, his mother and Lydia were with the Aurora police, who kept them separated during interviews. It was during the interviews that the women were told that Laura had died.
Debbie Kunkel-Benson, coordinator of the Aurora Police Department's victim-services unit, says that a staff member tried to console Mrs. Martinez and Lydia when they were at the police station.
"We have no one on staff who speaks Spanish," explains Kunkel-Benson, then adds that "in this case, it was kind of neat. Even though the advocate didn't speak Spanish, she didn't feel like there was a language barrier. She could tell what their basic needs were. Like when they needed to go to the bathroom or needed a drink of water. Really, all you can say, in any language, is 'Sorry.' You can't say anything that'll fix it.
"As far as telling her that her daughter was dead, I guess the advocate felt like she knew enough English to understand."
Guillermo Martinez remains furious about the fact that he and his father weren't the ones to break the news to his mother.
"Can you imagine being with the cops all alone and having them tell you that your daughter is dead in a language you can't understand?" he asks angrily. "Then they make her stay [at the police station] for hours and took pictures of her standing there in her bloody clothes. They didn't let her change out of them for almost two hours. And the whole time, they're questioning her like psychos. And when they finally let her go, the cops didn't know where the baby was. When we found him at a friend's house at 2 a.m., he was still wearing Pampers covered with blood."
Bozo, the alleged killer, is scheduled to go before an Arapahoe County judge for a preliminary hearing on November 12. He's being charged with first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder. Detective Craig Piel of the Aurora Police Department says only that he knows where the primary witnesses are and that he's not worried about getting them back for the hearing. "We've got a good case," says Piel.
The Arapahoe County District Attorney's Office is even more tight-lipped. Spokespeople say it's against departmental policy for them to discuss cases before or during a trial. But of the more than twenty Aurora homicides this year, five have involved a domestic issue or problem, says Aurora police spokesman Mark Hellenschmidt. And this one has an eyewitness.
That may mean that the good guys will win one. For now, cops and investigators have been maxed out by the spate of violence in Aurora.
"Nothing like this has ever happened in Aurora before," says victim-services coordinator Kunkel-Benson. "We're all pretty tired, but we support each other and have spent a lot of time educating ourselves about how to take care of ourselves."
Guillermo Martinez wants to know who's taking care of justice for his family. He feels ignored by police and frustrated that the lead detective was on vacation when he returned from Mexico. "It's like they just kind of forgot about us," he says.
But a more immediate concern for Guillermo is whether his mother, the key witness to the murder, will be able to handle the emotional strain of coming back and testifying against Bozo.
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"I talked to my mom today," says Guillermo, "and she's still crying. She's having a lot of flashbacks." He doesn't expect his parents to stay in Denver any longer than it takes to put Omar away. And Guillermo is hoping to be back in Mexico by Christmas.
"I really liked certain things about Denver," he says. "I grew up here since the sixth grade. I learned how to ski. I know the American way of life. But when I go back to Mexico, I'll probably say that I didn't like these things. In a lot of ways, America lives up to its stereotype of drugs and violence. If I stayed here, I'm afraid that within the next five years, I'd probably end up doing something bad.
"So instead, I'm going back to take care of Laura's baby. I'm going to be his legal guardian. I want to make sure the baby gets a good life. Now I've really only got two options: me and the baby.
"When I think about Laura's murder, I think about what one family friend said to my parents. They said that they were 'too nice.' They said that my parents would even let the devil walk into their house. Well, maybe Omar is the devil. He did a lot of damage to our family.