Longform

Drive-by victim Karina Vargas is talking the walk

Page 2 of 7

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.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar