Longform

Drive-by victim Karina Vargas is talking the walk

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"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.

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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."

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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."

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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