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It has been exactly two weeks since Juan Hernandez, 23, was stabbed to death in a gang fight on South Elden Street. Now, his family and friends are crying out for justice for a man who they say had turned his life around after running with gangs as a teenager. He was at the fight as a bystander, not a participant, says an eyewitness.

According to the Flagstaff Police Department, Hernandez was one of three people stabbed in a fight between westside and eastside gang members in the 200 block of South Elden Street at 3 a.m. on Sept. 9. Leon Slim, 23, was one of the other men stabbed in the fight. Here is his account of what happened that night:

Hernandez and Slim were at a party drinking on the night of Sept. 8 to celebrate the fact that Slim had just completed 3 1/2 years of probation for drug possession, firearm possession and DUI charges from when he was, in his words, “young and dumb.” Then someone else at the party told them he had just learned a group of eastside gang members were outside his house looking for him.

Slim, who said he was the most sober person there, drove that person to his house, along with Hernandez and two others.

Slim said the three younger persons, all westsiders, immediately got out of the car and ran to a dark part of the street where the eastsiders were believed to be. Slim said he and Hernandez waited at the corner near Slim’s car, texting and talking on the phone while the fight was going on. Slim said he and Hernandez wanted to be there in case someone got hurt. He said they were not armed and they did not think they would have to fight.

 “We didn’t think there would be that many,” Slim said. “We thought there was going to be just a couple. We thought they would fight one-on-one. We thought it would be the sort of thing where nobody really got hurt, just bruises, because that’s how I grew up. That’s how we all grew up. We didn’t think it would be a big brawl.”

‘SOMEBODY’S GOT A KNIFE’

Slim said Hernandez kept yelling that everyone needed to leave because the police were going to come. Then, Slim said, the westsiders from the party started backing up the street toward him, and he saw a group of eastsiders run out of the darkness. Slim said one of the eastsiders, Michael Vallejos, 21, recognized him and shouted for the eastside group to “get him.” That’s when Slim said eight to 10 people started hitting his group. Slim heard one of the younger westsiders yell something.

“It was about 15 to 20 seconds (later) and all we heard was, ‘There’s a knife. Somebody’s got a knife,’” Slim said.

The other westsiders ran away to a nearby apartment complex, leaving Slim and Hernandez alone with the eastsiders. He said they divided into two groups and began stabbing him and Hernandez.

“I didn’t know I was stabbed,” Slim said. “The next thing I know, I feel warm blood running down my back. We were just getting jumped. We were basically fighting for our lives.”

Slim said he managed to break free long enough to grab some rocks off the ground and throw them at his attackers, who backed off briefly. He said he saw Hernandez get stabbed again as he was trying to stumble to the car. He was clutching his neck and his side. Slim heard him say, “They got me good, bro.”

By that time, some of the westsiders who had run away earlier had returned. Slim heard one yell, ‘You’re killing him,’ and the eastsiders ran off into the neighborhood. As the westsiders lifted Hernandez into the car, Slim could see stab wounds all over his friend’s torso and down his side. Slim drove Hernandez to Flagstaff Medical Center, where he died from his wounds a short time later.

POLICE RECORDS NOT RELEASED

Flagstaff police would not comment on Slim’s story. The Flagstaff police department has refused repeated requests by the Daily Sun under the Arizona Public Records Law to release the initial incident report in redacted format or other details of the fight except for the names of the victim and the suspects.

“We can’t release a lot of details right now because we have people out there that we’re still trying to find in connection with this case,” said Sgt. Cory Runge of Flagstaff Police Department. “And we know that there are witnesses out there that we haven’t been able to talk to yet.”

Runge said the police department does not release information that could prevent officers from apprehending the suspects who are still on the loose. He also said releasing details could inhibit the investigation or prosecution.

A BIG HEART

Following his death, police revealed that Hernandez was classified in the system as a documented gang member. His mother, who asked not to be named because she fears retaliation and because she is in the country illegally, said through a translator that her son was not in a gang.

“The night that this happened, if he was a gangster, where were all the gang members when he was there,” Hernandez’s mother said. “If he was in a gang, why weren’t they there with him? If he were in a gang, they would be there for him. What kind of gang was he in?”

Hernandez’s friends said it was not his fight. They believe he only went to the spot where the fight took place because he thought someone else might be in trouble.

“It’s sad that he went there that night, but he would have done that for anybody,” said Hernandez’s friend, Steven Carrillo, 31. “If somebody was in trouble, he’d be there instantly, because that’s the kind of person he was. He had that big heart.”

Carrillo was not there the night Hernandez died, but he said most of those involved in the fight on South Elden Street were younger people from the neighborhood who were not Hernandez’s close friends.

Hernandez’s father, who also asked not to be named, said through a translator that his son worked too hard and was too much of a family man to be a gang member.

“Gang members and thugs, they don’t work two jobs,” Hernandez’s father said. “They don’t work a morning job and then work an evening job. They don’t buy a nice truck and have nice things and take care of their family the way that Juan did. No little gang members are going to do that.”

WORKED LONG HOURS

Hernandez graduated from Sinagua High School in 2008. From the time he was a teenager, he worked first as a bus boy and then as a server at Kachina Downtown Restaurant. He also worked for a landscaping company with his father. Friends and family remember him as an outgoing young man with a bright smile who worked long hours to help his parents pay the bills and take care of people.

“He just emanated love,” said Hernandez’s friend, Shamar Carter, 23. “He could walk into a room and in five minutes you would love him. He’d walk over, introduce himself to you, have a conversation with you and you’d be his friend forever.”

Hernandez’s past was not spotless. According to his Coconino County Juvenile Court public profile, he got in trouble for having a weapon at school and for having drugs and paraphernalia at school. He was also on probation for a year due to a disorderly conduct charge. He was cited for underage consumption of alcohol twice when he was an adult, according to Arizona Justice Department records. Hernandez had a westside gang tattoo on his hand that he got when he was a juvenile, and on his Facebook page, there are pictures of him flashing gang signs.

“When he was younger, yes, he wanted to be in a gang,” Carrillo said, “but he grew up.”

WORK PERMIT RENEWED

Hernandez’s friend, Holly White, 21, said Hernandez really turned his life around and stopped getting into trouble about four years ago, shortly after an encounter with immigration officials. Hernandez was brought to the United States illegally when he was a child. He had a work permit, but White said he would not be able to help support his family if he got deported.

Hernandez’s parents said he had received his renewed work permit in the mail just days before his death. His plan was to get out of Flagstaff, move to Phoenix and enroll in college classes the next Tuesday. Slim said Hernandez also encouraged other people to stop being part of the local gang culture.

“He would always tell the little homies and me, ‘The gang life ain’t worth it. It’s bull. You’ve got to go out and do something,’” Slim said.

In order to be officially designated as a documented criminal street gang member, a person has to meet at least two of the following criteria laid out in Arizona Revised Statute 13-105: self-proclamation as a gang member, witness testimony or an official statement, written or electronic correspondence indicating gang membership, gang-related paraphernalia or photographs, gang tattoos, showing gang-affiliated clothing or colors, or any other indicia of street gang membership. Individuals drop off the list of documented gang members after five years of inactivity.

Those criteria just do not make sense to a lot of Hernandez’s friends and family members. Carrillo said Flagstaff might have gangs according to law enforcement officials, but they are nothing like the real gangs in big cities.

“Flagstaff is a town of little wannabe gangsters,” Carillo said. “Kids here want to join a gang to be cool. None of these kids would go to Phoenix and act this way. They’d get murdered.”

Nick Bowling, 35, was a pallbearer at Hernandez’s funeral. He also teaches Hernandez’s little brother in a class at Flagstaff High School. He said Flagstaff citizens can help fix the gang problem by working on ways to keep  kids from getting into trouble.

“I think that there’s a real lack of things for kids to do in this town,” Bowling said. “I think it would be awesome for the community to get together to figure out something for kids to do that would be more positive.”

OUTPOURING OUR SUPPORT

Meanwhile, Hernandez’s parents are trying to find a way to cope with life without their son. They saw an outpouring of support from the community when hundreds of mourners overwhelmed Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel for services honoring their son after his death. There were so many people in attendance that the funeral had to be moved to a larger church. Individuals and businesses around town have held fundraisers to help the family pay for funeral expenses. Kachina Downtown Restaurant managed to raise about $3,000 for the family Thursday at a five-hour fundraiser that included a silent auction.

The parents have been touched by the community’s reaction to their son’s death, but they are not as happy with the police. Hernandez’s father said all the focus on his son’s status as a documented gang member has made him feel like he and his wife are the suspects. Hernandez’s parents both said they wondered if the police would be working harder to find their son’s killers if he had not been documented as a gang member and if they were not Mexican nationals.

Runge said he understands their frustration, but he added the Flagstaff Police Department is not discriminating against Hernandez in any way.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with nationality or whether a person is a gang member or not,” Runge said. “The police department has spent a lot of time investigating this case to the best of our ability.”

Michelle McManimon can be reached at MMcManimon@azdailysun.com or 556-2261.

One suspect in custody; warrants issued for five others

One suspect, Norberto “Beto” Ramos-Madrid, 17, is in custody in connection with Hernandez’s murder. He was arrested the evening of Sept. 8. He has been indicted on one charge of first-degree murder and one count of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

Warrants have also been issued for five other suspects in connection with Hernandez’s murder. So far, police have only released the names of two of those individuals. They are Michael “Buddy” Vallejos, 21, and Jeremiah “James” Barlow, 21.

Two police detectives have been assigned to work the case full time. The police department is also working with the U.S. Marshals Service and the GIITEM gang taskforce to find the suspects.

“We get many many tips every single day giving us an indication of where they may be and we follow up on every one,” Runge said.

Runge said Hernandez’s death was a tragedy and the police department is working hard to catch his killers.

“The police department wants to extend its condolences to the family,” Runge said. “We are going to do everything we are legally able to do to see that justice is achieved.”

Anyone with information about the Sept. 8 stabbings or the whereabouts of Vallejos and Barlow is asked to contact the police department at 774-1414, or Silent Witness at 774-6111. A reward of up to $2,000 is available for tips that lead to a prosecution of the offenders.

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