ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Last week, you couldn’t see from the street to the back of the vacant lot in Albuquerque where Maryellen Gutierrez was beaten to death about 9 a.m. on Aug. 14.
Neighbors say a city crew subsequently came around and cut down the tall weeds and shrubbery and raked up the broken bottles and trash that had accumulated there. The back wall is now plainly visible.
Even at a murder scene, life goes on.
The mattress by the northwest corner of the lot, on Utah near Zuni, has been removed. A witness said he saw Gutierrez, known to her friends as Termite, having sex there that morning. With whom and whether the sex was consensual, the witness couldn’t say. Police have made no arrests.
Someone put a spray of funeral flowers and a sympathy card against the wall where Gutierrez’s blood is still visible. A small shrine — a descanso — that had appeared shortly after she died has grown over the past week to include several crosses, stuffed animals, real and artificial flowers, and $1.15 in change. A card with a poem leans against a cross. The poem ends, “Where there is God, there is no need.”
Raad Al-Zubidi, who lives nearby, strolled by the lot with his pet dog and his wife. The empty lot is one of dozens in the neighborhood, he said, and they all attract homeless people and drug users. Al-Zubidi wonders why it takes a death to get the city’s attention. “We pay taxes, too,” he said.
His wife, Rene, said she saw a T-shirt that about summed it up. It said, “You only notice me when I’m dead.”
C.C. Acuña, her daughter Sabrina and her grandson passed by on their way to get ice cream. A radio in an apartment next to the vacant lot played a ranchera song. The little boy said, “That’s where the lady died.”
C.C. knew Termite when they were both in jail. Police say Termite had some prostitution and drug arrests. She lived in an apartment at the time of her death, but family members say she spent a lot of time on the street. C.C. reports, “She was nice. She was quiet. She was a good listener. She loved her children.”
“People say, once an addict, always an addict; once a prostitute, always a prostitute,” C.C. said. “That’s not true. People change. She was trying to change.”
The vacant lot is in a tough, depressed neighborhood known as Trumbull Village. Sabrina lives there because it’s cheap. Landlords are willing to rent a one-bedroom apartment to a family with five children. “You get what you pay for,” she said.
There aren’t many streetlights, and there is a lot of drug activity in Trumbull Village. C.C. and Sabrina said that they, Termite and most of their friends are either addicts or recovering addicts.
“Everybody’s trashed, so it’s normal in our community,” Sabrina said.
Across town, two other descansos have grown in another empty lot, on West Central, where two homeless men, Kee Thompson and Allison Gorman, were beaten to the death last month. Steve Gishey, who camps in another lot nearby, said a group of bikers rode up last Sunday and added relics to the shrines.
Gishey says he is Thompson’s cousin. He is frightened of camping in vacant lots at night now. Three young men have been accused of attacking Gorman and Thompson while they slept.
As Gishey talked, a city bus on Central dropped off several people who walked north on 60th Street toward the lot or to a nearby liquor store, among them Genevieve Armenta, who was raised on the Navajo reservation and has been homeless off and on for all of her 52 years. She said she was released from jail in Farmington six years ago and ended up in Albuquerque.
Armenta got pregnant in 11th grade and already had a drinking problem. She wishes the tribe had helped her then.
Armenta said she made posters for the descansos at the Albuquerque Indian Center but hadn’t attended a memorial at the site of the murders.
Verida Wauneka, 41, also Navajo, said she and other homeless people are trying to stay in larger groups for safety, especially at night. “We’re kind of like sheep,” she said with a laugh.
“We faced the first terrorists,” she said, meaning white people. “If I knew better, I would have become a lawyer and fought for my land. Instead, I’m an alcoholic.”
Wauneka has four children, but their father won’t let her see them. “He doesn’t trust me to take care of them. I drink too much. I’ve been drinking since Friday.” She said that on a Monday.
Ben Portillo is a security guard at a shopping center on Central and Coors not far from the lot. It is one of the last commercial areas before Central Avenue disappears into the western horizon. A small grassy area with some shade, along with the liquor for sale in the shopping center, attracts homeless people “like buzzards,” Portillo said. “They get off at the I-40 exit and walk down. This is the first place they hit.” Eventually, they make their way east on Central in the direction of the lot on 60th Street.
At the shopping center’s Walgreens sitting by a cash register is a basket full of liquor miniatures selling for 99 cents. Signs on the outside walls advertise Tecate and Crown Royal. A sign at the door says “Panhandling is prohibited.”
“Somebody has to break this cycle,” Portillo said. “Is this what you want for the next generation? You have to have some pride in yourself.”
In the grassy area by the street, a couple relaxed with their backpacks while two children played.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Winthrop Quigley at 823-3896 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.