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Grieving mother waits and waits for answers

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — She comes here every day to sit with her daughter, buried in this cemetery in a spot where the grass has not yet grown over the scars in the earth.

“I just think here,” Sandra Gutierrez says.

Vanessa Ordoñez, left, and Sandra Gutierrez share a mother/daughter moment at Vanessa’s quinceañera in June 2017. (Courtesy of Sandra Gutierrez)

Ayleen Vanessa Ordoñez – just Vanessa to her friends and family – was 16 when she was shot and run over Aug. 26 at a large river party in Rio Communities. Investigators still have not said whether the bullet or the bumper came first. No arrests have been made.

For six months, Gutierrez spent entire days at the cemetery. Only in the past two months has she torn herself away long enough to deal with her retail business for a few hours each day.

Otherwise, she is here.

She speaks in halting English, mostly Spanish. But her language of pain and loss is easy to understand.

She brings out folding chairs for us to sit on under the shade of a lone tree near the burial plot, marked by an ornate brass headstone embedded on the left side with the image of Vanessa dressed like a princess in her frothy pale pink quinceañera gown.

On the right side is an image of Gutierrez with Vanessa. This is where she plans to spend her eternity – next to her daughter when the time comes.

A massive bouquet of fresh flowers, changed nearly every day, adorns the plot. Cumbia music plays from a small speaker nearby. It’s the music Vanessa loved. It’s happy music, dancing music, and, oh, how Vanessa loved to dance.

“She was the best dancer,” Gutierrez says, showing me videos on her cellphone of Vanessa dancing in sweats at home, dancing with her dog Jasper, dancing with others at a party. The dark lighting of the party video turns the images into bobbing silhouettes.

Vanessa Ordoñez, second from left, was all smiles as usual as she posed with brothers Jonathan and Alejandro and mother, Sandra Gutierrez, at her quinceañera. (Courtesy of Sandra Gutierrez)

But it’s easy to tell which one is Vanessa. She’s the one with all the moves, head back, hands in the air, hips bouncing.

“She was a really happy girl,” Gutierrez says. “She was fun, always cheerful, full of life.”

Vanessa was the baby of the family, with two older brothers. She was in the 10th grade at Atrisco Heritage Academy High School and was two weeks into classes at Central New Mexico Community College toward becoming a teacher and, later, an obstetrician. And she had a laugh that filled the room.

What is known about her death is mostly conflicting speculation from friends and others who were at the gathering by the Rio Grande, just off East River Road, to ride motorcycles and trucks in a muddy side channel – an activity some call “mudding.”

An estimated 100 to 300 people were at the gathering that August. It was Vanessa’s first time there.

Shortly before 9 p.m. several fights broke out. Shots were fired, trucks sped off as a fight spilled into the parking lot of a nearby convenience store.

Valencia County sheriff’s deputies found 33-year-old Casey Peralta of Belen with a gunshot wound to the face at the store, where he had driven himself in his truck.

Sandra Gutierrez spends time every day at the grave of her only daughter, Vanessa Ordoñez, who was 16 when she was shot and run over during a river party Aug. 26 near Rio Communities. (Joline Gutierrez Krueger/Albuquerque Journal)

They found Vanessa dead near the river with a gunshot wound to her head. She had also been struck by a vehicle, though which came first is unclear.

Who fired the shot and who struck Vanessa are also still unknown.

“We don’t believe she was a target,” Sheriff Denise Vigil said.

Gutierrez says she learned her daughter had been hit by a vehicle from her daughter’s friends at the scene. No one told her Vanessa had been shot. No one told her Vanessa was dead.

Gutierrez raced to University of New Mexico Hospital, believing her daughter was being transported there. But after hours of waiting, she learned her daughter’s body was at a fire station in Belen.

For three days, she says, she was not contacted by the Valencia County detective handling her daughter’s case. Since then, she has heard little.

“He doesn’t return my calls,” she says. “Or he says he can’t talk or that they’re understaffed or we just have to wait.”

It feels, she says, like her daughter doesn’t matter to them. She feels, she says, desperate.

Vigil, who took over as sheriff five months ago, said Vanessa does matter.

“I know how frustrating and painful this is to wait so long without any answers,” she said.

Vigil said State Police are assisting in the investigation and the detective is waiting on completion of a scene reconstruction. Forensics from the state crime lab have also not been completed. Dozens of witnesses have provided conflicting information – or have refused to cooperate. And a new prosecutor from the 13th Judicial District has just come on board and needs to be briefed.

Vigil promises me she will ask the detective to work with the new prosecutor to determine what further information can be shared with Gutierrez. She said she will personally speak with Gutierrez to assure her that Vanessa is not forgotten.

That brings a little comfort to Gutierrez.

She plays a video of Vanessa laughing and looks out at the flowers on her grave and cries. Comfort, for now, is a fleeting thing.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg.

 

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