Police are investigating the mysterious event that hospitalized Merced Estrada, who was in stable condition Sunday evening. The wound was not severe, according to witnesses.
About 900 members of the Catholic church in the 2400 block of Broadway near Gibson were leaving the 10:30 Mass about noon, as about 1,200 more worshippers were arriving for the 12:30 service. Estrada had planned to walk into the church with her husband and son, anticipating other family members arriving later.
A familiar face at the parish, she was standing outside the large red-roofed white structure among a group when, without the forewarning from a pop of gunshot, a bullet struck her temple, then landed on the ground outside the west-facing, wide-open church entrance.
“All of a sudden, I saw blood coming out of her temple,” said Esther Garcia, 86, adding that Estrada’s husband blotted the bleeding with a towel or handkerchief.
“He was holding the bullet in his hand, but they don’t know where it came from,” said Garcia, a 30-year parish member. “It was stray, from far away.”
Those who were near Estrada when she was hit believe the bullet was shot from a high-altitude distance, possibly first hitting one of the church’s buildings.
“The bullet had been spent by the time it hit her,” said Diego Garcia, 80, Esther Garcia’s husband. “It fell right by her.”
Deacon Gregory Henderson said in a telephone interview Sunday evening that he didn’t think the bullet was meant to intentionally target the church or anyone at the service.
“The bullet didn’t go in (to the skull), and the bullet was dented … so what we thought is that it was shot in the air from far away,” he said. Had it been shot from closer, there would have been more noise, but “no one heard a shot — and a lot of people were gathered around from the 10:30 Mass,” he said.
Once he found out Estrada had been struck, Henderson offered help. “I got a chair and sat her in the shade, and got her some ice,” he said. When paramedics arrived, along with about five police officers, they found her vital signs normal and moved her by stretcher to the ambulance, he said.
“She wasn’t dizzy, was never unconscious, she didn’t black out at all.”
By the time the ambulance arrived, the bleeding had stopped.
“They took her in to make sure there was nothing happening internally,” Henderson said. “There was quite a bit of discussion as to whether she needed to go at all,” particularly because Estrada was taking the whole experience in stride. “(Her husband) was a little bit shaken, more than she was,” Henderson said. “She seemed totally calm.”
Neither Henderson nor the Garcias had contact information for the Estrada family.
The ambulance, without sirens, transported Estrada and her husband to University of New Mexico Hospital, while her son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren followed.
Estrada was listed in stable condition at 8:30 Sunday night, according to University of New Mexico Health Science Center spokesman Billy Sparks.
During Mass at St. Jude Thaddeus Catholic Church three Sundays ago in northwest Albuquerque, 24-year old Lawrence Capener allegedly climbed over several pews, yelled out, “Fake preacher!” and used a pocket knife to stab the choir director and choir members who tried to stop him.
“I think they are totally isolated events,” Henderson said of the April 28 attack.
“And the one lesson, of course, is that people shouldn’t be shooting in the air,” he said. “We can be really thankful it wasn’t worse.”