By Sara Grossbarth, Zoe Jennings, Rowena Li, Fenit Nirappil and Nicola Paracchini
Medill Innocence Project
Manuela Avalos’ photo album is filled with empty pages. She opens its turquoise cover and stares at her 23-year-old self.
In the picture, she wears a white lace-trimmed dress, and she is surrounded by her family, beside a towering cake. Arms linked with the man at her side, she prepares to step forward toward the altar.
“When you get married, you think it’s forever,” Manuela, now 41 years old, says in Spanish. “You make all these plans.”
Ivette Ginjauma doesn’t have any photos of her wedding, but she remembers wearing a sweater dress and leggings while her groom turned up in a uniform, a blue button-down shirt and khakis. There was no cake. A prison chaplain officiated the ceremony and a corrections officer served as their witness. Ivette’s then 10-year-old son, Jaylen, was the only guest.
“Every day feels like a year,” Ivette says. “Every day I wake up and see all the things I do by myself and without him by my side.”
The two women have never met, but their husbands crossed paths nearly 15 years ago. It was another shooting on the Northwest Side of Chicago. To most anyone else, the incident meant little more than a brief on a police blotter: a reckless teenager with a gun sentenced to prison, an innocent bystander claimed by inner-city violence. But the story of these two women—overlooked collateral damage from a violent crime—is a tragedy that transcends statistics.
Manuela lost a husband and today feels no connection to the man held responsible; Ivette gained a husband by falling in love with a man despite his murder conviction.
It was June 13, 1997, the night the Chicago Bulls won their fifth NBA championship. At the intersection of Cicero and Diversey avenues, a crowd took to the street as part of a citywide celebration. At the same corner, Manuela’s husband, Concepcion Diaz, waited for a bus ride home after a long day at work.
Farther up on Cicero, 17-year-old Ariel Gomez cruised down the street in a red 1995 Nissan Pathfinder SUV with four friends. About 30 minutes before midnight, a bullet tore through Concepcion’s back and chest. He was pronounced dead from multiple gunshot wounds at 12:22 a.m., according to medical records. He was 32.
Police quickly arrested Ariel and his friends. Ariel said he fired his gun, not toward the crowd of revelers, as he was accused, but only once into the sky to ward off an angry mob.
Today, Manuela is indifferent to Ariel’s claims of innocence: “If he’s innocent, or not innocent, God will forgive him. It doesn’t matter to me.”
Manuela first noticed Concepcion at a banquet hall in Chinacates, Durango, a town in central Mexico. She had traveled an hour from her family’s mountain ranch to dance to the lively beats of musica norteña. The two didn’t dance or even speak the first time, but Manuela kept coming back to Chinacates. They were from separate pueblos, or neighborhoods. She was shy, but managed to catch his eye. The year was 1993. Soon they began dating. He wrote her letters when they were apart and always surprised her with a gift when they saw each other.
“He paid attention to the small things,” Manuela says. “He would bring me flowers, he cared about the details… that’s what I really loved the most.” When the flowers dried, she would save the petals.
A year after they started dating, Manuela and Concepcion married in October 1994. Days later, they moved to Mundelein, Ill., a suburb an hour northwest of downtown Chicago. They moved among relatives’ apartments before renting one of their own in Cicero. Concepcion picked the name for their son, Jacob, who was born Sept. 13, 1995.
On weekdays, Concepcion worked long hours in a printing factory. Roxanne Avalos, Manuela’s sister-in-law, says he was a machine operator. He peddled ice cream from a cart on the weekends. They didn’t have much to live on, didn’t even have a phone, but they planned to save enough money to go back to Mexico and open a quesería, a cheese shop. Manuela says that they wanted to wait until Jacob was five to have more children.
Concepcion left for work at 10 a.m., returning at 11 p.m. throughout the week. “On Saturdays he would tell me, ‘Be ready.’ That would be our day to do things,” Manuela says. He knew Chicago well, and they would travel to the zoo and Lake Michigan. They rode the bus so often that it became one of Jacob’s first words.
The couple mostly kept to themselves. Concepcion mainly went to work and came back, and Manuela rarely left the apartment, according to the couple’s former landlady, Maria Hernandez.
“They were just as timid together as they were separated,” Roxanne says.
Concepcion was mild-mannered and gentle, but also proud, Roxanne says. Once, Roxanne and her husband, Manuela’s brother, offered to give Concepcion a used, early ‘80s Renault, but Concepcion turned it down. When Roxanne later helped Manuela move out of Manuela’s apartment, she found a bag of unused clothes she had given them. Concepcion had refused to let the family wear the gifts. “He didn’t want family help,” Roxanne says. “He wanted to show that he could do it himself.”
Without many friends in their quiet world, Manuela devoted much of her energy to taking care of Jacob, just 21 months old when his father died.
Now, Manuela looks down at her wedding album again. In one of the final pictures, before the blank pages begin, Concepcion holds her. Their ear-to-ear smiles match.
Five miles from home
On June 13, 1997, living rooms across Chicago glowed with the final score–Bulls, 90, Jazz, 86–and fans piled into cars to celebrate. That night, Manuela sat awake, waiting for Concepcion to come home.
A couple miles north on Cicero, at the intersection with Diversey, cars crowded the parking lot by a Little Caesars pizza joint. Fans packed the sidewalks, waving five fingers in the air for five Bulls championships.
Squeezed into his mother’s Pathfinder, Ariel and his four friends drove south on Cicero. At the intersection, the SUV stopped at a red light, with two of the boys seated on top of the car.
As the boys looked out from the roof, the mayhem from the celebration turned violent. Crowds began surging toward the car. Something heavy—a brick or a piece of curb—hit one of the boys in the head. As his friend began to bleed, Ariel tried to find a way around the parked cars and streets clogged with people.
Meanwhile, Concepcion waited at the bus stop near the corner of Cicero and Diversey, according to police reports. He didn’t have much farther to travel: just a stretch down Cicero, the walk to his building, the stairs down to the basement apartment and then he would be home.
Ariel turned into an alley. His friend was becoming dizzy. Sensing trouble, Ariel stopped the car and opened the hood of the Pathfinder, retrieving a chrome pistol he had put there earlier in the night, and climbed into the passenger’s seat.
Another boy turned the car right out of the alley. Ariel leaned out the window, the gun in his hand. He fired. People ran and screamed. Witnesses say more gunshots followed, but it is unclear where they came from.
Back at Concepcion’s apartment, Manuela couldn’t fall asleep. “I waited for him to open the door and walk through it,” Manuela says. “He had never spent one night away from me, and when he didn’t come home, I knew something was wrong.”
Paramedics found Concepcion sprawled on the pavement in the middle of the Little Caesars parking lot. He was wearing a “whitish” sports shirt, brown pants, white socks and black gym shoes, according to the medical examiner’s report. Authorities recovered 75 cents and a pair of keys from his pockets. There were bullet wounds in his chest, back and wrist. A bullet was found lodged in his wrist. He was less than five miles from home.
So many plans
At trial a year later, witnesses offered conflicting accounts about how many shots were fired and the location of the Pathfinder when the shots rang out. The only consensus was that there were multiple shots. Forensic testing showed that the bullet found in Concepcion’s body did not match the gun police recovered from Ariel’s home just hours after the crime.
In a bench trial, Judge Dennis Dernbach decided the prosecution proved Ariel and the driver of the car guilty of first-degree murder beyond a reasonable doubt. The other three boys were acquitted.
Before announcing the sentences, Dernbach addressed the people in the courtroom. “As happens in these cases, whoever the shooters are aiming at are never the people hit,” he said, according to trial transcripts. “It’s always Mr. Diaz on his way home from work to be with his wife and child who are killed. It’s always the seven-year-old who is standing around, the year-and-a-half old in the buggy who is killed.”
Manuela doesn’t remember writing a victim-impact statement in which she asked the judge to “please sentence these men to the fullest degree possible” for the crime that left her a widow and her child fatherless. Her sister-in-law, Roxanne, recalls helping to write and translate the statement.
“We had so many plans for the future,” her statement reads. “However, all of our future plans were destroyed by those men that killed him.”
Dernbach sentenced Ariel to 35 years in prison. The judge gave the driver 25 years behind bars, a sentence that would be reduced on appeal almost three years later. “In this case, the tragic consequences are to Mrs. Diaz and her child… No sentence I give in any way will bring back Mr. Diaz, nor in any way assuage the loss to Miss Diaz and her son of the victim in this case,” Dernbach said.
Shocked and afraid, Manuela was taken in by her family. Her brother and sister-in-law moved her out of her apartment. She left all of Concepcion’s things behind. “I didn’t work at the time, and I had this baby, and then I was left alone,” Manuela says.
Nearly 15 years later, she doesn’t recognize the name Ariel Gomez.
‘I need to know the truth’
Ivette looked at the envelope, confused. Ariel got her address from his cellmate, Ivette’s cousin, who was incarcerated for murder. He thought Ivette and Ariel were “the perfect match.” Ariel says he drafted his first letter to Ivette Feb. 26, 2003, introducing himself and telling his story. He attached an article from the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin about a federal judge calling his imprisonment a “manifest injustice” after an appeals court freed Ariel’s alleged accomplice because of a lack of evidence against Ariel.
Ivette, compelled by the newspaper article and Ariel’s wit, decided to write back. The two started exchanging letters. One from Ariel ran 44 pages double-sided.
“I got to know Ariel through letters,” Ivette says. “I didn’t meet him because of his flashy car, or because he had a nice outfit on. I met him for him.”
Ivette decided to visit Ariel in person at the Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg, Ill., on Aug. 17, 1993, about six months after receiving his first letter. Having never driven on the expressway, she took a three-and-a-half-hour long bus ride.
Ivette wore what she would to work: a sleeveless blouse, slacks and dress-up shoes. Prison officials refused to let her visit an inmate without sleeves. Desperate, Ivette asked the bus driver to take her to a nearby Wal-Mart. Instead, he found an extra-extra-large white T-shirt in the back of the bus. With no other choice, Ivette placed the stranger’s shirt over her blouse and tried to tie the excess cloth to make it fit better.
She sat next to Ariel in the prison lunchroom but didn’t recognize him at first. He was much darker and bulkier than his online mug shot. Ariel also didn’t recognize Ivette immediately.
“I thought she was taller and I was like, ‘Where is she?’ But then I realized it was her and she just wasn’t looking at me. She just passed by and didn’t even say, ‘Hi.’ And I thought, ‘Well, this is going to be great.’”
Ariel remembers his nervousness and sweaty hands when he finally said hello. They talked for hours, frequently referencing their letters. Ariel surprised Ivette when he told her his real surname was not Gomez, his mother’s maiden name, as the prison processed him, but Ginjauma, his legal last name.
“What? How do you spell that?” Ivette asked.
“G-I-N…” Ariel responded.
“Gin and juice?”
“This is going to take me awhile.”
“You’d better learn,” he said. “Someday it [this name] will be yours.”
As Ivette left, Ariel leaned in to kiss her and called her chiquita. On the bus ride home, Ariel’s mother, Celia Gomez, called Ivette to find out how the first date went. “Muy bueno,” Ivette muttered and offered to call her back later.
Celia, who had met Ivette earlier, was approving. “I saw that she was a good mother, that she took care of my son and supported him, and I thought they had a nice relationship,” she says.
After that first visit, they continued to exchange letters, spoke on the phone weekly and kept up the prison visits. A year later, Ivette brought her 3-year-old son Jaylen to the prison, telling him Ariel was in school and the correctional officers were teachers.
As the relationship became more serious, Ivette began to investigate Ariel’s conviction. He has always maintained his innocence. She pulled court files and copied newspaper clippings. She spent her 23rd birthday in court watching Ariel’s attorney give oral arguments on an appeal. But at times, she says she wondered whether Ariel had fired the fatal bullet. “I’m here for the long haul,” she says she told him. “I need to know the truth.”
Framed Bible quotes, figurines of Jesus and Mary, an honor roll certificate and a child’s school project line the walls of Manuela’s modest home in Mundelein. The only reminders of Concepcion are her wedding album, tucked upstairs on a shelf in her bedroom, and their son Jacob, now 16. She left Concepcion’s letters and the dried flower petals in Mexico.
Manuela stays home with her two younger children—Leslie, 5, and Luis, 9—whom she raises with her boyfriend of 11 years. She rarely leaves the house, doesn’t drive and doesn’t have a job. “I’m weak,” Manuela says. “Sometimes I can’t wake up and get out of bed.” She worries about Jacob and his whereabouts: “If he doesn’t call me back immediately or I can’t reach him, I instantly think the worst.”
Manuela doesn’t cry until she lets herself remember the moment she learned of her husband’s death nearly 15 years ago: “I think about it every day. It will always stay with me. I’m still traumatized.”
When Medill students show her a story they wrote about the night of the crime, she sees a picture of Ariel in prison. She doesn’t recognize him, but she does have questions about his conviction. “Why was he convicted if the bullet doesn’t match the gun?” she asks. “That doesn’t make sense.”
In the end, however, she doesn’t care about the particulars. “I don’t want to know who killed him,” she says. “One way or another, he won’t be with me. I know my son really misses him, and I do, too.”
A moment passes. Manuela folds her delicate hands at the dining room table. Her daughter, Leslie, chatters from another room, the only noise that fills the silence until Manuela breaks it. “I don’t like music anymore,” she says. “If I hear a song that reminds me of him, it makes me sad, so I can’t listen to music anymore.”
After her husband’s death, she says her life ended—except for life with Jacob. “Your dad is watching you from heaven and guiding you” is what she has managed to tell him. God took him away, she says. Feeling Concepcion’s presence, she prays and talks to him for help raising their son, whom she has never told about his father’s slaying.
But Jacob knows more than his mother thinks he does. “I’ve tried to talk to her about it, but she won’t budge,” he says. “She just doesn’t know what to say.” His mother has never returned to Mexico, but Jacob has visited his father’s grave there. “I was a kid and didn’t think much of it,” Jacob says. “It was just a stone. It was like a field trip.”
Jacob is an avid soccer player and wrestler who dreams of becoming a lawyer—the kind of son Concepcion would have been proud of, Manuela says. She adds, “I want the best for my children. But sometimes you can’t get what you want because your destiny is already decided for you.”
When she started dating Ariel, Ivette believed he would leave prison soon. He had a new lawyer on his case, and his co-defendant had been released after a successful appeal—but Ariel’s conviction remained unchanged. Nearly nine years into their relationship, Ivette doesn’t want to make any predictions. “I don’t want to say ‘he’ll be home within a year’ because I don’t want to fall from that height,” Ivette says. “I’m scared of being disappointed again.”
Ariel’s mother, Celia, never imagined they’d be together so long while he was in prison.
“But I also thought Ariel would be out soon, and the years just passed and she was still there for him,” says Celia. “I told my son, a woman who has been there through all of this, holding on and supporting him, that’s hard.”
Even Ariel never expected Ivette would stand by him for as long as she has.
“She used to tell me, ‘11 days, 11 years, I’m here,’ and I didn’t believe her,” says Ariel. “But she has been.”
After their wedding in December 2010, Ivette bought a stack of manila envelopes and wrote letters to innocence projects across the country, asking them to look into Ariel’s case. Numerous rejections later, Ariel asked her to stop sending him applications, resigned to just finish his time.
“You’re doing your time. We have to do the time with you,” Ivette tells him.
Despite the distance, she says he still provides comfort to her and discipline to the kids on days they act up. “The biggest misconception is that he can’t help me, or can’t do anything for me, and that’s wrong,” she says. “Maybe financially he can’t, but mentally he is there for me, and he helps me stay strong.” Ariel says he tries to do little things to be involved in the children’s lives. He saves up money and arranges for friends on the outside to buy Jaylen, now 12, and Islanie, 4, school supplies before Ivette gets around to doing it.
Before she married him, she’d tell people Ariel was her husband so they wouldn’t judge. “When you say your boyfriend is in jail, the looks are different because people just think, ‘Oh, here you are wasting your time with a guy that’s just in jail,’” Ivette says. “‘Move on. Do better for yourself.’”
Ivette’s closest friend, Gina Pons, says he makes her happy, but she also sees the stress the relationship puts on her. “She doesn’t get the simple little things, like getting a hug in the morning,” says Gina. “She has to pay $11 for a half an hour phone call. She has to wait for visits to see him.”
The Illinois Department of Corrections projects Ariel will be paroled in 2018, after serving 20 years. When that happens, the couple plans to move to Texas, Ariel’s childhood home. There, he hopes to start his own car dealership. He plans to fix a beat-up car with Jaylen, who will be 17, the same age Ariel was when he found himself charged with first-degree murder. “He’ll start living his life through Jaylen and with Jaylen,” Ivette says. At school, when his friends ask about his father, Jaylen says that Ariel is in prison but is coming home soon.
“Everybody has a dad,” Jaylen says. “What’s the difference between having a dad at home and having a dad in jail? He’s still going to be the dad.” Yet Jaylen points out the difference: “The time he misses my birthdays, my sister’s, my mom’s.” Eager to have another man in the house, Jaylen says he wants to play paintball and video games once Ariel is released.
Jacob turns 17 this September. He keeps his father’s death certificate and a picture of his family in his room. Now his confusion about his father’s death has turned into questions about his absence: “It comes to my mind more and more.”
This investigation was conducted by 10 undergraduate students at Medill as part of an investigative journalism class taught by Northwestern University Professor Alec Klein, director of the Medill Innocence Project, which supported the class work. Suyeon “Summer” Son, an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland, contributed to this report as a fellow of the Medill Innocence Project. Alison Flowers, research associate at the Medill Innocence Project, also contributed to this report.