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Family falls apart as father's slaying in Salt Lake City goes unpunished

Published July 13, 2013 2:54 pm

Courts • 17 years later, no clear explanation of why the fatal attack wasn't prosecuted.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Seventeen years after their father was killed in cold blood, time has healed nothing.

As the Durazo children learned the last man awaiting trial for his death would not stand before judge or jury, feelings the children had struggled to overcome since their father died rushed back in a bile-bitten churn of the stomach.

The rage. The pain. The isolation.

Prosecutors dropped all charges against Michael Pierson last month in the 1996 murder of Lonnie Durazo.

Durazo's seven children have grown into adults without seeing any of the four people charged in their father's slaying convicted of murder.

And as another anniversary of his death nears, they doubt they ever will.

"The justice system failed us," said daughter Larisa Mondragen, 29. "It's made me feel like my dad's case wasn't important at all."

Losing their father was like a powerful wave that scattered the children across rough seas. Lost, alone, they clung to the wrong things — gangs, drugs, crime — before they found their way back to one another.

There are times, though, when each still feels adrift.

Times like now, they wonder: Does anyone care?

The shooting • In the early morning hours of July 24, 1996, Lonnie Durazo, 31, sat on the front porch of his Salt Lake City home talking to his 16-year-old girlfriend who lived next door.

A Marine veteran and father of seven, Durazo worked full-time installing windshields in automobiles. He was fighting his estranged wife for full custody of his kids and had been trying to scrape together enough money to buy a house.

His pre-teen daughters, who refused to go to sleep, shrieked and ran across the porch.

They paused for a moment as four headlights illuminated Chicago Street.

Two cars had been circling the block for the past several minutes. Durazo stood up, raised his hands.

"Hey," he called. "You lost?"

The car doors opened as two masked men climbed out, wearing gloves and holding guns.

Durazo shouted at his children to get inside. They ran into the house, through the living room and into a closet, where they huddled together among sheets and clothes.

Outside, the men walked up to Durazo.

"What's up, Blood?" they asked. Seconds later, at 3:23 a.m., the men opened fire.

Durazo and his girlfriend tried to run around the side of the narrow wood-framed house. When the gunmen followed, Durazo pushed the girl to the ground and stood over her, shielding her from the bullets.

About a dozen rounds were fired. Durazo died at the scene. The girl was wounded in the leg.

The gunmen got away.

Regina Durazo Cuevas remembers seeing her brother's body face-down on the grass in front of the house as police officers and detectives milled about.

"They were telling jokes over the spot on the front lawn where Lonnie was lying there dead," she said. "It was that way from the start, like the whole justice system looked at my brother's death and thought, 'No big deal.' "

Justice delayed • The case went unsolved for months.

Eventually, Salt Lake City police charged four people.

Alleged shooters Quetzalcohual "Qex" Chapman and Michael Pierson were each charged with murder. Ellie Watson and Jessica Valdez, the drivers, were charged with lesser offenses.

The group had been cruising through the west-side neighborhood looking for rival gangsters, police said. Durazo was a victim of mistaken identity.

None was hit harder by this news than the victim's mother, Marie Durazo.

Though she felt vindicated in the knowledge that her son "was a good person," as she told The Salt Lake Tribune in 1996, she also felt robbed.

She began hanging on to whatever was left of her son. Old report cards, military records, photos, poems, court dates and newspaper clippings began to fill folders, then binders, then boxes.

As the cases wound through 3rd District Court, she didn't miss an appearance.

"She was determined to see them pay for what they took from her," Cuevas said. "The prosecutors told me and my mom they had a strong case, that these people were going to go away for a long time."

Watson and Valdez pleaded guilty and were sentenced within two years. Both were out of custody before Chapman was brought to trial.

After nearly five years of delay, Chapman argued his case before a jury.

He said he was at a friend's party across town, that he couldn't have shot Durazo because he wasn't there. Prosecutors pointed to bullet casings found at the scene and testimony from two gang members, who said Chapman and Pierson shot Durazo.

But it wasn't enough to sway the jury. Unable to agree on a verdict, the two men and six women declared themselves a hung jury.

Three years later, Chapman was sentenced to 14 months in jail after pleading guilty to two third-degree felonies.

On a yellow Post-it note attached to a court notice of Chapman's sentencing, Marie Durazo made a note: "We could have saved our breath for all the good it did."

Pierson's trial was supposed to follow Chapman's, but dates came and went without ever seating a jury.

Months dragged into years.

Marie Durazo still attended every hearing, but it was getting harder.

"Every time we left the courthouse, I felt like I lost a little more of my mom," Cuevas said. "She lost a lot of herself when it all happened, and every time someone got off lightly or they pleaded out, it's like we lost a little more of her."

In 2011, Marie Durazo was diagnosed with chronic liver disease. Doctors told her she would die without a transplant.

Marie Durazo, 64, walked into the hospital in January 2012 for the operation. Seven months later, she left in a casket.

She died one day shy of the 16th anniversary of her son's murder, having never seen his accused killer brought to justice.

'Evidentiary issues' • Michael Pierson has been in prison since 1999, when he was convicted of murder for shooting a West Valley City man during a botched robbery of drugs and money. He was sentenced to up to life in prison and isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

That, prosecutors said, is a good thing.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill declined to specify why the case against Pierson for allegedly killing Lonnie Durazo was dropped — he cited "evidentiary issues" — but noted that it is "still an open case," and charges may be refiled at a later date.

Prosecutors did not say why Pierson was never brought to trial for Durazo's murder — despite years of delays. They declined to delve into the details of the case, including whether Pierson's co-defendants had agreed to testify against him. The Durazo family was told the case had been dropped after a key witness died in a motorcycle accident.

But Deputy Salt Lake County District Attorney Blake Nakamura said it was likely due to Pierson's defense attorneys raising "certain issues" that made it difficult to "go forward and successfully prosecute a case, in light of what the defense has raised."

Pierson's defense attorney, Jeremy Delicino, who has represented Pierson for just four of the 17-year saga, denied this.

He said prosecutors dropped the charges of their own accord and expressed frustration at how long the case has lingered in 3rd District Court.

"There's no good explanation for why it's been going on this long," Delicino said. "Except that no one has ever been in a big rush to get this case tried."

In 11 years, Pierson will be eligible for parole.

Things fall apart • Isaac Durazo was a year old when his father was struck down in a hail of bullets.

He doesn't recall his father's voice or laugh. He knows all he can about the contours of the man's face from old photographs.

Isaac has never had a dad.

But scarcely a day goes by that Isaac doesn't wonder what life might have been like if he had.

The 17-year-old has seen more than his share of hardship: A mother who didn't want him. Sisters, torn up by the death of their father, who clung to gangs for protection and drugs to numb the pain. An older brother sent to federal prison.

Isaac has his father's easy smile and earnest eyes. He's been in counseling since he was 12, when he first entered the juvenile-justice system.

"I always figured if my dad was here, my sisters wouldn't be how they ended up. I visualize these fantasies of what our life would have been like. As a family," Isaac said. "I guess I have an abandonment issue. I think we all do."

On his back, a tattoo bears his father's name. Several of his siblings have similar markings. An homage to the man, they said, who taught them the meaning of love.

"My dad was what kept this family together," said daughter Charrise Durazo, 30. "After he died, we all went kind of crazy. Everything fell apart."

Broken promises • Before the gunfire and sirens and grief, it was time for a 6-year-old girl to go to bed.

But on the night of July 23, 1996, Derinda Durazo wouldn't go quietly.

The self-described "daddy's girl" whimpered and wriggled as he lay her down on the living room floor atop blankets and pillows.

The soft glow of the TV lit up Lonnie Durazo's face as he leaned down to kiss his youngest daughter goodnight.

"Don't worry," he said. "I'll be back."

A kiss on the cheek. A smile.

Then, he was gone.

Derinda doesn't remember falling asleep that night. She's not sure if she dreamed.

But she knows this: She awoke to a nightmare.

"I don't think I'll ever accept losing my dad," said Derinda, now 23. "These people robbed me, my whole family, of something so important. I don't know if I'll ever be able to forgive that."

mlang@sltrib.com

Twitter: marissa_jae