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Father watched son gunned down by stranger at Salt Lake shop

Published March 17, 2012 6:47 pm

Crime • Family and police plead for help capturing killer.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

As Stephen Guadalupe Chavez lay dying on the floor of his father's store, the older man pleaded to spare his beloved son's life.

"Please no, baby," his father, Isabel Chavez, said he cried to his son. "Let me [die instead]. I'm old enough already."

As Isabel Chavez knelt next to his wounded 26-year-old son Wednesday night, Stephen died before his eyes.

Friday, Stephen's family continued to reel over the senseless loss of the man who, they said, was always happy, loved his family and would do anything to help others. Police, meanwhile, continued to search for the killer.

"He was a wonderful guy," Isabel Chavez said. "He was a nice son to me. He was a nice guy."

Wednesday started out with a celebration, said Jessica Chavez. It was the first birthday of her son, Stephen's nephew. Just two hours before the shooting, they gathered at the family's small business, C.J. Smoke Shop, tucked away at 876 W. 800 South, to celebrate the occasion with pizza. Jessica Chavez said she was on her way back with a birthday cake when she learned her brother was dead.

Isabel Chavez said the incident started when he told a man who was drinking in the parking lot outside his shop that he needed to leave. The man asked what they planned to do to make him leave, and Isabel Chavez told him he wasn't going to do anything. He told his son to call the police.

Stephen, he said, tried to protect him and told the man not to disrespect his father. As Isabel Chavez tried to defuse the situation and walk away, he said, the suspect punched his son in the face, starting a physical altercation. When a neighbor called 911, the man fled. The Chavezes went back inside their shop.

About 30 minutes later, while they were still waiting for police to arrive, tragedy struck.

Isabel Chavez said Stephen was standing unarmed behind the cash register when the man showed up again, this time armed with an assault rifle. As Isabel Chavez watched in horror, the man placed the barrel about two inches from Stephen's heart, shouted, "I'm going to kill you mother [expletive]," and pulled the trigger.

"[It was] like the wind hit me," Isabel Chavez said. "I was too late. [My son] was gone."

As Stephen lay on the ground, the shooter fired two more shots into his body, then he peppered the outside of the shop with bullets before jumping into a waiting getaway car, Isabel Chavez said.

Friday afternoon, supporters and friends of Stephen had set up a makeshift memorial near the locked doors of the shop.

The family hopes to reopen the store — which they have operated for about a year — when the memories of the slaying are less raw. Stephen's mother, Leslie Montano, said most of their customers are like family and are as stunned by Stephen's death as they are. Stephen's killer was a stranger who had never shopped there, the family said.

"We've never had problems — never, ever," she said. "Why did he do that?"

The family can't help wondering if Stephen might have been spared, had the police come sooner.

Salt Lake City police Detective Josh Ashdown said an officer responding to the initial assault report was just one minute away from the shop when someone called 911 at 8:06 p.m. to report the shooting. Ashdown said the initial fight call was classified as lower priority because there were no reports of injuries. Also, officers had been investigating a double auto-pedestrian accident with critical injuries, and a report of shots fired in Sugar House.

Ashdown called events at the smoke shop — where a stranger had left a fistfight and returned with a gun — "not very common" behavior. He said the killer apparently has a very short fuse.

Both police and the Chavezes want to get the killer off the streets before he hurts someone else.

Officers said the suspect is described as a Latino in his late 20s, about 5-foot-8, weighing about 140 pounds. The man had a thin mustache and long black hair that was slicked back and shaved short on the sides. He was last seen wearing tan pants, a light-colored shirt and a dark jacket.

Police are looking for a red car they believe belongs to the shooter, but also another vehicle — a dark blue Honda, 2001-2003 — which likely belongs to whoever drove the killer back to the shop.

Anyone with information is asked to call police at 801-799-3000. Callers can remain anonymous.

jstecklein@sltrib.com

Twitter @sltribjanelle