Honoring the past, surviving the pain, pursuing new dreams
The heart-shaped, helium balloon is sagging and the flowers have wilted and turned crunchy, but still their presence makes this disturbed plot of earth at Woodlawn Cemetery noticeable.
A headstone is absent. That will come later.
Arturo Martinez-Sanchez doesn’t need an engraved slab of stone to mark where his beloved Yady and Karla rest. He can sketch a map of the cemetery, pinpointing every bend and narrow lane leading to the gravesite shared by his wife and daughter, having visited the cemetery on a weekly basis for months.
They come less often now, every couple of weeks.
“Every time we come, we bring flowers,” he says.
It’s a chilly Sunday morning in early February. As a gust of wind sweeps across the cemetery, Arturo kneels and removes the two old bouquets with the attached balloon. His girlfriend, Gisela Corral, fills the cylindrical hole with fresh red roses while 10-year-old Cristopher Martinez fetches water.
Yady’s birthday was Feb. 1. She would have turned 39.
“I like to have roses because her favorite color was red,” Arturo says.
The wind ruffles a piece of paper in his hand. It’s a homemade card for his wife from a niece. Underneath a giant sun are three stick figures: Yady, the niece and Karla.
Standing at the gravesite, Arturo, his two boys and Gisela hold hands. This is Gisela’s second time here. The first was for the burial, months before she and Arturo quietly began dating. In a small circle with their heads bowed, they pray for Yady and Karla, whose coffins are buried on top of each other, to rest in peace.
Five-year-old Alejandro pulls away, flops down and kisses the ground.
The children, they grow up so quickly. And parents worry so about what their future holds.
Cristopher, for instance, enjoys science, particularly chemistry and biology, but he’s not a huge fan of reading or writing. Those were his sister’s favorite school subjects.
His real passion is basketball. He wants to play for the Chicago Bulls, just like his sports hero Michael Jordan.
In the fall, Cristopher will enter middle school — a place where time seems to accelerate, transforming children into teens.
So many unknowns.
On this day, the future becomes a bit more sure. Arturo and his boys are meeting Bobby Ellis, owner of Snap Towing, and his wife, Sandy — the couple who, without ever meeting Arturo or his sons, donated $5,000 to each boy months earlier. Today, they’ll double it.
“I’m so glad you could get together,” says Barbara Buckley, director of the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, as she welcomes the strangers. “You were so generous, and I wanted Arturo to get a chance to meet you.”
Wearing blue jeans, black boots and a red UNLV jacket, Bobby Ellis explains he and his wife, both 70 years old, have known good times and bad, but they persevered through the challenges and now enjoy giving to people in need.
They hope others flush with cash might follow suit in helping Arturo’s sons.
Sandy Ellis, looking at Arturo, says the pair were mortified by what happened last year.
“Hopefully, it’s a little something to help your family,” she says kindly.
Arturo points to his sons seated across the table.
“The money you guys give to us is for them,” he says. “If something happened to me, they’re going to be alone. That’s how I am guaranteeing their future.”
Arturo offers the couple his expertise as an electrician — the only way he says he knows how to repay them — as his boys hug them.
Arturo thanks Buckley, who has been helping him with an assortment of legal matters since the killings of his wife and daughter. From there, the conversation turns to friendly chitchat, as Arturo talks about his daily routine keeping his boxing gym open.
“Do you keep real busy over there?” Sandy Ellis asks.
“In the afternoons, it’s really busy,” he says.
But busy doesn’t necessarily mean profitable. Arturo spends roughly $1,700 each month operating the Real KO Boxing Club. Child members pay $40 per month. Adults pay $55, but attendance fluctuates.
“There are some people who come here and don’t pay,” Arturo says. He’s on the watch for them.
He doesn’t make any money from the gym. At best, he breaks even.
Doctors haven’t cleared him to return to work as an electrician. He agrees with their assessment. Cognitively, he’s not quite there yet. He struggles with simple math like multiplying 12 by 12.
“I have to think what that is,” he says. “It is frustrating.”
When it comes to his job, however, that’s one math problem he knows without hesitation: Working as an electrician will provide more income for his family. And he likes the trade. He doesn’t want to be a plumber or a framer.
“I want to go back to work,” he says. “I definitely want to get back to work, but my health is just kind of ...”
He doesn’t finish the sentence.
Arturo is in his sister’s garage this afternoon in March, on the hunt for a particular box. It is brimming with family photos.
Also in the box: 11 rolls of film, waiting to be developed and sure to trigger a flood of fresh memories of Yady and Karla. For now, he can only wonder what they will show.
But the printed photos, they are real. His smile grows as he fumbles through pictures of his children as babies, of family barbecues, of him and Yady as college students. In a sense, this box is his life timeline — orderly in some parts, messy in others. In other words, real.
“That’s my Karla,” he murmurs.
“That’s my Cristopher.”
“That’s my wife.”
At one point, he grabs a professional-grade photo and holds it up. In it, Karla is smiling with all her teeth showing, surrounded by her gymnastics team.
“See this picture?” he says. “That was Karla.”
Perhaps some of these photos will decorate walls one day, just like photos did in his Robin Street house. He’s not sure where that new home will be.
In January, Bank of America bestowed Arturo with a late Christmas gift: The bank deeded his Robin Street house to him, releasing him from any further mortgage payments. The bank also gave him $20,000.
“They have a long row to hoe,” says George W. Smith, president of Bank of America–Nevada, explaining the financial institution’s simple rationale for the gift. “We’re pulling for them.”
Arturo plans to rent out the Robin Street home as an extra source of income. Family and friends have helped him fix up the inside, erasing any visible scars.
He wants to buy another house — a new start in a different neighborhood. He’s ready to turn a house into a home again.
On Valentine’s Day, he proposed to Gisela while visiting her family in Florida. She said yes.
He thinks Yady would be happy for him and pleased he chose someone familiar with their family. Plus, they share the Catholic faith and Arturo likes how she interacts with children despite not having any of her own.
His love for Gisela comes with a caveat, though: He has deep pain, the kind that burrows into the soul and might never leave. Listening to certain music in his boxing gym can reduce him to tears.
Whoever loves him in return needs to understand and accept that, he says.
“If you love people, you cannot forget right away,” he says. “I still miss Karla. I still miss Yadira.
“I was married for a long time, and I would like to be married again.”
Arturo and Gisela have not set a wedding date.
Arturo is panting. He’s sweating. His gold rosary — the one Gisela gave him on his birthday — is thumping against his chest.
Arturo is running at the Cheyenne Sports Complex in North Las Vegas, following the faded white lines on a track.
It’s 50 degrees and drizzling on this Friday morning in early March. Arturo is alone, aside from two seemingly misplaced seagulls.
The one-time sprinter who competed in a state competition at age 11 started running again two weeks ago. His reason: “I was feeling good.”
His headaches have largely gone away — so he’s off those meds — and the numbness in his limbs has subsided. He can jump rope again and sometimes throw rapid punches into a hanging speed bag at the boxing gym.
These physical improvements don’t make up for his lingering cognitive difficulties, but they’re a start. His ophthalmologist would deliver more good news later in March: His lost vision in the bottom left quadrant of his right eye has continued coming back. It’s not a full recovery, but it’s evidence that recovery has not stopped.
Even the puffy, red scars on his scalp have faded slightly thanks to a series of laser treatments. In April, he will undergo a minor surgical procedure to further minimize scarring and doctors will also repair his nose, which was injured years earlier in a basketball game.
Today, under the cloudy, gray skies, Arturo jogs 2 miles without stopping.
As he walks a cool-down lap, he says he feels good.
“It’s just up and up and up,” he says of his recovery.
After tragic misfortune or evil strikes a home, police officers, firefighters or paramedics respond, followed by detectives and in the worst cases, coroner’s investigators.
Stoically, these first responders take each day as it comes and move on.
But not every memory is easy to shake, especially those from inside 1016 Robin St.
For Noreen Charlton, the mental images would return in the dark of night — Karla and Yadira begging, pleading for help. The mother and her look-alike daughter want a way out, an escape from the shadowy figure bent on destruction.
But it was too late. It would always be too late.
Amid their cries for help, Charlton would startle awake. This pattern would continue for months, stirring a sense of helplessness.
Charlton is a senior crime scene analyst for Metro Police.
As one of the first responders who converged on this family’s home, Charlton snapped 3,000 photos of the crime scene. She also befriended Yady’s two surviving children, Cristopher and Alejandro.
“You realize you have to desensitize yourself,” Charlton says. “You can’t be attached to scenes, and you can’t be attached to victims ... but I just couldn’t. These were my little friends now.
“I could not separate myself from what they had just been through. That was my biggest struggle over the next course of days, months, to this day. I just want them to do so well, especially Cristopher, because he was old enough to know what was going on.”
Monte Spoor, another senior crime scene analyst, turned to his creative outlet — writing poetry — after attending autopsies for Karla and Yady and touring the family’s home.
It was a cruel juxtaposition: He watched medical examiners collect evidence from the little girl’s bludgeoned body. The next day, he saw photos of Karla proudly hung on the walls.
And so the burly man with a shaved head and black-rimmed glasses sat down and started writing. He called one poem “My Vulnerabilities,” which ends:
I am doomed to repeat my time
Always living in the crime
I cry because I am afraid
No one understands my tough facade
Patrol Sgt. Bobby Johnson, who initially took charge of the scene, also turned to writing, but for a different purpose. He wrote notes describing the day and added them to his officers’ personnel files.
The department would later honor the squad for its team effort at the scene April 16.
As Johnson walked through the front door of his home that night, he contemplated where to begin: Should he tell his wife about the horrors of the crime scene or his overwhelming pride watching his officers pull together?
He did both. Johnson teaches a class about emotional survival and preaches the value of talking through an experience as a coping mechanism.
“It was horrific,” he says of the killings. “Just a typical suburbanite family. They come and go to work and school and the store and — I don’t know — maybe the movie theater or park like everybody else. One night they decide to go to bed, and they come under attack.”
It still haunts him.
“I truly believe that Karla died knowing that monsters are real,” he says.
As for Charlton, her nightmares have become less frequent over time, but her subconscious encounters with Karla and Yady haven’t ended.
“They come to me in dreams, and I’ll see them,” she says. “And they’re OK now.”
The message lives among Arturo’s list of reminders on his iPhone. It’s from Oct. 10, 2010 — an ordinary day when Karla, like she often did, snagged his cellphone and typed a note.
He saved it. Now, it’s April 15, exactly one year since his wife and daughter were killed, and he’s reading it again.
I love you dad cause I’m (your) only little girl and I’ll always be your baby. :-)
This is how he wants to remember his daughter, his Karlita. She was his sidekick, his pal. She was his fiercely competitive and athletically gifted child. When she was happy, she was beaming. When she was mad, you knew it — like the time she pouted for a whole day because Arturo gave Cristopher a ride on his motorcycle. She relented only when Arturo told her he would take her on two laps.
Karla inherited her smile from her mother. Yady was the family member who looked for the good in every situation. If there was a joke to tell, she would find it.
“I loved her for that,” Arturo says.
And the very mention of her cooking makes Arturo hungry. He longs for another homemade spicy salsa.
What if their killer knew these things? Maybe the outcome would be different, he says. Instead, the intruder on April 15, 2012, “destroyed my family.
“He didn’t even think for a moment what was about to be done when he decided to kill my wife and daughter. He didn’t even know us. If he knew a little bit about us, he might (have thought) about it.”
Arturo dabs his eyes with a tissue as he sits in his office at the gym.
Later today, he will attend a memorial Mass for his wife and daughter, where Rev. Julio Alberto Alzate will ask family and friends to celebrate their lives in heaven and remember their good times on earth.
“It’s hard, but I’m here,” he says, looking back on the past year. And that might suggest that Arturo sees himself as a survivor.
But he offers no false bravado when discussing the future: “I’m scared.”
The admission seems almost unnatural coming from Arturo, the man who risked all coming to the United States, but he’s being realistic, especially because he’s raising two young boys.
He draws strength from his wife and daughter, who are still present in his life.
“Even Yadira and Karla, they want them to grow up well,” he says. “That’s what I think. They help me out a lot.”
The reality is that this is no longer a family of five, six if you count the puppy.
A year ago, KO, the dog, had been taken to an animal shelter. A rescuer orchestrated his release and the American bulldog now has a new home: a family with young boys.
Yady’s and Karla’s gravesite is marked by an upright headstone that was delivered in March. An angel carved in stone cradles a black, granite heart engraved with their names. A color image of the mother and daughter is set in the heart.
On Tuesday, the day after the one-year anniversary of their deaths, family and friends stand in front of the headstone as Alzate offers a blessing and sprinkles the grave with holy water.
“Every time we come here, may we be smiley, happy, full of hope and optimism,” Alzate prays in Spanish. “May they enlighten our lives to give us strength and to walk joyfully while the Lord allows us to be here and, one day, enjoy with them peace of the heart.”
After the blessing, Arturo unwraps two bouquets of flowers and carefully arranges them in a vase attached to the headstone, a perfect mix of red and purple. And the bow around the vase — it’s just not right. He fiddles with the red ribbon, which wind has loosened.
Finally satisfied, he calls for Cristopher and Alejandro.
They stand behind the headstone and smile for a camera. This is their version of a family photo.