FATEFUL NIGHT IN 2003 FOREVER SHAPED COURSE OF TEEN'S LIFE
March 14, 2016
It's not only the sun that can cause a shadow.
Isaiah Contreras is a newly made man of 18; made not merely by calendar, but by tough experience thrust upon him. And mostly by how he has "manned up" to the past.
Isaiah is a husky, tall fellow with a conservative haircut and dress. Many of his sentences either begin or end with "sir." His face carries that Mexican ethnic formulation of Indian bronze and classic Spanish chiseling.
No doubt, many classmates at Sweetwater High School, where he will shortly graduate, consider him square, if that dated term is still slang worthy.
He lives in Shelltown on the San Diego-National City border. It's a tough area known for the gangs and poverty that eclipse many fine people who live there. He has withstood the neighborhood's dark side, for which his mother and stepfather deserve credit.
He wants to go to college, join the Marines, then become a police officer, maybe a history teacher, but we'll see. Good choices all, but serendipity is youth's playground.
Where Isaiah lives, professing a police career ambition is akin to ... well, let's just say it's not to brag about.
Undaunted, Isaiah says, "I like to help people, either if it's a neighbor or a stranger. I have respect for police officers, because they do a job that a lot of people don't (appreciate).
"I mean, especially now, a lot of people don't like cops. I get a lot of negative stigma (from) friends or people in school. I tell them what I want to be, they're like, ‘Why you want to be a cop?' I say, ‘Because I want to help people.'"
Isaiah says he doesn't drink, smoke or do drugs. If you could see and talk to him, you'd believe every word of that.
"A lot of people in my school, Sweetwater, they don't do the best of things at times, illegal things. I don't involve myself with that because, like I said, it's illegal. I don't want to be around it. I've been offered, ‘Hey, do you want to smoke some weed? Do you want to drink?' I'm like, ‘No, I'm good.'"
I'm sure you've sipped beer.
"Yeah. It tastes like fizzy, dry mineral water. I don't know why people like it."
You think that's bad, try Scotch.
A few sentences ago, I mentioned a "stepfather." Sadly, that didn't happen by accident.
On Nov. 12, 2003, at about 10:30 p.m., something terrible happened. Gunfire happened. Seconds later, Isaiah's father, Jaime, 26, lay dead on the pavement, and a San Diego officer was nearby with a bullet in his neck. It was a wound that would leave him a paraplegic with only limited movement in his left arm. The officer was Dan Walters, and his name will not go away.
Five-year-old Isaiah, sitting in the front seat of his mother's car, watched his father shot to death and his mother in hysterics.
The narrative of that event is always fresh in Isaiah's mind and also will not go away.
It started with Isaiah's father drinking outside the family home on 16th Street with a group of friends. His mother became angry about it and announced she was taking Isaiah and his baby brother to her mother's house.
Alcohol and domestic conflict walk the edge of a cliff of loose gravel.
"I guess she just didn't want to deal with arguing, so she grabbed us and she put us in the car, and I guess he got upset by that and started following us (in a pickup)," Isaiah says.
What occurred then was a running argument between the parents as Jaime, likely drunk, would pull alongside his wife's car at a stoplight and renew the argument. Whether there were any threats or reckless driving, Isaiah does not recall.
"I just remember her calling the police on her cellphone, saying, ‘My husband is following me and my kids in a truck.' She continued driving, and I remember us stopping and my father getting out of his vehicle.
"I was in the passenger seat. What I remember is seeing my father come out of his truck yelling, and then to the rear of us was a police officer with his patrol car. My father (was) in front of me. I saw, like, lights, and an officer saying, sir this, and sir that. Kind of like (trying) to persuade him
"I remember seeing my father kind of waving around a gun, and eventually the officer fired on him. I remember seeing (the bullets) hitting his chest.
"I remember mom screaming, then the gunshots. And then I remember them wrapping me up, giving me a teddy bear. My mom was in a separate patrol car. I guess they were trying to calm her down.
"Then I remember the funeral. The altar and all that. Every seat was filled. I was walking down the main aisle and turning to both sides, seeing everybody, and they're all staring at me. I remember seeing the coffin right there, and it was open.
"I remember going toward it and seeing my father all tuxed out. I remember staring at it. I could feel the coldness from where I was standing. I touched his face. It was ice cold. I just walked away. I don't think at that time I really understood what death was. A year or two later, I started figuring things out. I'm like: My dad is dead."
That was nearly 13 years ago. Memories are easily warehoused in the everyday awareness of a child, but they stay hidden in the recesses. However, with firm family support and guidance, Isaiah didn't slip into rebellion and insecurity.
Isaiah has fond but translucent recollections of the father who used to spend time with the little boy and give him rides in his truck. He felt safe with his dad, and repaid it with a child's love.
He has no memories of marital strife or violence. Even so, Isaiah is still a little young to broadly understand the complexities of human relationships and the demons that can quietly possess a man. And, to his own credit, he has no concept of the evils of booze. Demon rum is not a metaphor.
Do you ever run into people who say, "Aren't you the son of ...?"
He nods. "I get that a lot, especially in National City, because my father was well known."
What do they say?
They look at me first because I look like him. He was like six-one, a little taller than me. My brother got his athleticism; I got the humor and people skills."
What happened to your dad? Where did it go wrong?
"To be honest, I don't know. I think it was just a drunken mistake. He was drinking that night." He pauses. "People under the influence ..."
He knows one thing: He loved his father.
Recently, the old memories pushed their way to the surface. Instead of turning to anger, Isaiah hoped to salvage something positive out of that night's savagery. He resolved to reach out to Dan Walters, whose name he at first did not know, and extend a hand of regret and goodwill from the son of the man who reduced Dan's body to a burden.
"I just want to have a conversation with the officer that was involved with my father's passing. I guess, in a way, to apologize for what my father did in that moment for putting him in that state that he's in today.
"I was actually thinking about this starting last year. I knew what happened because I was there, but I didn't know about the police officer until three years ago or four years ago. It really kind of opened my eyes.
"I just really kind of wanted to know a little bit more exactly what happened that night, because like I said, I was 5."
I told Isaiah I know Dan Walters and would contact him. But given the horrendous thing that happened to him, and will never go away ... well, we'll see.
The next morning I phoned Dan and told him that Jaime Contreras' son would like to meet him.
"Who's that?" he asked.
"Uh, that's the guy who shot you, Dan."
He was matter-of-fact. "Oh. I never knew his name."
He paused, but not in indecision. Dan Walters is not indecisive. He was asking himself if he wanted to open this up. He then said, "Well, OK. Come on over about 6 tomorrow evening."
I hung up, but the phone rang no more than a minute later. It was Dan.
He said, "I don't know how this might go. Let's do it by phone."
Well, all right.
Late the next afternoon, I looked at Isaiah waiting tensely across the desk, then said to him, "You ready?" He swallowed and nodded.
I punched Dan's number and handed the phone to Isaiah.
He handled the receiver like a grenade, then spoke: "Hello, sir. I'm Isaiah Contreras. I wanted to talk to you and..."
There was a long silence. Isaiah swiveled and returned the phone to me. "He wants to talk to you," he said.
Not good, I assumed, taking the phone. "Yes, Dan."
Dan does not make his points with long lead-ins. He just said, "Bring him over to the house."
Tuesday: The meeting.
In part one on Monday: In 2003, a gunman was killed after shooting and paralyzing a police officer. Years later, his son feels a need to face the man his father put into a wheelchair. Today, they meet.
I'm driving to the home of Dan Walters. I didn't know him back in '03, I can only speculate what he was like as a cop. He was probably straight-ahead and with a sense of humor that could make you nervous if you didn't get it. He would embody the old "firm but fair" cliché. You would not think of slapping him on the back. If he stopped your car, he would definitely be a "Yes, officer."
I doubt he's changed much except for a patina of sadness he cannot shed, and for which he needn't apologize, because sad is his lot. The man took a bullet for us and surrendered his youth and his normalcy. We will not stop owing him.
Now 49, he lives alone with only his attendants in a nice home off College Avenue. He's got everything he physically needs, just not what he spiritually needs - his body back. Even so, he's willing to see the son of the man who shot him close-up in the neck with the intent to kill him.
Isaiah Contreras is 18 and the son of the man who pulled the trigger on Walters on the night of Nov. 12, 2003. He's a good guy, with a running start on a life of positivity. I'm sure Walters sometimes thinks of having a son like that.
The reason for the visit goes back to that dark night on 43rd Street in San Diego. The incident was a roadside domestic conflict that Walters happened on. A witness to the shooting was Isaiah Contreras, age 5, who saw what no child should see. The shooter was his father, Jaime Contreras, 26, who was himself shot dead.
My GPS leads our car to a home marked by a wheelchair ramp. No need to check the house number. We enter the living room to see Dan in his high-tech wheelchair. He lifts his left hand slightly to touch Isaiah's. He doesn't say much; neither does Isaiah. ... Where to begin?
Isaiah asks to see Dan's memorabilia from the time he was a catcher for the Padres. He's not much of a ball fan, but it's not everyday you meet someone who played in "the show." And it also settles uneasiness.
Dan wheels around the displays. "This is some of my Padre stuff. These are my old gloves and bats."
Isaiah looks, impressed. "Oh, that's major league stuff."
"Yeah, I like having it around to look at."
"How long did you play?" Isaiah asks.
"I played for 14 years, but only two in the majors. I injured my back real bad and had to change careers. I got into police work."
Isaiah says he wants to be a policeman after college and a tour with the Marines.
Dan smiles. "That's great, man. Any particular agency?"
"I wouldn't mind San Diego. You know, it's my hometown."
Dan wheels back to the wall, talking as he does. "You're still a few years away from being old enough to ..."
His attention shifts to the wall. "Here are some photos when I was working. Me and my partner. That's a picture of me in the academy. That was '96. I was in great shape right there. Used to lift weights and work out real hard."
Isaiah tells him he's graduating from Sweetwater High School this spring.
Dan says, "You have any trouble over there?"
"Nobody bothers you?"
"I like to say I'm a good people person," Isaiah says.
Dan nods, remembering his street lore. "Yeah, you keep your nose clean and gangs will leave you alone. Won't they?"
Isaiah draws a breath and takes the plunge. "Sir, over the years I had no idea what happened to you. I've just kind of, kind of had this weird feeling that I could maybe say something. You didn't know my father. He didn't know you. Unfortunately, what happened happened, and if it means anything, I'm greatly sorry for what happened to you, sir."
Dan looks at him with a straight face, but not unkindly. "Thanks."
"You were just doing your job as a police officer, you saw what was happening, and you took action which any police officer would've done, and I thank you for everything you've done, and for your service in the police department, and I'm sorry for what happened to you."
Dan nods. "Yeah, DV (domestic violence) incidents are among the most risky a cop can go to, because it's pure emotions involved."
Dan continues: "Emotion drives people to do things they wouldn't normally do, and a lot of times alcohol is involved. People just are really unpredictable. That was quite an incident. Just really incredible."
Dan is aware that Isaiah wants to know what actually happened from his standpoint. "Would you like to hear how it played out?"
Isaiah seems to turn a little pale. "I mean, if you want to, sir."
Dan: That's OK. That's OK. I showed up (on the scene) and an officer was on his hands and knees just desperately searching for cover. Your father had shot at him once. He was the officer that (first) showed up and approached your vehicle. Do you remember that?"
Isaiah: "Yes, I remember. He was to the rear of us. That's what I remember. I remember just hearing a police officer kind of talking very loudly, and my father was in front of me, in front of the car."
Dan: "Yeah. He had shot at the officer who was desperately searching for cover. I just happened to be in the area, and saw his overhead lights flashing. I showed up and he was on his hands and knees, crawling. I didn't know what was going on. I looked left and looked right.
"Your father was coming at me with a gun, and I was in trouble. It was a total surprise to me. I didn't know what was going on. I tried to fight, not much, but I tried to fight, and dropped my head. He put the gun to the back of my neck and fired once. I fell to the ground, still conscious for a minute. I thought, aw man, I'm dead. I cannot believe this. Lost consciousness and then a car ran over me, and then my partner got involved."
Isaiah: "He was the one that fired the ..."
Dan: "Yeah, he was the one that fired down the shots. You remember hearing all the shots?"
Isaiah: "I remember seeing it. The bullets hitting his chest."
Dan: You saw it? Wow."
Dan: "Wow, you're seeing that as a boy. That's pretty heavy."
Isaiah: "Yeah, it's one of the ..."
Dan, softly: "Just a little kid ..."
"Yes, sir. I'm still kind of weighing if I should join (the Marines) right now, or if I should join after college. Probably become an officer."
Dan: "Got you high and tight already (haircut)."
Isaiah stands, and Dan starts to wheel toward the door.
Isaiah: "I hope you have another 40 great years."
Dan: "I've been real sick at times."
The door is open and they face each other a final time.
Isaiah: "Thank you for your service, sir."
Dan: "Well, this is an awful big surprise. You turned out to be an impressive young man. Been through a tough experience; made good of yourself. It means a lot to me that you've kept me in mind over these years. It really does."
Dan Walters and Isaiah Contreras will always have a bond neither would want, but was unavoidable. But they also share a human quality: One is a good man, and the other is well on his way.
The path of life often takes us into dark, confusing tunnels. The only escape is to seek the light.
Fred Dickey's home page is freddickey.net. He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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