Teen's hanging in jail fuels many questions
Arrest for illegal turn starts the end of migrant's dream
By DANE SCHILLER Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Aug. 22, 2008, 11:25PM
Adolfo Chavez, 27, with belongings of brother Arturo, reflects Wednesday in Webster on the teen's apparent hanging 48 hours after Arturo's arrest. Officials are still investigating his death, which has been ruled a suicide.
Read the plaintiff's complaint in Arturo Chavez's death
Read the League City Police Department's arrest report
LEAGUE CITY — The 17-year-old's lifeless body was frozen in a sitting position in solitary-confinement at the Galveston County Jail.
Arturo Chavez's back was flush against a 7-foot partition for the cell's shower. A blue blanket was twisted into a noose, with one end wrapped around his neck, the other tied to a shower head.
He apparently hanged himself about 48 hours after being arrested for what started as an illegal left turn.
It may never be known what swept over Chavez, who illegally emigrated from Guatemala four years ago and spent much of his time trying to improve his English and working to send money home.
"If he did it, it was because he was so beaten down he couldn't take the pain," his older brother Adolfo Chavez said of the suicide.
What is certain is that his life was similar to those of countless people who live in the shadows of society due to their immigration status, and that things hurtled out of control after police pulled him over the night of Aug. 1.
Officials are still investigating his death, ruled a suicide.
A federal lawsuit was filed by Chavez's parents against the League City Police Department, Galveston County and Sheriff Gean Leonard. The lawsuit contends not enough was done to keep Chavez from killing himself.
Those who knew Chavez said, like many undocumented immigrants, he feared any run-in with authorities as it would likely mean he would be deported.
He left Central America when he was 13 and wanted more out of life than he could get with tips loading baggage at a bus station.
Relatives say it took him nearly 15 days to get to Houston, including sneaking into Mexico and riding a passenger bus north.
He crossed the Rio Grande and hiked through South Texas.
Human smugglers demanded $3,500 to guide him, a hefty sum met with help from family and friends.
In Houston, he was known for his hustle and held out hope his improving English skills would get him promoted from busboy to waiter.
Chavez's death was a mystery as much as a shock, said Mario Garcia, who owns the restaurant where Chavez worked.
"I don't understand how you can go from making a mistake to losing your life, I'm dumbfounded by it," Garcia said. "There are two sides to every story, and the truth is probably somewhere right in the middle."
$100 sent home weekly
The kid known by his family as niño, Spanish for boy, had come a long way since leaving his indigenous village. He was sending home at least $100 a week to help his mother, father and sister.
He was not only working full time, but attending Clear Creek High School's program to help newly arrived international students.
He wore woven bracelets made of blue and white yarn — the colors of Guatemala's flag — as well as an anklet with the U.S.A.'s red, white and blue.
"He was very proud of his Mayan heritage," said Elizabeth Laurence, one of his teachers. "He was a feisty young fellow, popular and wanted to learn English very much. He wasn't timid; he tried to use it."
Things were going well with his girlfriend, Jhoseline Martell, whom he met at school.
As the police cruiser's lights flashed behind him near Louisiana Street and League City Parkway, Chavez dialed Martell on his cell phone and stuffed it in his pocket.
"He said the police have stopped me, just listen," recalled Martell, 15.
He normally rode a bicycle to avoid such trouble, but he had recently bought a used green Honda sedan.
He had no driver's license, no insurance and what turned out later to be a fake identification card.
He was arrested and taken to jail. His mugshot was taken while he wore the red shirt from his job as a busboy.
Excessive force alleged
All he had made for himself in the U.S. seemed to hang in the balance as Chavez was locked up at the police station and awaiting transfer to county jail.
At one point, when the holding-cell door was opened, Chavez bolted for freedom, according to a police report.
With officers running behind, the 5-foot-3-inch Chavez made it outside and scrambled up a chain-link fence, but was grabbed by the feet.
The wire atop the fence ripped into his hands.
In the scramble, he was shocked twice with a taser and hit multiple times with a baton, according to police.
Houston attorney Randall Kallinen said the officers used excessive force to apprehend Chavez.
"He had been severely beaten," said Kallinen, who added that a head injury could bring on suicidal thoughts — a mix worsened by solitary confinement. Results of an autopsy are pending.
Gary Ratliff, assistant chief of the League City Police Department, said officers used the minimum of force to catch the fleeing prisoner.
"None of us know what this kid was thinking; no one knows what pushed him to that regard," he said of suicide.
"I really seriously feel for that family. That is a void you just can't fill," he said.
Body sent to Guatemala
Adolfo Chavez, who wears a Rosary identical to the one his brother was buried with, spoke quietly as he described how Arturo came to America to chase a dream.
He also recalled their last phone conversation from jail.
The kid always fighting for a better life sounded broken.
He was now looking at escape charges, resisting arrest, and his body ached.
Adolfo said Arturo asked him to call his parents.
"He said, 'Tell them I love them, and I've always tried to be a good son. I can't take it anymore.' "
Arturo Chavez's body was back in Guatemala last week for a funeral at his parents' home. Family and friends had to raise $6,000 to send his remains back home.
Relatives in the U.S. couldn't afford to attend.
His father, Juan Chavez, said he could hardly believe the condition of his son's body. His face, skull and back were bruised.
His legs were swollen. One hand was torn up.
"He's at peace now," the father said.
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