I knew something was wrong when I saw I had ten missed calls around 10 PM on January 26, 2012: nine from my sister, and one from her boyfriend at the time. I had been in yoga class. After I finished stretching and rolling up my mat, I dialed my sister back to ask what the hell was going on. When she answered, she just started crying. "What's wrong?" I asked her. Then, as a joke, I added, "Did dad die or something?"
I was a freshmen in college at the School of Visual Arts in New York City at the time, halfway through my first year away from home, taking my first strides into adulthood. Earlier that day, I had gone to the doctor to get tested for an inhaler, and my health insurance had been rejected. I remember calling my dad impatiently, blowing up his phone with text messages about our insurance policy, asking him to get back to me ASAP. He never called.
My sister was so choked up on the phone that she couldn't even respond to me. I walked the ten blocks from my yoga class to my dorm room with my mind racing about what could possibly have happened. When I got home, I called my sister back. All she said was, "There's a homicide investigation going on in Arizona, and they think dad might be dead."
By the estimates of the National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children, approximately 15,000 people are victims of criminal homicide in the United States each year. For every victim of murder, there are dozens more who are affected in complicated ways: grief-stricken parents, siblings, and children, like me, who are permanently scarred by the loss of a family member in such an abrupt, gruesome way.
As the Violent Crime Victim Services explains it, "Nothing in life prepares survivors for the day when a loved one is murdered. Most people live with illusions of immortality both for themselves and the people they know, at least before they reach old age. Death of a younger person is always shocking."
My dad, who some knew as "The Cigar Guy," was happy-go-lucky, with a silly way of doing things. He always answered the phone by speaking in the third person, and I have many memories of dancing to the Beach Boys on his Endless Summer Sailboat. He was a cigar salesman, and everyone in town knew him. He raised a family of floaters, but we knew he had unconditional love for all of us.
I was the last person to talk to him on the phone. Our conversation had mostly been about my plans for the future, and his upcoming visit to see me in a few weeks. Later, after we'd both hung up the phone, a man named Michael Crane allegedly broke into the house through the back door. According to the police reports, it is believed that Crane tied up my father, shot him, and set the house ablaze. An accomplice, Marcelo Sanchez, stole my dad's car. To this day, we don't know why he did it or what really happened. In the 80-page police report about that day, there's a four-hour gap in the timeline without any information.
It's hard not to wonder, What could I have done to stop this?
At first, it hadn't even seemed real. I booked a flight from New York City to Las Vegas, where my extended family and I drove to the burned-down house in Phoenix. The home had two large windows at the front of the door, but no windows in the bedroom. By the time we got there, you could see through the entire building, because when it was set ablaze, the house had been gauged with gasoline. We picked up what we could find, and stayed until sunset. Seeing all my dad's things from his room tossed outside on a lawn melted together was heartbreaking. My dad's body, badly burned, had to be identified by his dental records.
The Violent Crime Victim Services explains that "children who lose a parent to murder face serious adjustment problems." It's common for children to internalize the incident as abandonment or desertion; some studies have suggested that "children who survive the murder of a parent have persistently low self-esteem." It's hard not to wonder, What could I have done to stop this?
My 19th birthday was two weeks later. My dad had always made a big deal out of my birthday—cakes, decorations, surprising us with little things—and this year, he had plans to fly out to New York City to celebrate with me. It took a while until it dawned on me that he wouldn't be there.
A few weeks later, the people we believe were responsible for the murder—Michael Crane and a slew of other accomplices—were outed by a silent witness. The police were told by the witness that not only did they kill my father, but they were involved in killing an older couple in Arizona, who were both shot in the head before Crane burglarized their house and set it on fire. Crane has a long history of theft. He's served time in jail for it. Two weeks before my dad was murdered, police found a stolen vehicle in his grandmother's house. He wasn't originally suppose to get released from of jail, but the officer who wrote the report didn't write it well enough, so he was let go.
In the media, my dad was referred to as "the businessman," as if selling cigars was his most distinguishing quality. To me, he was a million things besides that: a repair man and a gardener, a cheerleader, a soccer coach, a travel guide, a surf coach, a driving instructor, a golfer, a singer, a photographer, a sailor, a teacher, and most of all, my dad.
It's been four years since my dad was murdered, and he still hasn't had a trial. Murder trials take a long time to process all of the details, and since Michael Crane won't cooperate, it's drawing the case out. Revisiting the details of the murder over and over again is like being forced to relive the trauma everyday, especially when they ask questions about missing my dad. Most of the articles used a mugshot of Michael Crane wearing a coat my sister gave to my dad as a gift, which he stole from my dad's house before burning it down.
Every Father's Day since my dad's passing, I gather with family members and visit his grave at the cemetery. I often reflect on the last phone conversation I had with my dad on the day he died, and how blindsided I felt when I realized I would never talk to him again. If you're lucky enough to have a dad around, pick up the phone and call him. You never know when that conversation will be your last.