PUEBLO — A week of demonstrations in Pueblo are sparking another surge from the community, voicing their concerns with the way that cases of domestic violence are being handled.
In the first four months of 2021, the Pueblo Police Department says that Domestic Violence Incidents Reports are up by 8% compared to 2020. This data does not include any information from the Pueblo County Sheriff's Department.
"Victims really, in this situation, don't have as many rights as the actual perpetrator or murderer," said Sherry Engen, the mother of Shaleen Cruz. Cruz died on impact in a fatal car accident on April 18, 2021.
Family and friends of Cruz say she and her boyfriend, Josh Casarez, had a "verbal argument" after Cruz discovered through his phone that he was having an affair.
“She called her brother and said 'Hey, pick me up bro. I’m done with this right now, can you come get me?' Her brother, Dustin, said 'I’ll be right there. I’ll come pick you up'.“
According to Dustin, Cruz called back a couple of minutes later and Casarez had pulled up, demanding she get back in the car. She told her brother she no longer needed a ride.
“Yeah, she got back in the car, that was her choice, but you know what? She did it for a reason, and that was her own reason. It sure as heck wasn’t to die!" said her mother.
According to what Cruz's family says law enforcement told them, the Pueblo County Sheriff's department received 6 calls to 911 for reports of reckless driving. Four minutes after her last phone call to her brother, Cruz was dead on the side of the road.
"Any way to lose a child is awful, but he needs to pay the consequences for this," said Engen.
CONCERNS & REPORTS OF #DOMESTICVIOLENCE STILL RISING IN #PUEBLO: This is where a woman lost her life last month in a car accident that her family says was a result of domestic violence.— Natalie Chuck KOAA (@NatalieChuck) May 28, 2021
Their voices have gone virtually unheard ... until now.
Full story tonight on @KOAA at 4 & 5 pic.twitter.com/HRK09WAltr
Engen says Casarez was admitted to the hospital for his injuries from the accident, but says he does not remember who was driving the car. According to conversations on Facebook, law enforcement is still looking for credible witnesses to help them determine who was in fact behind the wheel during the incident. However, friends of Cruz say it would not have made sense for her boyfriend to pull over and switch seats with Cruz, and as far as anyone knows, nobody else was in the vehicle.
Cruz's family and friends have now rallied together on social media, bringing more attention to the case and pushing the investigation forward. On May 25, the group held a demonstration outside of the District Attorney's office, as well as a candlelight vigil on the Riverwalk that night.
"We gave them time to do their job cause that’s what they kept saying - 'We need time. This is gunna take time'... The switch went off for me of anger, I said ya know I’ve had enough.” said Engen. According to her, law enforcement still had not even been able to identify Cruz's phone as her own as of May 25, over a month since her death.
This case comes at the heels of other cries for change in the Pueblo community. Nicole Stephenson lost her life at the hands of Domestic Violence in January 2020. On May 24, 2021 Nathan Turner was sentenced to 18 years in prison for manslaughter, after a controversial plea-deal in Stephenson's case struck a nerve in the community.
"It’s a mess. Our law system here is a mess. Our legal system here appears to be a mess," said Stephenson's aunt before the hearing. Several protests outside of the courthouse took place as Stephenson's case unfolded and the community demanded justice.
"Things need to be changed and looked at. The whole process needs to be looked at," said Engen, expressing her disappointed with the amount of domestic violence seen in Pueblo.
According to data from the Pueblo Police Department, between January and April of 2021, 423 domestic violence related incidents had been reported.
“The legal system just had not caught up with the realities of victimization," says Kazi Houston, the Legal Director for Rocky Mountain Victim Law Center. The Stephenson family used the organization's services when they felt they were not receiving the necessary help from organizations in Pueblo.
Houston says that the issue of domestic violence as it varies throughout different cities in Colorado, is in part due to funding and resources in different areas.
"A lot of victim service funding in Colorado, legal and otherwise indirect service funding, is facing a lot of reductions and cuts."
Stephenson's Aunt said she believes the city's problem with domestic violence stems from "the socioeconomic situation" in Pueblo. Cruz's mother says domestic violence is something she witnesses all too frequently around town.
"I've seen it and had to call three or four times in the last couple of months... It's not acceptable behavior!"
Engen says her daughter's boyfriend or family members have made no effort to reach out and offer their condolences. Above all, Engen says her message is for everyone to love one another.
"Everybody should feel compassionate enough for another human that you want to reach out and help them."
News 5 offered the District Attorney's office the opportunity to address the public's concerns about their handling of domestic violence cases. They declined, but reassured they are working on the problem.
News 5 also reached out to Cruz's boyfriend for comment, but never received a response.
We are currently awaiting confirmation on the status and details of Cruz's accident from the Pueblo County Sheriff's department.