The sky is just as blue as it was on the last day of Rafael Orozco's life. The grass might be an even brighter green. And Gizmo, Orozco's muscular pit bull the color of milk chocolate, still rounds the corner of this Wheeling apartment building with his tail wagging and his tongue panting.
But everything is different.
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A makeshift memorial marks the spot where Orozco was shot in the back and killed by a stray bullet about 9 p.m. May 1 during his nightly walk with Gizmo. Neighbors at the Winetree Apartment complex, where Orozco lived with his wife and parents, say Orozco generally walked the dog before leaving for his night-shift job at a bakery in Northbrook.
"R.I.P. Rafael Orozco 1990-2013" reads the gravestone-shaped piece of plywood marking the spot where the 23-year-old man was gunned down. "Maintain forever in our heart."
Prosecutors say the fatal bullet was fired by Jesus Sanchez, an 18-year-old gang member who they believe was trying to kill a 15-year-old member of a rival gang and missed. Orozco, prosecutors say, was simply a bystander in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sanchez remains in jail on $2 million bail, charged with a first-degree murder.
Collin Scheffler, 19, of Prospect Heights served as Sanchez's driver that night, prosecutors say. Facing the same murder charges, which carry a maximum sentence of life in prison, Scheffler is free on bond awaiting trial.
Orozco's widow and parents said through another relative on the night of the slaying that they were too distraught to talk with the media. A week later, they still decline an offer to talk in person, but Orozco's widow agrees to respond to some questions in writing.
"My beloved husband Rafael A. Orozco of 23 years old will always remain in my heart because he left me so many beautiful memories," writes Mayra Ceniceros, who married Orozco two years and three months ago when she was a teenager. She still dots the "I" in her signature with a heart. The pair met while shopping at a Walmart in Palatine.
"He would always do any silly thing just to make me smile and keep me happy," she says.
The couple lived in a second-floor apartment with Orozco's parents, Rafael and Irma Orozco, says Carlos Villagomez, a relative from Chicago who has been helping the family and walking Gizmo since the shooting. The family, like many of the residents in this apartment complex, grew up speaking Spanish. From the rearview mirror of Orozco's GM Yukon SUV hangs a miniature pair of red-white-and-green boxing gloves in honor of Mexico.
A ceramic statue of the Holy Family and a small bronze sculpture of Jesus Christ nailed on the cross adorn the impromptu memorial where Orozco was shot. About two dozen long-burning, Christian votive candles, half still sporting flames, sit on the ground. A couple of rosary beads hang from the bushes. A bag of Takis Fuego hot chili chips rests near an empty bottle of cognac and tequila glasses. A child's drawing of Orozco and Gizmo includes the words "Forever in our hearts." Fresh flowers adorn the peaceful scene. Stuck in a nearby pine tree, a scrap of yellow police tape reading "Do Not Cross" is the only reminder of how Orozco died.
"He was a good guy. He wasn't in gangs. He never was in trouble," remembers neighbor Edgar Lara, 19, who works for a tent-rental company, "I used to see him walking his dog. He did the same route every day."
When he wasn't working at the bakery, Orozco was a homebody.
"He didn't go out with friends at all because I was his best friend," his widow writes. "He didn't need anyone else but me by his side."
While authorities clearly classify the death as a gang shooting, the apartment buildings aren't tagged with gang signs. Many of the SUVs and minivans in the parking lots feature those popular suburban stick-figure window decals showing parents with two or three children.
"I don't see gangbangers here," Lara says. "I don't know what happened."
The Orozco family, having just buried a loved one, still struggles to grasp the circumstances of his death, Villagomez says.
"And one of the things is that him and me were always together everywhere," his widow writes in English. "He wasn't ever alone. All what we did, it was together. That's why it is going to be harder to move on without him. But I will always remember him as the good, loving, caring, adorable, sweet, funny husband he was for me. He will never be forgotten by me. He will be marked like a tattoo inside my heart."