Tales from the Morgue: Gina Celaya's horrifying past

2013-05-15T10:45:00Z 2013-05-15T21:44:33Z Tales from the Morgue: Gina Celaya's horrifying pastJohanna Eubank Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 15, 2013 10:45 am  • 

In 1994, Gina Celaya became the youngest person to be tried for murder in the first degree in Pima County. She was accused of killing Trinidad Lopez, 50, in December 1992, days after her 14th birthday.

Celaya was convicted of the murder in 1994 and given a life sentence with parole a possibility after 25 years.

Now 34, Gina Celaya is scheduled to be released today under the terms of a new plea agreement.

Her trial and conviction spawned discussion about violent crimes committed by children and teens and trying children as adults. Here is a look at her conviction and some of the discussion.

From the Arizona Daily Star, July 6, 1994:

 

Bitter memories; Past haunts youngest person ever to be tried for Pima County murder

Kristen Cook
Arizona Daily Star 

NOTE: READING, WRITING & REFORM: ARIZONA'S KID PRISONS SERIES; Last day of a four day series

Gina Celaya tried to escape.

She attempted to leave behind the life of poverty, drugs and despair that haunted the teen-ager and her family like a curse.

But she was trapped. The circumstances of her life were unshakable, a shadow that followed her everywhere.

At 15, Gina Gail Celaya is the youngest person to be tried on a charge of first-degree murder in Pima County. She is accused of shooting Trinidad Lopez, 50, in December 1992 only days after her 14th birthday. Her trial is scheduled to begin in September.

Though her story is horrifying, it is hardly unique.

Gina is just one of many children forced to live without guidance, without stability and without any hope for the future. She is part of an epidemic - children beyond help.

For nearly two years, Gina has lived in a cell. While other teens are busy cooking up summer plans, she waits for freedom. The wait could take 25 years or more, depending on what a jury decides.

No one contacted by a reporter would talk about Gina. But her story is told through previous court testimony and pages upon pages of court documents.

"Pathogenic" is how a court psychologist described Gina's environment.

She grew up in South Tucson in a sagging trailer on South 10th Avenue, a street dotted with tired houses.

Dirt and weeds make up the lawn. A giant billboard juts from the yard, advertising wares to travelers on an Interstate 19 overpass maybe 30 feet away from the trailer.

Bursts of blue graffiti decorate the trailer's metal walls. Bullet-size holes pockmark the aluminum door, readily opened by a young boy, about 10 years old, who - without hesitation - tells strangers he's home alone.

This is the landscape of Gina's childhood.

Gina once told a counselor she didn't feel safe at her house. The door locks didn't work and windows were busted out. In her room, an old "For Sale" sign boarded up an empty window frame, offering little protection or privacy.

Home doubled as an all-night narcotics convenience store. People drifted through in drug-induced hazes. Burglars were also frequent visitors - often they were family members.

From an early age, Gina had to fend for herself and take care of the adults in her life. When she was 9, she tried to revive her mother after the woman overdosed on drugs.

"I saw her as a child with a lot of responsibility," Mission View Elementary School's principal, Yolanda Saldate, said at a juvenile court hearing.

Saldate was one of the few adults Gina trusted and looked up to. She openly confided to Saldate many of her concerns, her hopes and her greatest wish.

"All I want is to have a family - a real family," Gina told Saldate, according to court testimony.

Gina's family ties were a tangled knot. Her father has been described as a drifter and a reputed drinker and drug user who was never around much. He didn't support Gina or her 10-year-old brother.

Gina lived with her unemployed mother, who was on welfare. Mary Celaya had been arrested on charges of drug possession and burglary and also had a drug problem. Gina told Saldate her mother was in a program where she could get methadone, a drug commonly prescribed to treat heroin addicts.

Her older sister was reportedly the only positive influence in Gina's life. Her older brother floated in and out of prison.

At an early age, Gina discovered the freedom of a high and the imprisonment of addiction. She began with whiffs of paint at age 7, gradually progressing to hits of marijuana and cocaine.

A heavy-set girl with long, dark hair and deep brown eyes, Gina was expected by her family to be an adult. With a stroke of blush and a swipe of red lipstick, she played the part convincingly.

At the time she was arrested, she was living with her 22-year-old boyfriend. And though she was reportedly a victim of sexual abuse herself, Gina allegedly set up fellow classmates to be prostitutes.

But that's not the girl Saldate knew.

The Gina she knew was caring, nurturing.

Saldate recalled a time when her students took computer training and needed to bring a parent in order to take a computer home. It was Gina, not her mother, who learned alongside her little brother.

Gina walked a tightrope, balancing what juvenile court witnesses described as the two different sides of her life. One sunny, the other dark. One caring, the other selfish. One bad, the other good.

A child full of contradictions, Gina drew an award-winning anti-gang poster. But when a counselor asked her to write down 10 negative things about being in a gang, she giggled and said she couldn't think of a single one.

Attorneys painted conflicting images: One was of a coldblooded teen who shot a man in the back. The other was of a sweet girl who had the misfortune to be born into an environment of neglect. And the lawyers clashed over who failed - Gina or the system.

In all, Gina had four encounters with Pima County Juvenile Court before her murder arrest. Three were for shoplifting, one for running away. After her shoplifting arrest, Gina avoided prosecution by agreeing to a counseling program.

Despite an unusually high number of visits by her probation officer, Gina missed sessions. In another instance of court intervention, she underwent more counseling after suffering a miscarriage at 13.

After several extensions, she was dropped from the program for missing appointments.

School officials tried to get help for Gina after she came to class high on drugs. For reasons that are unclear from court records, she was never enrolled in the treatment programs she needed.

But dwelling on where, or even if, the system failed is moot at this point. Whether Gina slipped through the cracks or was pushed is a matter of perspective.

The only indisputable fact is that two lives were lost. And in a five-minute speech at Gina's hearing, Judge Raner C. Collins indicated that perhaps neither life was lost in vain.

"Gina, I'm a believer that everything happens for a purpose," Collins said. "And maybe things happened here so that we can draw attention to kids like you because you're not the only one in the position that you find yourself in.

"There are lots of kids out there who have drug (abusing) parents or (were) abused themselves and so forth. You're not alone. This community, this state, this nation - we haven't paid attention to it. We should have. We should have a long time ago."

 

She was tried as an adult for the murder. From the Arizona Daily Star, Sept. 30, 1994:

Celaya found guilty in 1992 desert slaying; 15-year-old could get life behind bars

Joe Salkowski
Arizona Daily Star 

Three days after her 14th birthday, Gina Gail Celaya climbed into a pickup truck that Trinidad Lopez was driving along a southside street in the early morning hours of Dec. 22, 1992.

For Lopez, that ride ended a short while later when Celaya shot him once in the lower back and drove away in his truck, leaving him to die.

For Celaya, though, the ride goes on.

Celaya was convicted yesterday of first-degree murder and armed robbery in the death of Lopez, 50. She is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 28 to between 25 years and a lifetime in prison.

She sat quietly as Superior Court Judge Lina Rodriguez read the verdicts, and displayed the same blank stare she wore throughout her weeklong trial. She chatted casually with her attorney after the hearing ended, however, smiling several times before being handcuffed and led away by security officers.

At 15 years 9 months old, Celaya is believed to be the youngest girl ever convicted of first-degree murder in Arizona. Two younger girls, ages 12 and 11, were convicted of manslaughter last year in Maricopa County Juvenile Court for fatally shooting their allegedly abusive mother as she slept.

She will be the youngest of four girls held in the trailer used to separate juveniles from adult women in the Arizona State Prison at Perryville's maximum security Santa Maria unit, prison spokesman Michael Arra said.

Defense attorney Barbara Sattler asked jurors Wednesday to consider Celaya's age when deciding if she was guilty of murder.

"The fatal flaw in the state's theory is that you have to believe this 14-year-old girl willingly got into a car alone with someone she did not know who was much older than her with the intent to commit a carjacking," Sattler said.

Yet Celaya herself testified that she had stolen cars before and said she often lied about her age to convince older men to buy alcohol for her.

"She is a juvenile in chronological age only," Deputy County Attorney Kathleen Mayer said Wednesday. "Gina Celaya is not a child, and to refer to her as a child is an attempt to engender sympathy."

When Celaya encountered Lopez, she was walking alone near South Sixth Avenue and West Ajo Way, carrying in the back of her pants a gun she had stolen from her 22-year-old boyfriend.

Celaya told jurors Tuesday that she asked Lopez for a ride to a friend's home. But Magdalina "Baby" Laguna, a 16-year-old girl who described herself as Celaya's best friend, testified that Celaya told her she had pretended to be a prostitute so Lopez would pick her up.

Lopez drove Celaya into the desert near South Alvernon Way and East Los Reales Road, where Celaya said Lopez tried to rape her. She testified that after she broke free from his grasp, she pulled the gun from her pants and shot him in the back as he was bending into the back of his 1986 Nissan truck.

"It just went off," she said. "I didn't mean for it to go off."

But she told police after her arrest that Lopez was coming toward her when she shot him - a story that was contradicted by the fact that the victim was shot in the lower back. She also had never previously mentioned that the shooting was accidental.

Mayer told jurors that Celaya "conveniently engineered" her story to fit the facts in the case, noting that her testimony included few details of the shooting itself.

"She's incapable of filling in details that don't exist, incapable of fleshing out her story of self-defense because it just didn't happen," Mayer said. "All she did was come up here, concoct a few tears and tell you he tried to sexually assault her."

After shooting Lopez, Celaya drove away in his truck and spent the day driving her friends around town in the vehicle. Their travels ended after someone who knew Lopez spotted the truck and confronted the girls inside, resulting in a chase that ended when the truck crashed into a ditch.

Several youths who cruised with Celaya that day testified that she told them she had shot a man for the truck. Laguna, who was driving the truck when it crashed, said Celaya told her she shot Lopez so he would not report the crime.

Celaya said she did not report the incident because she does not trust police. Sattler also noted that Celaya is of Tohono O'odham descent and cited testimony from a professor she hired to tell jurors that Native American women are often reluctant to discuss matters of a sexual nature.

"I'm not up here trying to tell you that Gina Celaya was an angel - the evidence doesn't bear that out," Sattler told jurors Wednesday. "But the evidence doesn't bear out that she's a diabolical, coldblooded killer, either."

Jurors deliberated for four hours over two days before returning guilty verdicts. Though only five jurors determined Celaya had premeditated Lopez's death, all 12 agreed she violated Arizona's felony murder law. The law states that anyone who commits certain crimes - including armed robbery - is guilty of first-degree murder if someone dies during the crime.

Celaya is not eligible for the death penalty because the U.S. Supreme Court has determined that execution amounts to cruel and unusual punishment when applied to defendants younger than 16 years old at the time of their crime.

She also is ineligible for the "natural life" sentence created last year by state legislators because it was passed after her arrest.

For the murder charge, Celaya faces life in prison with no possibility of parole for 25 years. She also faces between seven and 21 years behind bars for the armed robbery count, and she must serve at least two-thirds of that term before becoming eligible for parole.

Rodriguez can order that the terms be served concurrently or consecutively, so the minimum amount of time Celaya will serve before becoming eligible for parole may range from 25 to 39 years.

 

Several years later, a Star reporter explored the issue of violent crimes committed by youths. From the Star, Aug. 23, 2001:

WHEN CHILDREN KILL

Pima County youths charged in slayings face hard times getting straight

L. Anne Newell
Arizona Daily Star 

They were accused of brutal crimes at tender ages, killing and robbing before turning 15.

Now, Pima County’s youngest killers are growing up. But few of the 14 children charged in someone’s killing in Pima County in the past decade have successfully reformed.

Cheryl Karp, a local psychologist with a forensic emphasis who’s evaluated many criminals, said about 90 percent of juvenile criminals can be rehabilitated, provided the justice system focuses on the children first — and their crimes second.

“They can turn it around,”Karp said. “There are ways kids can come through it.”

But it isn’t easy, she said, and records show it. Of the 14, only three have stayed out of trouble after their first run-ins with the law. One lives in Albuquerque with his mother, one moved to Dallas with her family after being acquitted and one stayed in Tucson and works for a Fortune 500 company.

Four of the 14 were treated as adults and received long prison terms. Each of them has had discipline problems, with one violating prison policies 25 times this year.

Ten went through the juvenile justice system. Of those:

Three were sentenced immediately to the Department of Juvenile Corrections and two got into trouble again.

Six received probation. Four of those committed more crimes, for which two went to Juvenile Corrections. One is serving a six-month prison sentence. Two ran away and couldn’t be found. One was shot to death in a fight with a neighbor.

Veronica Torres was 14 when she shot a handgun five times into a car, fatally striking 18-year-old Monica Renee Perez. Torres, a promising middle school student before she started hanging out with a tough crowd, was sentenced to at least 25 years in prison.

Torres, now 21, earned a GEDat the state prison in Goodyear and took computer programming and college classes. She has talked to new inmates about how incarceration will affect their lives.

Because she has had 26 disciplinary violations in five years, she is still a high-risk inmate, Warden Bill Gaspar said, which means officials classify her as a danger to others.

“No one told me about the pain I was going to feel and that’s what I want to tell kids,” she said. “No one tells you no one’s going to be there for you after everything you do on the streets.”

The number of killings committed by juveniles has fallen nationally since peaking in 1993 at nearly 16 percent, or 4,330 of 27,636 murders. Juveniles committed about 10 percent of homicides, or 1,763 of 17,387, nationally in 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice reported. About 0.5 percent of those were committed by kids younger than 14.

Pima County Juvenile Court Center spokeswoman Gabriela Rico said homicides account for only a small portion of her agency’s referrals. In the past decade, 86,500 children 17 or younger were referred to her agency. The 14 equate to 0.2 percent of referrals.

Despite those small numbers, juvenile killers are a major focus of the justice system. Pima County juvenile court sentencing procedures changed two years ago to ensure children get help to avoid repeat offenses, Rico said.

“In the old days, the more trouble you got into, the more consequences and supervision you got,” Rico said. “Now, first- and second-time offenders are seeing very intense supervision and more consequences.”

Before the change in ideology, “at-risk” children had a 37 percent recidivism rate, Rico said. It’s about 10 percent now.

Also, she said, judges now have more control in sentencing. Children sentenced to Juvenile Corrections before 1998 would stay there until the department decided they should leave. Now, Rico said, a judge decides.

Still, many children can’t escape the dysfunctional families and other at-risk environments that await them once released.

Most of the local juvenile killers came from dysfunctional homes and many of their parents were incarcerated. Without the right help, they will continue to fail, Karp said.

Gina Celaya turned 14 three days before killing Trinidad Lopez, 50. She told authorities Lopez picked her up and drove her to the desert, where she said he tried to assault her. She shot him once and stole $19 and his truck. She was sentenced to at least 30 years.

Celaya, now 22, said one of her goals is to convince people that lengthy prison terms aren’t helpful for children such as her, whose childhoods were full of drugs and anger.

“This ain’t no kind of life,” she said from the state prison in Goodyear. “You’re 14 years old, you have no guidance, no one really to comfort you. Those are kids who still need their mothers, their fathers, their family. And you’re taking a child away from that rather than helping them. All they’re doing is throwing them away.”

Celaya earned her GED and took college classes behind bars. Her at-risk classification is as low as possible, Gaspar said, and she works just outside the prison as a groundskeeper.

Research shows youths are at their peak potential for committing violent acts while in their late teens, Karp said. That can mean some teens in the juvenile court system leave state control when they need help the most, she said.

She supports the changes made in Arizona in recent years, but said they could go farther.

Some state court systems treat child offenders as juveniles, but retain control until the young offenders are in their early 20s, she said. That ensures they get the help they need without being exposed to adult prison.

Corey Viramontes beat and stabbed a man to death when he was 14, becoming the youngest of four brothers convicted of murder. Now he dreams about a job and family.

“I wish Iwould have done it different,” he said, now 16, from the Florence prison. “I wish I wouldn’t have done it at all.”

He is taking special education classes to get a GED but has many disciplinary problems, including 17 violations and eight more pending charges for which he was transferred from Tucson to a special unit in Florence, complex warden Jeffrey Hood said.

“I’m still a kid and stuff, you know what I’m saying?” Viramontes said. “I do little-kid stuff and get in trouble. But if I was on the outside, I’d be getting in more trouble.”

Not all the children have failed at reform. The former guardian of Alex Peña, who was arrested for murder, said the boy is succeeding in work and school and helping care for his mother, who tried to kill herself six months ago in Albuquerque. And the grandmother of Deseri Muñoz, who was riding in the car with Torres and received probation, said the girl has a good job, is expecting a child and plans to marry soon.

The “adopted” family of the latest child to kill in Pima County, a 14-year-old boy the Arizona Daily Star is not identifying because the shooting was accidental, hopes he will be a success story also.

The boy shot his 12-year-old best friend, Albert “AJ” Lopez Jr., in the chest in early June. Eleanor Lopez, AJ’s grandmother, hopes the teen, whom she calls a grandson, will return to a normal life.

“I know it will be hard because that was his friend. But maybe that’s more of a punishment for him because he’s going to think of that everyday,” she said.

 

In 2003, it was ruled that Celaya would not get a new trial, but would have a new sentencing hearing. From the Star, Oct. 28, 2003:

 

New look at sentence of woman in murder

A judge ruled Monday that Gina Celaya, who was convicted of killing a man when she was 14 years old, will receive a new sentencing hearing but not a new trial.

Celaya, now 24, is believed to be the youngest murder defendant tried in Pima County. She was convicted of first-degree murder in 1994 in the death of Trinidad Lopez, 50. Celaya told authorities Lopez picked her up, drove her to the desert and tried to rape her.

The new sentencing hearing, set for Nov. 10, could reduce her remaining prison time. Celaya was sentenced to 10.5 years for armed robbery and to a life sentence - she must spend at least 25 years behind bars before she's eligible for parole - for Lopez's murder.

Judge Lina Rodriguez will consider whether Celaya's two prison terms, which are now being served consecutively, should have run at the same time, said prosecutor Kathleen Mayer.

Celaya's lawyers argued earlier this year that Celaya deserved a new trial because her past lawyers did a poor job. Rodriguez disagreed.

But in her written order, Rodriguez said prosecutors argued at Celaya's original sentencing that the law created a "preference" for Celaya's sentences to be stacked. Rodriguez concluded she was influenced by the state's argument and decided to have a new hearing.

 

Now it appears Celaya will be released

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

About this blog

"Tales from the Morgue" is a way for the Star to share stories from the treasure trove of information held in its old files.

Johanna Eubank, aka the Morgue Lady, was a research assistant in the Star Library — also known as News and Research Services — for 18 years before becoming an online content producer. She has had her share of sneezing fits after digging into dusty old files, so she's sure to find a few old stories to re-examine.

If you have suggestions, comments or questions about this blog, e-mail jeubank@tucson.com

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