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A life lost between the cracks
Mesa parish mourns man killed in hit-run and in U.S. illegally
October 12, 2007


Days after its caretaker was killed, the rose garden at a downtown Mesa church began to droop.

Just one man had pruned, watered and guarded the roses at Queen of Peace Catholic Church for the past seven years. He spoke few words. He attended Mass almost daily. And he cared for the flowers as a service to God.

Publication info
This story originally ran Oct. 12, 2007 in the East Valley Tribune in Arizona. To view photos published with the story, go to www.evtrib.com.

First place, short-form writing, 2007 Arizona Press Club awards.

The cruel way Jose Luis Velasco-Garcia died Oct. 2 -- lying on the pavement while his groceries were looted, police say -- shocked many in Mesa, but it hit particularly hard at Queen of Peace where many knew Velasco by sight, if not by name.

"The thing was so anonymous. That's what's so terrible about it," the Rev. Charlie Goraieb, one of the church's priests, said.

Velasco was headed home from buying groceries last week in central Mesa and was waiting for the 7:22 p.m. Red Line bus when the driver of a pickup truck lost control, veered off the road and slammed into him.

The impact killed him and scattered his groceries across a parking lot.

The driver, who police say was Alan Flores-Ocon, 23, then drove off. As of late Thursday, Flores had not been found.

Velasco remained a John Doe for several days after his death. The only thing police found in his wallet was a small card, which showed he volunteered at the church. He had no photo ID or official paperwork.

"We show up. We've got a dead gentleman in the parking lot. He's got a wallet in his pocket with a couple of scraps of paper. We're like, 'where do we go from here?'" said Detective Steve Berry, a Mesa police spokesman.

The situation is a classic example, Berry said, of the difficulties authorities face when they find someone living off the grid.

In this case, Velasco was in the country illegally for years, Berry said. He was working here and sending money that he made doing odd jobs around town to his wife and family in Mexico.

It is often just as difficult to identify victims who are homeless or impoverished with no ID.

Investigators went to Queen of Peace to ask about the card and try to locate somebody who knew the man. When word circulated around Queen of Peace, investigators were contacted by parishioner Barbara Murphy, a Mesa real estate agent who had frequently hired Velasco to work for her.

She told them she knew him as Jose Luis. She had always assumed Luis was his last name, because he never went by Velasco.

After realizing it was in fact "my Jose," she began to cry, she said.

"He was just so cheerful all the time," Murphy said. "Never did I see him out of sorts. Never, ever. What a gift."

That day, she and a friend who spoke Spanish went to the small, one-bedroom apartment that Velasco shared with two other men in west Mesa.

The manager told them he had not seen Velasco for days and offered to let the two women into the apartment.

"I was shocked to find out that there were three men living in that small place," Murphy said.

It was there, near a stack of Velasco's neatly-folded clothes and a small coin purse she had given him, that Murphy found an address book with phone numbers for his family members in Mexico.

She relayed the numbers to police, who in turn, broke the news to Velasco's family.

In the days since the crash, congregation members have been deeply moved by Velasco's death, Goraieb said.

"He was really faithful," Goraieb said. "He was one of these guys who was here three times a week at least, and all day Sunday."

He often handed out pamphlets at Mass or greeted people, Goraieb said. When he wasn't volunteering in the sanctuary, he was tending to the small rose garden.

Most people knew him for his work in the garden, Goraieb said. He was humble and quiet, and never asked for money for his volunteer work, even though he was clearly poor.

Only once did Velasco ask the church to pay for something, Goraieb said. He wanted Queen of Peace to buy signs for the garden warning people not to clip the blossoms.

"It was his baby. He guarded them," Goraieb said with a laugh. "Zealous people who wanted to lay flowers at the foot of the Virgin would not clip them from his garden."

Last week, with Velasco gone and the weather warm, the roses began to wilt.

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