Updated May 29, 2014
“It looked like a toy.”
That’s how Liliana Nava described her initial thoughts when Donald Ray Dokins, 15 at the time, pulled up on his bike across the street from her and her family one summer day in 2012 in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. That toy turned out to be a gun, that teenager turned out to be a murderer, and that day turned out to be one that changed her life forever.
Dokins opened fire, aiming at Mauro Cortez, Liliana’s boyfriend, whom he mistakenly believed was a member of a rival gang because of the purple shirt he was wearing. Cortez was wounded, but also caught in the crossfire was their 14-month-old son, Angel Mauro Cortez Vega. In broad daylight, the all-too-common reality of gang violence had come to their doorstep.
A little more than one year later, Nava shares how she copes with losing her son to a senseless act of violence -- and what she hopes others can take away from her story.
Tell us about your son, Angel. What was he like?
He was a very happy kid. He loved bubble baths. He would always point at airplanes. So when I see airplanes in the sky it always reminds me of him.
What happened the day your son was killed?
I was right next to him. My boyfriend was holding him. That’s when [Dokins] came. I thought he was there just there looking for somebody. … I really didn’t think anything of it … and then all of the sudden, I heard gun shots. …
Everybody was screaming at the guy. He took off on his bike. I heard everyone crying. But when I heard Angel crying, I just thought he’d gotten scared. … I was just standing there trying to realize what had happened. A few minutes later, my friend called my name and I turned over to her. She looked over at me, but she didn’t tell me [that my son had been shot]. She just said his shirt was full of blood. … I didn’t know what to do. I just kept asking for my phone or somebody’s phone. I called 911 and I remembered talking to someone. …
But it was just too much. I gave the phone to somebody.
Then one of my neighbors came. She started doing CPR on [Angel]. I was just praying for him. It took a long time for the ambulance to get there and then all of the sudden, Mauro came over me and told me that he’d been shot too. I didn’t know what to do. I was thinking, ‘It’s either my son or my boyfriend.’ I just told Mauro to sit down on the ground and wait for the ambulance to come. I went back to Angel. I was just sitting there signing to him. And then finally, the ambulance got there.
I remembered them putting Angel into the ambulance…I didn’t know what to do. [One of my neighbors] told me to get in [the ambulance]. It took forever to get there [to the hospital]. They couldn’t turn on the sirens on the freeway. I just wanted to get to the hospital fast. I was so frustrated. I was so nervous. I was so scared. I told [Angel] that daddy was waiting for us at home. I was singing to him.
When we got to the hospital ... they took him upstairs to the surgery room. They took me upstairs to the waiting room. ... I kept trying to ask to just see how my baby was doing. All they would tell me was that he was critical, but stable. I was so nervous. I just wanted to cry. … I don’t know after how many hours, they let Mauro come up. We were just waiting and waiting.
Then, the nurse told me that the doctor was ready to talk to me. We went into the chapel. Then, the doctor came in. He told me that my baby had been shot. … I think he had to tell me twice. He was explaining where the bullets went. Then, he told me that [Angel’s] heart had stopped.
I just felt like my whole world had come down. It was so hard, so awful.
And then we realized Mauro still had the bullet inside him. We didn’t know if he was going to have to have surgery. He was telling me he was scared…that he didn't want to die. It was so scary.
We buried Angel the next day.
How do you cope with this loss?
It’s been so hard. But just talking about what happened and telling people about my experience -- that has helped a lot. It’s really hard for me to talk about it, but I know that I have to.
We made a video in church once [with Angel]. Sometimes I just sit there and watch the video or I look at pictures. I just remember all of the good memories that we had with him. But that’s part of the process. That’s part of my life. That’s what I go through every day.
Do you want to help other families who face these sorts of tragedies?
I would love to talk to other mothers who have lost their kids about my experience and let them know that they are not alone. ... There are people out there [who can help].
At first, when this happened to me, I was so scared. I didn’t know what I was going to do without my son. I thought my life was going to end. I thought my life had no meaning without him. But there is hope. And nobody is alone. There are other people like me. I would say to other mothers: Just take it slow every day. I know it is a hard process. But eventually, it will get better.
Can anything be done about gang violence in your neighborhood?
That’s a very hard question. I really don’t think so. It’s just a very bad situation over here. So I don’t think so.
Is there any end to the violence in sight?
No. I hear people say, ‘This happened over here. That happened over there.’ [The violence] is nonstop.
Why is this happening? Why are such young kids getting involved?
First of all, I think a lot of young people just don’t know what they are doing. That’s the main problem.
Is it about getting credibility on the streets or in the gang?
I think people try to get credibility on the streets, for sure. [It’s also] lack of education, but [not killing people] should be common sense. … Some people just don’t get it. People are trying to act all smart and be with their friends. They think they can go out and do this [kill people].
Did you feel any sort of closure or any sense of peace when your son’s killer was sentenced to life in prison last month?
I don’t think I will ever get closure because my son is gone. I am at peace knowing that he is locked up in there. But closure, no. Sometimes I have days where I feel bad for the kid. [Dokins] is only 16. He didn't know what he was doing. But sometimes I get in a mood where I think, ‘Hey, forget about the kid, he killed my son.’ When they sentenced him, I thought, ‘now I will have closure,’ but then I thought, ‘what is closure? My son is not here.