A mother cries out for justice Shooting victim feared for her life, had given up on police, family says
The sidewalk and deck in front of the Ponces' home in Berryville is strewn with bang-snaps. You know the ones: those tiny paper TNT pouches that explode with a flash, pop, and scatter when tossed at cement -- say, on the Fourth of July.
But it's the 14th of January here, and no children squeal in surprise or squirm for cover on the frozen lawn. It's icy, quiet, and still.
At 9 a.m. on a Monday, the children are not in school. They're inside, too terrified to venture into the yard -- too frightened, even, to sleep.
Laura Ponce's 14-year-old daughter keeps a knife beneath her pillow. Her 7-year-old granddaughter can barely rest, and Ponce gets no respite at all -- she is too busy sowing the sidewalks with tiny fireworks, so the Reaper won't take any of them by surprise.
Death is too familiar in this home. Just two weeks ago, he stole Ponce's first-born daughter and her joy, and she's afraid he's still hungry.
Sitting at the table in her dimly lit living room, Ponce clutches a cup of coffee. Her dark hair is disheveled. Her eyelids sag with tears and hours, and her shirt is on wrong-side out.
On the table in front of her is the pamphlet from her daughter's funeral. Laura Acevez bore Ponce's given name. She also inherited her beautiful face, which the pictures in the pamphlet bear out. But the women shared something darker, too: Acevez, like her mother, was a victim of domestic violence.
Ponce -- along with her daughter and her second husband, Oscar -- came to America 16 years ago, with dreams of a new life. In Mexico, Ponce said, she had been abused by Acevez's father and received little support. She dreamed of a place where justice was guaranteed to all.
Now, she's not certain she found that place.
On New Years Eve, Acevez, a 21-year-old mother of three, was found unconscious in her Eureka Springs apartment, with a gunshot wound to the head. Her 5-month-old son -- a spritely infant with chocolate eyes and a sudden, outrageous smile -- was found near his mother's body.
Acevez died that afternoon, at Mercy Northwest Arkansas in Rogers. Oscar Ponce had rushed his wife there after she got the nightmare call on her lunch break. She said she felt her daughter's death even before the doctor stepped into the waiting room and opened his mouth.
Later that day, police kicked in the door of a cabin on Bluebird Mountain and found Victor Acuna-Sanchez, the baby's 18-year-old father, hiding in a shower with a .22-caliber handgun at his feet.
The man was arrested, and his gun sent to the Arkansas State Crime Lab for a possible match with the bullet used to kill Acevez. However, as Ponce sat in her living room, no charges had been filed against him in relation to the killing.
Authorities have remained tight-lipped about the investigation, refusing to say, even, whether they have received the results of the ballistic test. Carroll County Sheriff Bob Grudek said Prosecuting Attorney Tony Rogers had ordered an absolute embargo on information about the case.
Authorities could not be persuaded to comment on family members' reports that Acuna-Sanchez had threatened to kill Acevez only days before the new year, or that a set of shooter's gloves had been gathered as evidence at the cabin.
What was clear is that Acuna-Sanchez had been charged with -- though never yet tried for or convicted of -- attacking Acevez previously.
Court records document a string of purported attacks against Acevez, stretching back more than a year -- two of which resulted in charges. Beyond that, records are not available because Acuna-Sanchez was a juvenile. But family members said the abuse spanned Acevez's entire two-year relationship with him.
Acuna-Sanchez allegedly beat her with his fists and feet (while she was seven months pregnant with his child); brutalized her with a baseball bat; dragged her behind a car; strangled her; vandalized her vehicle and apartments numerous times; robbed her and her family; and told Acevez -- in minute detail -- how he planned to kill each of her children if she should leave him for good.
"He's crazy," Ponce said. "He's not a person. He's an animal."
The mother said police had been informed of each instance of abuse, and Acuna-Sanchez was arrested three times in the last year. However, each time, he bailed out, and while awaiting trial, he allegedly struck again.
With each attack, she said, the violence escalated, but the authorities' response remained the same: minimal at best. The last time Acuna-Sanchez was arrested was on Dec. 9 -- only three weeks before Acevez's death.
The next day, Berryville District Judge Scott Jackson allowed him to be released on his own recognizance -- without having to post bail. He had just bailed out on Nov. 15, after being charged with assaulting Acevez on Sept. 6, only two days after being released from jail for an earlier battery charge against her.
Both of those earlier charges resulted in no-contact orders -- imposed by a judge as a term of release. When Acuna-Sanchez violated those orders on Dec. 9, prosecutors could have asked the judge to fling him back into jail, but they did not.
Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Devon Closser said this was because they were not aware of the Dec. 9 arrest. She said there was no procedure in place to inform prosecutors when the orders had been violated -- and that the system could use "fine-tuning."
For her part, Acevez, Ponce said, had all but given up on seeking help from law enforcement.
"My daughter was so afraid for her life," she said, "(that) she would say, 'Don't call the police, Mother. Every time you do, he comes after me worse, and then he's going to end up killing my kids, Momma.'"
"I always told her, 'We're not in Mexico. We're in America. Cops are not crooked like they are in Mexico.' In Mexico, the only thing they want is money. If you have money, they help you. If you don't, you're invisible. You're nobody."
"But I think I was wrong," she said. "I think we're invisible here, too. Because they've done nothing to help us, except just giving us hopes, and nothing came -- ever."
"Ever," she repeated the refrain three times, her voice trailing off wearily. "They didn't protect my baby like they should."
On the funeral pamphlet, alongside the smiling pictures of Laura, is a poem entitled "I got flowers today," by Paulette Kelly. Ponce found it years ago and has reflected on it often. The first stanza reads:
"I got flowers today.
It wasn't my birthday or any other special day.
We had our first argument last night.
And he said a lot of cruel things that really hurt me.
I know he is sorry and didn't mean the things he said.
Because he sent me flowers today."
Each stanza follows a similar pattern, culminating in the last:
"I got flowers today.
Today was a very special day.
It was the day of my funeral.
Last night, he finally killed me.
He beat me to death.
If only I had gathered enough courage and
strength to leave him,
I would not have gotten flowers ... today."
Ponce said she knew people would judge her daughter, even in death, and try to blame her for her fate.
"Only women who have been abused understand why you have to stay in a relationship," she said. "She will say, 'If I stay with him, he won't beat me up as bad as if I leave him. He will not hurt my kids.' Men don't understand this."
"I would have done the same thing for my kids," she said. "... I don't care what people say. I know she was trying to start a new life. I know she was trying to run away, but she didn't have time."
Acevez did plan to leave Acuna-Sanchez for good, Ponce said.
"She was saving money little by little to run away ... and hide in another state," she said. "That was her plan -- have a house, have a new life."
Acevez had saved about $200, and only needed a little more to make her escape. Ponce had no money to help with. Two hundred dollars and some change was all she needed to start a new life.
Life after death
Since Laura's death, the Ponces have struggled. They always struggled, but now Acevez can no longer help bear the burden.
Her oldest son lives with his father --the ex-couple had been pooling their resources to afford divorce proceedings. However, the care of her daughter and infant boy have now fallen to the Ponces.
"She had no insurance," her mother said. "The only insurance she had was in my granddaughter's name. She's 7 years old, and she can't touch the money until she's 21."
"We have nothing," she said, "nothing; we didn't even have money to bury her."
The state provided assistance to cover the funeral costs. Now, she doesn't know what they will do.
Before Acevez's death, Ponce was working four jobs to pay the bills. However, she has been unable to return to work since -- too busy getting her daughter's affairs in order, caring for her grandchildren, and sorting through her own emotions.
"I've always been poor," she said, "and I will die poor. But I want to be happy. I want to recover some of what I had before, some of that happiness I had."
And she wants justice. However, even in the midst of her loss and struggle, Ponce sees an opportunity to do good.
"I want to put a shelter for abused women here in town," she said, "and I want to dedicate my life ... to helping. That's my mission, is to help others not have to go through what my daughter went through, alone."
Still, Ponce said she worried Acuna-Sanchez would be let loose again. She said authorities had told her that, if he was not charged by Jan. 20, he would have to be released. If that happened, she said, she feared he would come for them. And tiny sidewalk fireworks are no substitute for iron bars.
She said friends had offered to shelter her and her family, but she wouldn't budge.
"I'm going to sit in my house and wait for Victor to come," she said. "I'm going to buy myself a gun, and I'm going to get a permit. And I'm going to send the kids away to be protected, and I'm going to wait for Victor to come and (try to) kill me.
"I don't know if I'll have the heart to kill anyone. I don't think I do. I don't want Victor to die. At first ... I wanted to, but now, I don't because I don't want to have that in my mind the rest of my life. ... I don't want that for him. I just want him locked up for the rest of his life where he doesn't damage anyone or hurt more people."