OXNARD — Outraged by the response they have received from police and city officials, relatives of a 24-year-old father who was gunned down in December in a local restaurant said they are leading their own search for his killers.
Noting the strong response in Ventura to the recent slaying of Buena High School student James "Jake" Bush, nearly a dozen relatives of murder victim Gabriel Cortez told the Oxnard City Council on Tuesday night that they felt cheated.
They said that police have been slow to follow up on leads in Cortez's death and that their phone calls to Mayor Manuel Lopez have been ignored.
"It's so frustrating, because we feel the murder in Ventura, the police are all into it," Eva Delgado, the mother of Cortez's two young daughters, said Wednesday. "It's unfair that some people get better treatment than others. . . . I think it's the difference in race. I think they feel Gabriel's life wasn't worth anything. It was to us."
Police say they have worked hard on the Cortez case. They would not respond to the family's complaints or discuss specifics of the investigation, but said two officers are still working on the case.
"I know they're frustrated," said Det. Doug Wiley, the lead investigator. "I would be frustrated. . . . A lot of these homicide cases take awhile."
Wiley said that he will meet with family members today to discuss the investigation.
The city of Ventura has offered a $10,000 reward for the capture of the killer of Jake Bush, a popular high school student and standout athlete. He was killed by a burglar June 24 in his family's Montalvo home.
By comparison, relatives described Gabriel Cortez as a young Latino construction worker who worked hard to put food on the table for his family.
Cortez was killed in the early morning hours of Dec. 9 shortly after walking into El Taco De Mexico in downtown Oxnard.
As Cortez, Delgado, Cortez's nephew, Frank, and his female companion waited for their food, three men walked in the restaurant and began arguing with Cortez and his nephew.
According to police, one of the men pulled a gun and shot Gabriel Cortez in the chest. He lay dying on the restaurant floor as Delgado tried to give him CPR.
"He was moaning," Delgado said. "Then he just stopped. . . ."
The nephew, Frank Cortez, was also shot but recovered. The three suspects got away.
Oxnard police say they are still looking for the three Latino men. One is described as about 6 feet tall, age 28 to 35, with a strong build. Another is about 22 to 30 years old and 5-foot-9 with a medium build and wavy hair. The third is about 5-foot-9 with a medium build.
During the past few months as police failed to make any arrests, Cortez's relatives said they took matters into their own hands. They called Crime Stoppers, a nonprofit crime-fighting group, to set up a $1,000 reward for information on the shooting. They handed out fliers with descriptions of the suspects at local restaurants and clubs.
In recent weeks, the Oxnard family has grown frustrated watching Ventura's strong reaction to Bush's death, while the investigation into Cortez' slaying dragged on.
Police in Ventura say they are putting all available resources behind the Bush case. Initially, 25 detectives were working the case; 17 are still on it full time. Detectives continue to walk house to house in the Montalvo neighborhood, asking residents if they have seen the slim, Latino male with close-cropped hair wanted for questioning.
"We're talking to a lot of people," Ventura Lt. Don Arth said. "Every case is unique. You wish you had more information that would point you in a direction earlier on, but sometimes these cases go on a little longer."
Cortez's relatives said they have called Mayor Lopez twice to see if he could get police to do more. They reasoned that Lopez would empathize, because his wife was wounded in a 1993 shooting at an Oxnard unemployment office that left three people dead.
"We felt like we're being discriminated against," said Lucy Cisneros, 44. "We were desperate. We did a lot of footwork. That's why we went to the mayor."
Sonia Cisneros, Lucy Cisneros' daughter, chastised Lopez at Tuesday night's council meeting for not answering the family's calls.
"We are left waiting," she said. "Suppose it was your child, mother or husband? How would you feel? Mayor Lopez, you of all people can relate to our plea. Your wife was almost taken away, and you received justice."
Lopez replied that he was too busy to return the family's calls, but still felt for them.
It's possible the calls weren't returned, Lopez said Wednesday. "I get so many phone calls. I think it's a very normal response from the kin of someone killed. But the authorities are working. The Police Department is doing everything they can."
But Lucy Cisneros said that the city and police could be doing more.
"We've seen what they've done with that young Ventura man," she said. "Why doesn't Oxnard help us?"