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Cartel attack victim living in El Monte helped by plastic surgery

Feeling guilty for his parents' deaths in the attack in Mexico, Adali Gutierrez reasoned that his own terrible scars were a penance. Then came a gift of surgery.

May 15, 2012|By Corina Knoll, Los Angeles Times
  • Reconstructive surgery on his face is helping Adali Gutierrez, 21, face the future with more confidence. Innocent bystanders during a cartel attack in Mexico, his parents were killed and he was badly injured.
Reconstructive surgery on his face is helping Adali Gutierrez, 21, face… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

Adali Gutierrez rarely mentioned his scarred and disfigured chin. He kept quiet about the mangled lower lip that twisted when he talked.

A 21-year-old raising four orphaned siblings had bigger worries.

Today, however, he speaks without hesitation. A plastic surgeon has fashioned him a new lip and smoothed over the divots in his skin. Faded are the lesions that reminded him constantly of the night his parents were gunned down in Mexico.

It was January 2010. Maria and Guillermo Sr. had arrived at a police station to bail out Adali, who had been stopped for drunk driving. The same night, a drug cartel attacked the station with bullets and grenades. Shrapnel tore through Adali's face and lung. His parents were buried before he fully regained consciousness.

Wanting to keep his brothers and sisters together, he moved them into a two-bedroom El Monte apartment and took a job that paid $8 an hour.

After their story was published last November in The Times, the Gutierrez family found itself thrust into the spotlight. Phone calls, emails and letters poured in to the newspaper by the hundreds, all from people wanting to help. "It isn't much, but it's all I have," wrote one woman who sent $5.

Adali; Guillermo, 19; Yasmin, 18; Adrian, 16; and Roxanna, 5, were offered gift cards, toys, furniture, rent payments, laptops, trips to the nail salon, grief counseling sessions — and words of encouragement.

"What strength it must take to know you are now mom and dad to your brothers and sisters," wrote a Palmdale woman who wanted to donate money. "Let this not be a story that grows old and tired and forgotten about."

A man from Hacienda Heights asked to "adopt" the family for the holidays. "I have lost $2 million in net worth the last three years and I thought my life was in a shambles," he wrote. "After reading your story I realized that my wife and I have our health, family and friends, a home, new jobs, and a good future ahead of us."

People dropped by the San Gabriel Valley Conservation Corps, the nonprofit where Adali worked, and asked to meet the young man from the story. The corps set up a fund for the family and it quickly grew to more than $9,000.

In late December, a loading truck laden with wrapped gifts pulled up to the Gutierrezes' apartment.

"Which ones are for them?" a family friend asked.

"All of them," the driver said.

Roxanna giggled on Christmas morning as she tore off paper and ribbons to find dolls, stuffed animals, dresses and books. The boys received a Nintendo Wii and clothing. A woman who found out Adrian is a Raiders fan sent a genuine NFL jacket with the logo of the Oakland team.

Yasmin accumulated toiletries, nail polish, hair straighteners and makeup. She appreciated the gifts, but the attention made her uncomfortable. Her classmates and teachers had not known her history but now inquired about it. She liked it better when mothers and grandmothers sent heartfelt letters of support.

Adali was overwhelmed by the riches. He wasn't used to handouts. But he found that people were friendly and well-meaning. And he reveled in watching Roxanna play with her giant stack of toys.

The big brother admits he indulges the kindergartner, who commands the TV remote at all times. He recently took her to Disneyland, where he was surprised to find that churros cost $3.50. He bought her one anyway.

"I spoil her because I feel bad," he said. "Because I think I'm the one who did it."

The night his parents were shot, Adali had been in Lazaro Cardenas, a small port city in the Mexican state of Michoacan, celebrating his 19th birthday.

He was visiting his parents and siblings, who had left El Monte a year earlier after his father's deportation for selling meth. Adali had stayed in the U.S., dropped out of school and worked to send money to his parents.

The night before the party, Adali was taken into custody for drunk driving. He doesn't remember much about what happened next, except the way his mother couldn't help but smile when she arrived to post bail. And he won't forget the image of his father falling to the ground when the gunfire began.

Adali awoke in the hospital, parentless, guilt-ridden and deformed.

He moved his siblings back to El Monte, where they kept their story to themselves. But Adali couldn't hide his scars. He wondered if they were his cross to bear. Sometimes Yasmin, still grieving, lashed out and blamed him for being motherless. It was nothing compared to the blame he placed on himself.

Then Dr. Timothy Miller, chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, read about Adali in The Times. When one of Miller's friends donated the cost of an operation, things were set in motion.

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