Gilroy police have suspended the search for the body of Martha Gutierrez, 52, who they believe was shot and killed inside a car by her son Abel Gutierrez, 27. She was last seen Tuesday, the day before her 11-year-old daughter Lucero Luna-Gutierrez was murdered by Abel in their apartment off Kern Avenue in northwest Gilroy. Abel, an Iraq war veteran who apparently was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, then shot and killed himself.
After using Martha’s cell phone records to narrow down her whereabouts, police searched all over the South County area and Santa Cruz mountains with multiple teams and search dogs to locate her body through Sunday, but found nothing, said Gilroy Police Sgt. Chad Gallacinao. At this time, no GPD officers continue to search for Martha.
“We’ve exhausted everything,” Gallacinao said.
Two firearms were used in the murders and Abel’s suicide, police said, and four firearms were found at the two-bedroom rental at the Redwood Apartment complex where Abel, Martha and Lucero were living with two other adult roommates, though Gallacinao did not give details about what types of firearms were used and who they were registered to.
On Thursday, Gilroy police recovered and impounded Abel’s 2000 green Ford Mustang, and inside officers discovered evidence – including blood, according to Gallacinao.
“There was significant physical evidence found within the car to indicate a violent assault occurred, a firearm was discharged and somebody was shot within the car,” he said.
Police believe Martha was killed somewhere in a 24-hour window between when she was last seen Tuesday at 8:30 p.m., and Wednesday evening, Gallicinao said.
Abel, who family members describe as suicidal after he returned home from his tour in Iraq about five months ago, was not the same person he was before the war. Abel would talk to the wall, sleep with his guns and wake up from night terrors, shouting expletives at the Pakistanis and Iraqis out of a dead sleep, said Martha’s brother Faustino Gutierrez at a vigil for Lucero Thursday night at the Redwood Apartments.
“I always wondered if he would kill himself, but never Lucero,” Faustino said.
Real dangers of PTSD
The murder-suicide follows on the heels of a widely publicized mass-shooting of Afghanistan civilians by an American solider, leaving people shocked and asking how something that terrible could have happened.
In the wake of this community tragedy, people in Gilroy are asking the same question.
Dr. Josef Ruzek, Director of Training at the National Center for PTSD, said that anger, irritability, hyperarousal, panic and intrusive memories are common symptoms in those who suffer from PTSD.
“But it is rare for that anger to lead to a murder,” Ruzek said.
About 10-15 percent of Iraq war veterans have significant PTSD symptoms, he said.
Ruzek said that Abel could have been suffering from what he described as the “perfect storm” of factors that triggered his violent behavior.
The symptoms of PTSD, if left untreated, he said, can lead to a multitude of other problems – relationship troubles, drug problems, anxiety problems, issues at work and more.
Kerri Childress, spokeswoman for the Palo Alto Veterans Affairs, said that nobody goes to conflict and comes back unchanged. But Childress said tragedies like these paint an extreme picture of PTSD – that it is a violent and dangerous disorder, and might dissuade other veterans from seeking help.
“Vets see news like this and think, ‘That’s not me,’ or become embarrassed to ask for help,” she said.
Childress also said that because of this “horribly tragic” incident, and others like it, a stigma will fall on Iraq war veterans at large. She said that thousands of other veterans who seek counsel are successfully adjusting to their lives in the U.S., despite battling with PTSD and other mental disorders.
“Don’t let this terrible incident put a shadow on the service of other vets,” she said. “I guarantee – I mean, I know – that Gilroy has some very proud veterans, and it is important that they can walk through their town with their heads high.”
Roommates find Abel, Lucero dead
Police responded to the murder-suicide about 9 p.m. Wednesday inside apartment 201 at Redwood Apartments near Mantelli Drive in northwest Gilroy, according to Gallacinao. The incident was reported by two adult roommates who rented a room in the Gutierrez’s household.
The roommates, who neighbors said were between the ages of 30 and 40, came home sometime Wednesday evening. According to neighbors, about a half hour later, they noticed the bathroom door was slightly ajar and pushed it open all the way. That’s when they discovered the bodies of Abel and Lucero. Once medical personnel were called to the scene, they confirmed that Lucero and Abel were dead.
Gallacinao said GPD officers were called to the Gutierrez’s apartment on Feb. 29 because his family was concerned about his mental health. Police had coordinated with Veterans Affairs to get Gutierrez help, Gallacinao said.
“There was an argument during that day,” Gallacinao said. “(Abel’s family) indicated that he was more aggressive than usual.”
The GPD officer on scene and the family determined that Abel was not at risk of physically harming himself or others, Gallacinao said.
“At the end of the call the family specifically indicated that they were not in fear of being physically harmed,” Gallacinao said. “The family primarily wanted (Abel) to get some help because he was not the same person who came back to them after the war.”
Community bands together in wake of tragedy
In the midst of Wednesday’s shocking tragedy, more than 200 people gathered Thursday evening at the Redwood Apartments to light candles and bring stuffed animals, flowers and balloons in honor of 11-year-old South Valley Middle School student Lucero Luna–Gutierrez.
“We have to walk this together, unified,” said GPD Police Chaplain Greg Quirke, who led the crowd in prayers and moments of silence for Lucero. Prayers were also said for Martha Gutierrez, the missing mother of Lucero and Abel.
Loved ones pored over a display of Lucero’s toys and bike and tearfully slipped letters in handmade boxes.
After speaking to the crowd, Quirke and GPD Police Chaplain Bill Hawkins led the crowd in a somber chorus of “Amazing Grace.” People lit candles and marched to the entryway of the Gutierrez family’s apartment, where loved ones shared memories of Lucero in both English and Spanish.
Abel Gutierrez was a “loving brother,” according to some at the vigil.
Faustino said that Abel was like a son to him and recalled how Abel began to smoke a lot of marijuana after the war. Abel had “lost his will to live,” and had a rocky relationship with his mother, according to Faustino.
When asked what kind of brother Abel was to Lucero, however, Faustino softened his voice and choked up.
“Perfecto,” he said. “He was perfect.”
A Redwood Apartment resident and close friend of Lucero’s – a girl named Jannine, 13 – said that Lucero adored Abel and would brag to her friends that she was written into his will. Jannine said that Abel took Lucero to the park and Disneyland, and that Abel was like a father figure to Lucero. Neighbors say Lucero’s real father was completely out of the picture.
“She really looked up to him,” Jannine said. “He was a hero to her.”
Meanwhile as the vigil continued, Superintendent Debbie Flores led attendees in a moment of silence for Lucero at the Gilroy Unified School Board meeting Thursday night.
“What a sad day this has been for our school district,” she said, addressing audience members from the podium. “It’s at times like this that we all really reflect on what’s important in life. What matters is our family, our health and our times that we have in our lives to enjoy each other.”
Anyone with information regarding the whereabouts of the vehicle or Abel Gutierrez prior to Wednesday’s incident is urged to contact Detective Michael Bolton at (408) 846-0350.
Parties wishing to remain anonymous may call We-Tip at 1-800-782-7463 (800-78-Crime).
The community can donate to the Lucero Luna and Abel Gutierrez Memorial Fund in person or send in checks to the Gilroy branch of Santa Barbara Bank & Trust at 8000 Santa Teresa Boulevard in Gilroy. Donations for the funeral and expenses for the family can be directed to account number 0103836144.