Celebration Gone Wrong

Despite dozens of witnesses, nobody is charged with the death of Fernando Lara after almost two years

Fernando Lara didn't have much going for him when he moved to Tucson in 2009.

Kicked out of his Safford home by his parents, who had tired of his wild behavior and drug use, Lara was taken in by an uncle who hoped a fresh locale and some new guidance would help turn things around.

"When he came to me, he was down on his luck, and I cleaned him up," recalled Clarence Lara, a retired federal employee whose caring but firm supervision enabled Fernando to acquire his GED in April 2010. "He passed with flying colors."

The plan was for Fernando to go to school to learn to be an electrician or plumber, Clarence Lara said. First, though, Fernando wanted to celebrate his recent educational success, so plans were made to meet up with his brother and two female friends on April 8, 2010, for a night of dancing at Maloney's, a popular Fourth Avenue bar.

"That night, when he left, I had him promise me he wouldn't get into trouble," Clarence Lara said. "No fights, no drinking. Just walk away."

At some point that evening, though, a group of five men at a nearby table began harassing Fernando and his party. Crude comments were made toward the women, which resulted in Fernando attempting to quell the incident, to no avail.

"Fernando told them he didn't want (anything), but they kept causing trouble," Clarence Lara said. "They were trying to cause trouble with Fernando and the girl he was with. They kept on instigating him until they jumped him."

The fight broke out in the middle of the bar after 1 a.m. on a busy Thursday night/Friday morning, prime time for a college crowd. When the dust settled, Fernando had been stabbed multiple times. He was pronounced dead at University Medical Center. He was 22.

Tucson police initially identified three suspects in connection with the stabbing, one of whom—25-year-old Nicholas Taylor—was arrested three weeks later. He was indicted on a charge of first-degree murder soon afterward.

But documents filed in Pima County Superior Court by Taylor's attorney stated that a key witness in the case, a bouncer at Maloney's, mistakenly identified Taylor as being involved in the fight. The documents claim the fight involved only four people: Fernando, his brother Jorge "Albert" Rodriguez, and two other men the Weekly is not identifying, because they have not been arrested or charged with any crimes.

This revelation led the Pima County Attorney's Office in December 2010 to dismiss the murder charge against Taylor, saying "further investigation is necessary," but the office left the door open to refile the charge.

Through a department spokesperson, Tucson Police Det. William Hanson said the case is being reviewed, and the intention is to bring it back to the county attorney soon for another grand-jury presentation.

Clarence Lara said he is certain that Taylor was involved with his nephew's death, as were the other men, one of whom Lara believes was an active military member who was on leave at the time of the stabbing. The uncle said he cannot believe someone else from the crowded bar hasn't come forward to give an eyewitness account in order to help police make further arrests.

"There were 63 witnesses inside the bar who saw what happened," Clarence Lara said. "I don't understand why it's taken them so long ... to get these people."

Pima County Chief Deputy Attorney Kellie Johnson said the availability of so many witnesses can often cause as many issues as solutions, especially if people weren't aware of what was going on.

"There were a lot of people present," Johnson said. "But how many people actually noticed something was happening until it was over? Not too many."

Nearly two years after the incident, Clarence Lara says he somehow feels responsible for his nephew's death, because he'd made it his mission to set Fernando straight.

"I brought this kid over here to help straighten him out ... and he was doing all of that," he said. "He was looking forward to a new future, and they cut it short. I feel guilty, because it was on my time."