Killer at Large

Eight years after the murder of Richard Vega Jr., the holidays remain a tough time for his family

The plans most people make for New Year's Eve involve celebrating the year that was, and looking forward to a fresh start in the next one.

Yesenia Campos and her family haven't had an occasion to enjoy the turning of the calendar for some time. Instead, Dec. 31 has served as a reminder of a giant loss in all of their lives.

The final day of 2012 will find Campos, her mother, her sisters and others paying tribute to Richard Vega Jr., the son/brother/uncle they lost eight years ago to a somewhat-solved-but-still-not-closed homicide.

Tucson police believe Vega, who was 25 at the time of his death in 2004, was stabbed by Damion Smith, who is wanted in connection with another homicide earlier that year and remains on the loose.

Smith is believed to be in Jamaica, and a check with police indicated that no new leads have developed in the case.

The fact Vega was someplace where he'd be put in harm's way wasn't surprising, says Campos, his sister. She said Richard was always looking out for others while at the same time trying to avoid violence.

Campos, now 31, remembers a time years ago when an abusive boyfriend caused her to fear for her life, only to have Vega save her at the last minute and still somehow avoid a physical confrontation with the boyfriend.

"My brother just walked in and just told my ex, 'Hey, I don't want any trouble,'" Campos recalled. Others would have beaten (my ex) up, but not Richard. I was literally seconds from being stabbed, and he saved me."

Similar stories, minus the life-or-death scenario, were shared by the droves of people who showed up for Richard's wake, Campos said.

"We had over 300 people there," she said. "It touched me to see the people from his Little League or his elementary school there, his co-workers. He was loved by so many people. You just wanted to be around him. He was my friend; he was my hero; he was my father figure. He was a big teddy bear. Meeting him, you'd see that Richard was a fun-loving, caring guy."

The details of Vega's death are sketchy, though police are certain the stabbing stemmed from a drug deal gone wrong.

Campos said Richard was coerced by their father, Richard Vega Sr., into accompanying him to a meeting at the Raintree Apartments, near Golf Links Road and Mann Avenue, on the morning of Dec. 31, 2004, not long after Richard Jr. had finished an overnight shift stocking shelves at Kmart. When Richard Jr. returned home later, he told his girlfriend he was very thirsty.

The thirst came from massive blood loss after being stabbed in the stomach, Campos said.

Richard Jr. was pronounced dead at 2:45 p.m. that day, a time that has been commemorated each New Year's Eve since with family members gathering at a memorial cross near Golf Links and Mann.

Campos said she doesn't know the specifics regarding the incident that left her brother dead, though she's certain their father—a known drug-user—had probably wanted the 6-foot-2 Richard Jr. there for protection. Richard Sr. died two years ago from heart failure, and shortly before his death, Campos said, he wanted to come clean about the events of that day.

She wouldn't let him.

"Me knowing the details wasn't going to help me," said Campos, who instead chose to forgive her father. "Richard (Jr.) was the kind of person who would just forgive. And honestly, I didn't believe whatever my dad was going to tell me would be the truth."

Campos said she doesn't know if her brother's murder will ever be solved. It's a feeling she said she shares with the family members of Smith's other alleged victim, Alex Grijalva, who was killed in June 2004 in possibly another drug deal.

Campos said she met Grijalva's family through Homicide Survivors at one of many events the nonprofit outfit associated with the Pima County Attorney's Office puts on each year.

"It's support for all of us, for my mom especially, and my little sister," Campos said of Homicide Survivors. "It helps us, because he's not forgotten, and knowing there's an organization out there that's fighting for us and with us.

"For me, I just want some type of closure. I want who did this to my brother to pay for what he did."

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