Chris Outcalt | Longreads | December 2017 | 16 minutes (4,461 words)

On a warm, sunny morning in November 2016, a few dozen people packed a county courtroom about 20 miles northeast of Denver, Colorado. Of the cases on the docket that day in Brighton, a working-class city of 34,000 situated amid the state’s plentiful oil and gas fields, one in particular drew the crowd: a hearing to determine the fate of Giselle Gutierrez-Ruiz, a 37-year-old man who’d been sentenced to life in prison for his involvement in a fatal highway shooting in 1997.

On that night nearly 20 years ago, Gutierrez-Ruiz, a kid in a strange country, left a dance club north of Denver around 10:30 p.m. He drove someone his older brother knew south on Interstate 25, the main north-south thoroughfare through the city. A few miles down the road, near the city limit, the passenger pulled out an Uzi and fired at cars on the highway, killing one person. Gutierrez-Ruiz didn’t learn a man had died that night for another eight days; he then cooperated with police, helping them catch the actual shooter. Nevertheless, even though he was a juvenile, he was charged as an adult and convicted for his complicity in the crime, which at the time carried a mandatory life sentence. I reported on Gutierrez-Ruiz’s case for several months throughout the summer and fall of 2015, and I attended his resentencing hearing. Like everyone else there, I was anxious to learn his fate.

While the crowd filed in that morning, Gutierrez-Ruiz waited in a holding cell adjacent to the courtroom, dressed in a green prison jumpsuit that fit loose on his tall, slender frame. He’d prepared for this moment for several weeks; no matter what happened, he wanted the experience to mark a new beginning. Before he was transferred from prison to the county jail, he gave away everything he’d accrued during nearly two decades behind bars. An old tube TV, a digital radio, a good pair of tennis shoes, a canteen, his cologne, even his treasured art supplies — he gifted each item to friends. “Whether I was coming back or not,” Gutierrez-Ruiz told me, “I was going to start over.”

Around 9 a.m., the judge called his case and a guard escorted him into the room. He hugged his attorney and searched the audience for the faces of family and friends he hadn’t seen in a long time. He was nervous to be this close to freedom. When I discussed the moment with Gutierrez-Ruiz later, he told me that when he sat at the table in the middle of the courtroom his legs started shaking uncontrollably. Even the drive from prison to the jail, he said, had given him a taste of autonomy. From the prison yard, the world had always felt as if it were crawling along in the distance, but on that ride, his face pressed against the window of the van, the cars zipped by and the scenery appeared within reach.

The judge asked Gutierrez-Ruiz’s lawyer, Ashley Ratliff, and the local district attorney, Dave Young, to identify themselves for the record. On any given case, the views of prosecutors and defense lawyers don’t typically align all that closely. “Defense attorneys are always telling us their client is a great person and has great character,” Young told me. “You have to take that with a grain of salt.” But in many ways this case was an exception. Months earlier, Young had taken the unusual step of visiting Gutierrez-Ruiz in prison and talking with him for an hour or two. And after months of negotiations, Ratliff and Young agreed to ask the court to vacate Gutierrez-Ruiz’s first-degree murder jury conviction. In its place, they’d drafted a new plea agreement for second-degree murder and a low-level menacing charge, a deal that required a judge to resentence him to between 16 and 48 years. If the judge entered a sentence of 19 years or fewer — the amount of time Gutierrez-Ruiz had already served — he’d be set free.

Only two witnesses spoke at the hearing that day, both ostensibly unlikely supporters of the defendant. Michael Riebau, a retired Department of Homeland Security special agent, had orchestrated Gutierrez-Ruiz’s arrest years earlier. Riebau recalled how the defendant had cooperated with law enforcement that night and said he’d always thought Gutierrez-Ruiz had deserved better than a life sentence. Viola Castillo-Hernandez was the widow of the man who’d been shot on the highway back in October 1997. She explained that her feelings toward Gutierrez-Ruiz had evolved during the past 19 years. She believed he deserved a second chance. “He didn’t get no opportunity in this life,” she said. “For me, my wish — and I know if my husband was here his wishes would be the same — send him home.”

Although there was a Spanish language interpreter present, Gutierrez-Ruiz addressed the court in English; he’d taught himself to speak the language in prison. “I’m so sorry for all the pain and suffering that I have caused your family,” he said to Castillo-Hernandez. Turning to the judge, he said: “Nineteen years ago, I was a kid without any experience. I did not understand how beautiful life was, and I never know the damage I could cause. Because of my actions and who I was with, a good human being lost his life, and another man was seriously injured. I’m so sorry for that. Today, I’m a different man. I’m someone who despite growing up in prison has learned to truly appreciate life.”

She believed he deserved a second chance. ‘He didn’t get no opportunity in this life,’ she said. ‘For me, my wish — and I know if my husband was here his wishes would be the same — send him home.’

An hour into the hearing, Judge Thomas Ensor spoke about how his primary responsibility is to determine who’s right and who’s wrong. But, he said, there were secondary responsibilities as well. He’d gone to law school and became a judge to make a difference in people’s lives. This, he explained, was one of those opportunities. Ensor said he was impressed by Gutierrez-Ruiz’s character and by the warmth he held in his heart for other people. “I believe that the sentence that he received and the sentence that he’s served,” Ensor said, “more than makes up for the conduct that he engaged in 20 years ago.”

As the judge slammed his gavel, he formally imposed a new sentence of 19 years and 19 days — the exact amount of time Gutierrez-Ruiz had already served. He’d spent more of his life confined by prison walls than outside them as a free man. Now, he had his life back; it was the new beginning he’d hoped for.

* * *

That beginning took three weeks to arrive. Gutierrez-Ruiz hadn’t been a legally documented resident of the United States when he was convicted; after the judge ended his prison sentence, the Colorado Department of Corrections turned him over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to be deported. He waited for 18 days in an immigration detention center east of Denver, which he didn’t mind; he was grateful to make any progress at all. Just getting to wear something other than a green jumpsuit emblazoned with his old DOC prisoner number felt liberating. “Giving that number away — it doesn’t belong to me anymore,” Gutierrez-Ruiz said. “It’s not who I am.”

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His journey, which Gutierrez-Ruiz later described to me, finally began in the early morning of November 28. ICE agents collected fingerprints from about 50 men and women and directed everyone to a bus idling outside the building. Surprisingly, he recognized someone in the group, an old friend from prison he hadn’t seen in over a decade. They caught up as the bus bumped along the flatland toward the Denver airport.

When they arrived, the guards directed everyone to board a plane on the tarmac. It was only the second time Gutierrez-Ruiz had been on an airplane. He paid close attention to how it felt as the plane accelerated and lifted into the sky. He enjoyed the sensation: so much power and grace built into all that metal. As the jet maneuvered northwest, he glimpsed the majestic, snow-capped mountains along Colorado’s Front Range. Not all that long ago, he didn’t have much to be hopeful for. Now, he was flying eye-level with the tops of the Rockies.

* * *

Gutierrez-Ruiz hadn’t wanted to come to the United States. The youngest of seven, he grew up living a simple life in a rural village in northern Mexico about an hour and a half outside of Chihuahua. He attended elementary and middle school in the next town over and played basketball and kept a pet rooster. Swimming was one of his favorite pastimes. The riverbed behind their house filled each summer during the rainy season; Gutierrez-Ruiz would climb down the cliffs to the water and cannonball in from various rocks. His father took off when he was young and many of his older siblings had also left for the U.S., but Gutierrez-Ruiz never thought about crossing the border. There was never any reason for his mind to wander in that direction.

That all changed in 1995 when he was 15. That winter, his mother became ill and died suddenly, sending his life into a tailspin. Several of his brothers and sisters returned for the funeral. After they paid their respects, laying flowers against their mother’s gravestone, they questioned what to do with their little brother. Gutierrez-Ruiz didn’t want to leave town, but there was no family left to care for him. His siblings decided to bring him back to where they’d settled in the United States: Denver, Colorado.

The relative ease characteristic of Gutierrez-Ruiz’s life in his tiny village evaporated the minute he arrived in Denver. There was no one to look after him full time: He crashed on couches wherever his brothers and sisters were living. He enrolled in high school but struggled and dropped out because he spoke almost no English. He hung out with his older brother, Raul, who, unbeknownst to Gutierrez-Ruiz, occasionally ran with drug dealers and snitches, and, out of his own self-interest, sometimes worked as an informant for a local government agent. Indeed, Gutierrez-Ruiz was driving an acquaintance of his brother’s the night of the murder, an event that led to him being locked up for life less than two years after he’d entered the country.

Seated on that plane high above Colorado, at a time when thousands of immigrants were doing everything they could to remain in the U.S. with their families, it’s no surprise that Gutierrez-Ruiz was happy to be headed in the opposite direction.

* * *

The plane landed in Seattle to pick up more passengers and then it was wheels up to San Diego. High above Southern California, Gutierrez-Ruiz noticed everything looked different. The streets. The trees. The beach and the ocean. At the San Diego airport, the guards directed everyone onto two separate buses bound for Tijuana, a city known for its nightlife and murder rate about 20 miles south on Interstate 5.

At the border they waited in one of the lines of cars and trucks passing through checkpoints. When it was their turn, a border agent flipped through everyone’s immigration paperwork. Then, all at once, that was it. As daylight dipped beyond the horizon, Gutierrez-Ruiz exited the bus and walked across a cement footbridge. One minute he was in the United States — the next he was in Mexico.

His only possessions were an extra pair of pants, his immigration papers, and enough money for a bus ticket. He’d had a backpack when he started the day, but he’d given it to someone who seemed to need it more. Right away, a handful of guys announced they were headed to the bars in downtown Tijuana and invited Gutierrez-Ruiz along. He thought about it for a second, but politely declined. That wasn’t his plan. Instead, he hitched a ride in a pickup to the bus station. The driver offered to let him sit up front, but he chose to ride in the truck bed. He didn’t want to miss an opportunity to experience the open world.

* * *

Northern Mexico consists of waves of sandy, undulating hills dotted with patches of pinyon trees that rise toward a big, open sky. Chihuahua sits 230 miles south of El Paso, Texas, surrounded on three sides by these massive burnt orange and brown mounds. In the central part of the city, Gutierrez-Ruiz emerged from the bus station after traveling for 24 hours from Tijuana. The trip was only supposed to take 16 hours, but it seemed as if the bus driver had stopped in every small, dusty town so someone could take a leak or drop a few pesos on a Coke and a pack of gum.

A small crowd of family and friends had gathered at the station to greet him. His sister Kelly, her husband, and their three kids; his nephew Ruliz, who’d been one of his best friends growing up, and his wife and children; even his attorney, Ratliff, had traveled to Mexico on a whim to witness this very moment. Gutierrez-Ruiz exited the bus with an enormous smile, perhaps an indication that the reality of his freedom was beginning to take hold. “I’ll never forget that feeling,” Gutierrez-Ruiz said. “I was thinking of so many things to do.”

Everyone exchanged hugs, savoring the moment of triumph and happiness. Gutierrez-Ruiz’s sister Kelly, who had longed for her younger brother to one day return home, cried on his shoulder. After Gutierrez-Ruiz showered and changed his clothes, the whole family went out to dinner in the city. It was his first proper meal as a free man. He didn’t have to look at the menu; he knew exactly what he wanted: a plate of carne asada with vegetables and a baked potato. That meal had never tasted better. Later that night, they all hung out at the Best Western where his lawyer had booked a room. They poured celebratory shots of liquor, and he rolled a joint and took a long, hard drag; finally, he was waking up from the nightmare his life had become.

The next few days were a blur. A Univision TV crew had interviewed him for the local news; he watched it with his family at the breakfast table at his sister’s house. His nephew took him shopping for a cell phone, a concept that was entirely new to him. They added WhatsApp to the device, input a few contacts, and explained how it worked. Just walking a couple blocks to the convenience store to buy a lighter was an adventure. Even though he’d grown up speaking Spanish in that region, the man behind the counter seemed to use a different dialect; Gutierrez-Ruiz struggled to pick up the slang. His first trip to the grocery store was similarly daunting. “I didn’t know what to choose,” he told me.

On his third night of freedom, Ruliz drove him an hour and a half southwest of Chihuahua to his hometown village, Rancho Ruices. His mother is buried in a cemetery on the outskirts of town. When Ruliz drove by the collection of graves he rolled down the window so Gutierrez-Ruiz could get a good look. They arrived at the small brick house with the flat roof at dawn. For years his sister Kelly, had come by every few weeks and tidied up hoping her younger brother would someday come back. As Gutierrez-Ruiz looked around he remarked that everything appeared exactly the same. The picture frames, the smell of the wood stove, the crack in the glass cabinet door held together by a piece of tape. “We’re going to die and this place is going to stay the same,” he told me. “It’s beautiful; no one can change this.”

An old friend of his mother’s noticed the activity at the house and came over to say hello. Kelly and Gutierrez-Ruiz cried when they saw her at the front door. The tour eventually ended outside where, as kids, he and Ruliz would climb down to the river and swim. Though not many people know the place exists, the view behind the house is a postcard-worthy vista. Rocky cliffs drop several hundred feet to a twisting riverbed that stretches out of sight in each direction. The cliffs rise again on the opposite side of the canyon and fade toward mountains in the distance. Remarkably, the landscape has gone untouched by man, as if the scene had dried onto the canvas of the universe long ago.

Gutierrez-Ruiz slept at his sister’s house that night a few miles down the road. He spent the next few days with his nephew in the city, but he felt unsettled in Chihuahua. All the cars and strangers and strange buildings were too busy and fast for him. “Rancho is lonely, but in a good way,” Gutierrez-Ruiz said. “It’s a hiding place.” Around the end of his first week free from prison, he returned to the village and his mother’s old house with enough groceries to stay put for awhile — bread, lunch meat, instant coffee, bananas, juice.

I was with Gutierrez-Ruiz that night in Mexico, the first he’d spent at the house he grew up in more than 20 years earlier. He told me that it felt peaceful to come back. “I feel like this place needs me,” he said. In the dark of night, we sat on a rock under a clear sky full of stars. Gutierrez-Ruiz told stories from his childhood until a chill in the air made heading back inside seem like a good idea. When we walked up a hill toward the house, a warm glow from the living room spilled out a front window. Gutierrez-Ruiz paused when he noticed it. “Look,” he said, pointing toward the light. “It looks like there’s life there now.”

* * *

Surviving 19 years in prison, during the most formative years of his life, is an accomplishment Gutierrez-Ruiz is proud of. Plenty of people, he said, don’t last more than a few weeks. For some, it’s the violence, the very real possibility of being jumped in the prison yard by another inmate with a grudge and a weapon fashioned out of some rudimentary object. Others deteriorate over time, strangled to death by the rote monotony and hopelessness of it all.

There were countless times Gutierrez-Ruiz feared for his life in the Limon Correctional Facility. One such stretch in 2015 lasted for the better part of that year. Gutierrez-Ruiz had always tried to be straight with and respect everyone in prison; that included the corrections officers, many of whom he’d developed cordial relationships with. In 2015, a couple prisoners took note and assumed the worst: that Gutierrez-Ruiz was a snitch for the guards. He could tell by the way their behavior toward him changed, and he later overheard they were planning an attack.

When we walked up a hill toward the house, a warm glow from the living room spilled out a front window. Gutierrez-Ruiz paused when he noticed it. ‘Look,’ he said, pointing toward the light. ‘It looks like there’s life there now.’

At the height of it, Gutierrez-Ruiz didn’t leave his cell for a week, simultaneously trying to avoid and prepare for confrontation. He was on high alert each morning; a lot of guys, he said, would try to pull something by sneaking between cellblocks during the shift change at breakfast. He eventually confronted these guys face-to-face and they backed off — or at least appeared to. Gutierrez-Ruiz tried not to let his guard down for the rest of his sentence. Even the day he got out, as corrections officers escorted him to the front of the prison, he was prepared to fend off an attack: he’d hid a sharp piece of wood in his sleeve just in case.

Stories like that one are the reason Gutierrez-Ruiz often describes his time in prison by saying he’s been to hell and back. But he also believes sometimes you have to get lost to start over. And a few months into freedom, although it certainly wasn’t hell, he was finding that starting over had its own unique challenges. For one, he had trouble trusting people. “I came from a place where you can’t trust anyone,” Gutierrez-Ruiz said. “I was in that feeling all the time; I’m trying to get rid of that.” It’s partly why he felt uncomfortable in Chihuahua. One day he attended a nephew’s karate tournament at a high school gym in the heart of the city. The crowd and the noise made him so anxious he frequently had to step outside by himself and find quiet.

Instead of living in the city, which he initially thought he might do for a while, he decided to shack up at his mother’s house for the foreseeable future. (“I spent too much time in a place that belongs to the city,” he told me, referring to Denver and his time in prison.) But even in his remote hometown village, which only consists of a few dozen people, most of whom remember him and knew his mother well, it was still hard to open up. Often, he chose to remain alone at home, fixing up the house or or painting or listening to music. A friend bought him a laptop and he has wireless internet; he’s learned how to call up music videos on YouTube. While I was there, he listened to, among others, Mariah Carey, Prince, Rick James, and the song “Gangsta’s Paradise” by the rapper Coolio, which prompted him to explain his feeling about gangsters. “I don’t see a gangster as a bad person if you’re a gangster for the right thing — defend and protect,” he said. “They attack only to defend.”

After several weeks living in Rancho Ruices, Gutierrez-Ruiz found he didn’t have much in common with people his age. They all had kids and families and different priorities, having grown up in the outside world. He naturally connected with a couple of teenagers, Arturo and Brandon, who happened to be the same age Gutierrez-Ruiz was when prison put his life on hold. “I am very careful who I hang with,” Gutierrez-Ruiz told me. But he’s learned to trust Arturo and Brandon; they’re not all that different from who he once was. They come over to swim in the river or they’ll crack a couple Tecate Lights and cruise down what Gutierrez-Ruiz jokingly refers to as “The Boulevard” — the only stretch of road in town that’s long enough for anything that resembles cruising.

For the first few months, Gutierrez-Ruiz didn’t have a car and had to rely on others for rides. Then his brother Raul, the one who’d worked as an occasional informant in Denver, bought him a beat-up Ford F-250. The check-engine light is always illuminated and another dashboard light indicates the door is ajar even when it’s closed, but it starts reliably and there’s a decent stereo with a sizeable subwoofer. One afternoon this past spring, while we sat on a rock by the river, I asked Gutierrez-Ruiz if he thought his brother had bought him the truck because he felt bad about what had happened.

“Yeah, probably,” he said.

“Was it hard to talk to him?” I asked.

“Not too much. Because, for a long time — I forgive him.” But he explained they’re not all that close anymore. “And I think it’s going to be like that,” he said. “It’s not the same; I cannot see him with love like I used to, even if I want to.”

On that rock on the riverbank the conversation again veered toward how this was the place Gutierrez-Ruiz felt most comfortable. “This is the beauty I was telling you about,” he said. He finds some kind of hidden treasure every time he wanders around down here: a piece of driftwood that’ll make a good frame for a painting; a rock that sits flat and is concave on top that’ll work perfectly as an ashtray; a bone that resembles a tiny wing and has just the right geometry to be fashioned into a pipe.

That afternoon, Gutierrez-Ruiz recalled a moment when he first got the truck and the riverbed was still dry. He plotted what looked like a drivable path down a rocky embankment, parked in the middle of the canyon, rolled down the windows, turned up the radio and sat there for a while, happily pondering his future. “I already went through all the bad,” he said. “All I got left is good things.”

* * *

When it comes to work, Gutierrez-Ruiz has taken it slow. Luckily, he doesn’t need all that much to survive in Rancho Ruices. Occasionally he’ll lend a hand on a local farm; one day he sent me a video on WhatsApp of him driving a tractor-drawn combine through a field, proud to be putting in an honest day’s work. His true passion, however, is painting, and he hopes to eventually support himself using his artistic skills. He’s already started by offering his services as a tattoo artist.

Gutierrez-Ruiz taught himself to draw and paint in prison — it helped keep him sane. And over the years, even though he was incarcerated, he became an accomplished artist. He was asked to paint a massive mural on the walls of the prison’s education building, and on multiple occasions his attorney, Ratliff, helped arrange for his work to be shown at art galleries in Denver. Gutierrez-Ruiz donated the money from any sales to a local children’s hospital. At times, he’d thought maybe this was the real reason he ended up in prison, to become an artist. “I would have never learned to be a painter on the streets,” he said.

‘I already went through all the bad,’ he said. ‘All I got left is good things.

Like many artists, his work allows him to communicate when language seems insufficient. For instance, when he wanted to express to Castillo-Hernandez, the woman who’d lost her husband, that he was sorry for all that had happened and he hoped that whatever wounds had been inflicted upon her would heal, he did so in a painting titled “Sacrifice.” He turned to the same tactic last summer while he and Ratliff were waiting to learn whether Young, the district attorney, would agree to a new plea deal. The uncertainty weighed heavy on Ratliff; she’d made a habit of telling anyone who would listen that her client needed to go home yesterday. But Gutierrez-Ruiz tried to explain to her that because his case had garnered so much media attention — that his story had finally been told — in many ways he already felt free. He communicated those feelings by drawing Ratliff a picture of himself painting by the river behind his house. He could already see it, he told her.

When I visited Gutierrez-Ruiz in Mexico, I saw the real thing. One morning he gathered his art supplies and set up his easel at the edge of the cliff to paint the scenery. The image of him standing there putting brushstrokes on canvas is remarkably similar to the one he drew for Ratliff in prison. It was no longer fantasy — not the picture nor his freedom.

“No más fantasía,” Gutierrez-Ruiz remarked as he painted.

* * *

Chris Outcalt is a writer and editor based in Colorado.

Editor: Krista Stevens
Fact checker: Michael Fitzgerald
Copy editor: Jess Kibler