Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Elderly couple in turmoil since botched police raid

Nearly six months have passed since a Gilbert SWAT team raided the house of an elderly Phoenix couple and started a fire that destroyed the family's home and killed their dog.

Salvador Celaya, 73, and Carlota Celaya, 69, said everything they spent their life working for was destroyed in the Dec. 20 fire.

The couple said they live in constant fear of police since the raid and wonder if they will ever own a home again.

Gilbert and Scottsdale police obtained a search warrant for the Celayas' house after an investigation led them to believe they would find suspected carjacker and thief Erasmo Ruiz Villarreal, 23, at the residence. At the onset of the raid, Gilbert police threw a flash-bang diversion device into the Celayas' adult grandson's bedroom window. A flash-bang device is a form of non-lethal hand grenade that is meant to disorient temporarily.

A Phoenix Fire Department investigation revealed that the flash-bang landed on a bed and ignited the fire. The Fire Department's report stated that Gilbert police did not use the device in accordance with the manufacturer's safety precautions, which included checking and clearing the area before deployment.

Gilbert police said that Salvador's decision to arm himself with a gun forced them to implement safety precautions that prevented them from putting the fire out.

Police did not find their suspect or any of the items listed on the search warrant, and Gilbert police have yet to release an internal investigation of their SWAT operation.

The Celayas said they hired Phoenix attorney Daniel Ortega after they had not heard from police about whether they would be reimbursed for their destroyed house and belongings.

Salvador and Carlota said they came to the United States as Mexican immigrants about 45 years ago and raised their family on meager but hard-earned wages as a mechanic and seamstress.

Since retiring, they have lived on Social Security and could not afford to insure their house.

"I guess we felt safe. We'd lived there 40 years. We never thought anything like this could happen to us," Carlota said in Spanish.

Salvador said that in Mexico where he grew up, he could understand police doing something like this, but he never imagined American police would use such force raiding a citizen's house.

The actions of the police during the raid, Carlota said, have caused vivid nightmares and depression for the couple and their daughter Sonia, who lives with her parents as their caretaker.

Crying, Carlota recalled police handcuffing them and sitting them in a parking lot behind their house until about 2 a.m. Carlota said police never told them they had a right to an attorney and asked them repeatedly about Villarreal.

"I told them over and over I didn't know who they were talking about," she said.

Carlota said they saw a lifetime of memories go up in flames as they watched their house burn. The family and the two dogs that survived the fire are living in a south Phoenix house that their sons had planned to renovate and sell.

"We miss everything from our home - my flowers, my trees, neighbors - everything," Carlota said. "Our whole life was there."

Sonia, also crying, said she feels terrible for her parents, desperately misses her dog and blames herself for not being home early enough the night of the raid to protect her family.

"I don't leave the house at night any more. I will never leave them alone again," said Sonia, who is being treated by a therapist for trauma she said is related to the raid. "I told police my dog was in there. They did nothing. I don't have children. Bino, he was my baby."

Sonia said she worries about the effect the raid has had on her parents' health. Salvador's Alzheimer's disease has worsened, she said. And her mother, she said, who is in remission from breast cancer, cannot sleep and has stomach pains.

Carlota, speaking through tears, said she recalled mistaking police for thieves and running to warn her husband.

"It was already night. I woke him to tell him they were robbing us," she said. "Why didn't they just knock? We would have let them search the whole house. They would have seen that what they were looking for wasn't there. We would still have our home."

Turning to his wife, Salvador said in Spanish that he only grabbed a gun to protect her and their grandson.

"I see on the news every night, murderers and kidnappers," he said. "Why did they do this to us? We never did anything."

Salvador said he knows that from every bad there comes good, and he remains grateful for the kindness of his neighbors.

"Everything we have now, this furniture, they donated to us," he said. "I am afraid we will have to live in a trailer. All this is in the hands of God now."

Carlota said she prays that Gilbert will right its mistake.

"Just reimburse us for our house, for the things we lost," she said.