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Man shot, killed approaching teen about graffiti was special ed teacher

Updated January 21, 2021 - 12:03 am

A special education teacher was fatally shot earlier this month as he tried to stop a teenager from spraying graffiti on an east valley business, according to an arrest report released Wednesday.

Jose Santa Cruz, 32, taught students at Cortez Elementary School when he wasn’t working at two local businesses he owned — both located within a block of where he was shot, records show.

The Jan. 7 shooting happened shortly after Santa Cruz and his father parked a taco truck on the corner of Charleston and South Lamont Street, near 4777 E. Charleston Blvd., according to the report. Santa Cruz had walked off from the truck and through the parking lot.

Moments later, his father heard gunshots, then saw someone running through the parking lot, the father told police. He believed Santa Cruz was trying to intervene as someone spray-painted the wall of an area business.

“According to (Santa Cruz’s father), if Jose saw someone spray painting graffiti on the wall of the business, he would have said something to them,” police wrote in the report.

While reviewing the scene, investigators found freshly painted graffiti.

Zyonn Dawson, 18, was arrested Friday on a charge of murder with a deadly weapon in connection with the case, jail records show.

Video surveillance helped police track the car Dawson was driving and showed a teen spray-painting a wall at the scene, firing five rounds at Santa Cruz and throwing a paint canister away before driving off.

Dawson told police that two men had approached him and that he thought he was about to be robbed, according to his arrest report. Surveillance footage showed Santa Cruz, the teen and an “unknown person passing by on a scooter.” Dawson is being held without bail.

’Out of nowhere’

Family and friends remembered Santa Cruz as a religious, family man who was always there for his students, first at Snyder Elementary School but most recently at Cortez.

The Mexican native and his two younger siblings grew up in southern California before his parents moved to Las Vegas, where the three children went to high school and remained. At the time of his death, Santa Cruz and his brother still lived at home.

“He was always going to be close to my mom,” Magali Santa Cruz, 28, said of her older brother. “He would tell my mom, ‘I will never leave you for nobody.’”

Santa Cruz’s sister described him as protective, always making sure the family was taken care of. As an area business-owner, he often painted over graffiti to help keep the block clean.

Magali Santa Cruz said her brother “risked his life” that evening by choosing to approach the teen instead of calling the police.

“Out of nowhere,” she said of his death. “I was shocked.”

She hopes to keep her brother’s businesses in the family

“He wanted those businesses to be ours,” Magali Santa Cruz said. “I’m going to try my best.”

‘Mountain mover’

Friend and former classmate Miguel Yepez, 31, met Santa Cruz when the boys were 16. The two went to Prince of Peace Catholic Church together with their families and Yepez, like Magali Santa Cruz, called Jose “chuche,” a nickname for Jesus, Jose’s middle name.

The two stayed close as they grew up, despite various jobs, college classes and Yepez’s moves to different cities.

“He was always checking in and making sure everything is good,” Yepez said. “He was someone that was always there for their friends.”

Elizabeth Allen, a fellow special education teacher, called Santa Cruz a “mountain mover” who helped his students any chance he got.

“He showed up every time, doing what he could for the kids,” she said in a message.

The family started an online fundraiser for funeral expenses. Charleston Cleaners and Cali Scoops on East Charleston plan to host a joint fundraiser Sunday between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. to collect donations.

Contact Sabrina Schnur at sschnur@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0278. Follow @sabrina_schnur on Twitter.

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