PHOENIX — Graciela Beltran broke down in tears in her west Phoenix living room as she recounted the life and death of her son, one of the victims in a serial shooting case for which police say a 23-year-old man is responsible.
A few feet from a large portrait of 31-year-old Horacio de Jesus Pena, turned backward because it’s still too hard for her to look at, Beltran recounted the day her son was gunned down outside of their home after leaving work.
Police on Monday said 23-year-old Aaron Juan Saucedo is responsible for Pena’s killing on June 3, 2016, and that of eight others in a total of 12 shootings. Saucedo said in court he was innocent.
“It was about time,” Beltran said. “It’s like a feeling of impotence, them saying they have him, but my son is not coming back.”
Beltran said Pena was friendly with everyone and a devoted son who liked to run, work out and read the Bible.
“We never think our children are gonna go before us, and especially not such a good son,” Beltran said in Spanish.
Police say Saucedo had no connection to Pena or most of the other victims. They say he only knew the first person killed in a string of nighttime drive-by-shootings that began in August 2015 and ended July 2016, terrorizing the mostly Latino neighborhood in west Phoenix known as Maryvale.
Police say they don’t know what motivated Saucedo, who faces multiple charges of first-degree murder and aggravated assault.
Victims’ family members said they were still reeling from the brazenness and randomness of the attacks and because police couldn’t make an arrest sooner.
The mother of a young man who was the second person killed wished police could have connected her son’s death to the case earlier, potentially taking Saucedo off the streets before more killings were committed. His case was only recently added to the serial killings investigation.
“If they would have looked more into it, looked closer to home, it would have prevented a lot of other deaths,” said Lydia Lopez, whose son Jesse Olivas died on New Year’s Day 2016 in the neighborhood.
Lopez said she always had a gut feeling that her son was part of the serial street shooter case but that police didn’t seem to believe her.
The hunt for the killer yielded more than 30,000 tips, and authorities said it was tipsters who provided the break in the case. They would not elaborate, and details of the evidence assembled against Saucedo were sealed by a judge at prosecutors’ request.
Beltran still remembers hearing the gunshots. Her daughter, who was also home, didn’t let her go outside and see that Pena had been killed.
Beltran said that although it took a long time for an arrest in her son’s death, she feels police did a good job investigating.
“There are cases that go on for years and don’t end in justice,” Beltran said. “We thought they had forgotten about us.”
Saucedo declared “I’m innocent” during a brief court appearance late Monday night after his arrest on suspicion of being the killer dubbed the Serial Street Shooter. A judge ordered him held without bail.
Because of the shootings last summer, some residents stayed inside after dark. Others were afraid to come forward because many are immigrants in the U.S. illegally or don’t have their paperwork in order.
In interviews with families of victims and residents, people said they were happy that police made an arrest but questioned whether it would have happened sooner had the killings occurred in a different neighborhood.
“They didn’t look for him at all. They didn’t care. You know why? Because there were no white people dying,” resident Sirwendell Flowers said. “Look at the faces on the news. The police didn’t care.”
Witnesses described the shooter as a young, lanky Hispanic man who drove a BMW, helping authorities develop a sketch that bears a striking resemblance to Saucedo.
Police said Saucedo stopped driving the BMW and changed his appearance after the final shooting.
A call left Tuesday for Dean Roskosz, Saucedo’s court-appointed lawyer, wasn’t immediately returned.
Two weeks after the first killing, authorities seized the weapon used in that crime from a Phoenix pawn shop. At the time, investigators were looking into a separate string of shootings that targeted drivers on Phoenix-area freeways.
Detectives with the Arizona Department of Public Safety didn’t conduct ballistics tests on the gun and returned it to the pawn shop five days later once they ruled out the weapon in the freeway shootings.
Phoenix police refused to comment on whether the evidence could have led them to Saucedo.
Saucedo was a bus driver for the city of Phoenix for several months in 2015, police said.
Police previously said they would pay out a $75,000 reward offered for information that could help solve the case but declined to say how many people would get the money.
The break in the case came when Saucedo was arrested last month in connection with the August 2015 fatal shooting of 61-year-old Raul Romero, who had a relationship with Saucedo’s mother. Authorities investigated Saucedo more closely and connected him to the other killings.
Holly Cortes, who lives a few doors down from the house where one victim was fatally shot, said she was relieved police made an arrest. She said her husband and his friends began hanging out in the backyard instead of the front after the shootings.
“I’m glad they finally got — hopefully — the person that’s responsible,” Cortes said.