It’s been 20 years since Justin Mercado’s life ended. His mother remembers every day.
"It doesn’t get easier," said Vicki Mercado about the 20th anniversary of the day her son was killed by a bullet fired by a 14-year-old. "I remember him every day.
"I think about what kind of life he would have had, how many grandchildren I would have. It’s hard."
According to Dodge City Daily Globe reports and trial coverage, Rafael Flores, 14, of Dodge City, drove by the crowded Boot Hill Museum parking lot on the evening of Oct. 6, 1996 and fired six shots into a crowd of people. Justin Mercado was the only fatality.
"He said it was an accident," Vicki recalled. "How can you fire six shots if it’s an accident."
According to a story 5 years ago in the Globe, Justin was just two weeks from leaving Dodge City to move to Arizona to live with his fiancé.
"He had a girlfriend he loved and wanted to marry," Vicki said on Wednesday. "He was excited, about to get started on his life."
Angela, Justin’s girlfriend, spoke to the Dodge City Daily Globe 5 years ago. She didn’t want her last name used, but she recalled visiting Justin and his family just a short time prior to his death.
"That week he begged me to stay. It would only be two weeks before he was moving to Arizona. He begged and begged," Angela told the Daily Globe. "The day I was getting ready to leave is when he gave me his class ring as an engagement ring."
Flores was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole. He has been denied parole twice, but is going through a third parole hearing now.
"I’ve forgiven him," Vicki said. "I had to. I met someone who’s son was killed and she was always angry, bitter.
"I couldn’t live my life like that, so I visited him in prison and I let him have it. I expressed my anger, my hurt and when I left that prison, I left it all behind me.
"But, that doesn’t mean I want him released. Every time he comes up for parole, we have to relive that night. We write letters to the parole board and express what we’ve gone through, our anger is still there. He should have to pay.
"I don’t wish him any harm. I just don’t want him to be let out."
According to Johnny Mercado, Justin’s father, Flores hasn’t done anything in prison to warrant release.
"He’s been in there for 20 years," Johnny said. "He’s done nothing with that time. He hasn’t gotten his GED, taken any classes, he’s done nothing at all.
"He should stay in prison."
Angela also forgave Flores.
"Forgiveness doesn’t mean it still doesn’t hurt," Angela told the Globe 5 years ago. "It doesn’t mean that I forget, nor does it mean that I think Rafael should be let out."
Mercado’s death did bring about change in Dodge City. His parents were heavily involved in Stop the Violence, a group Vicki said her brother-in-law started.
"We had financial backing, but it was the same people doing everything for years," she said. "Eventually, we all burnt out."
A group of businessmen, led by Jim Lewis, helped to create The Alley, the community’s official teenage hangout. A majority of the children are middle school students or younger.
"The teenagers don’t hang out in the museum parking lot anymore," Vicki said. "But, they’re teenagers, they gather at other places, not The Alley."
Flores was a reported gang member. In 2012, 23 members of the Norteno street gang were indicted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act case, just the second RICO case filed in Kansas. Of the 23 indicted, 22 were convicted.
A web page on The Alley’s web site tells the story of how the teen center came about and the role Justin’s death played. It also contains several pictures of the 18-year-old as a memorial.
"A lot of good was done," Vicki said. "But, I’ll spend (today) remembering Justin.
"I’ll visit his grave, bring him flowers and think about everything. It still hurts, 20 years later."