The last days of Grover Ramirez

This happy-go-lucky family man left one night to buy milk for his daughter. Four days later, he was found dead. What happened?

UNDER THE BRIDGE <br>Ramirez’s body was found about 50 yards downstream from a rotting wooden bridge. His father went there recently to look for signs of his son’s mysterious disappearance.

Ramirez’s body was found about 50 yards downstream from a rotting wooden bridge. His father went there recently to look for signs of his son’s mysterious disappearance.

Photo by Tom Angel

Search party: According to Chico police records, 229 people were reported missing in Chico between July 13, 2000 and July 13, 2001. The figure includes runaways.

On the balmy Saturday night of June 3, 21-year-old Grover Ramirez left his north Chico home on a routine mission: His toddler daughter was out of milk, and Ramirez’s girlfriend dispatched him to replenish the family’s supply.

Approximately an hour later, Ramirez was dead, his body sunken to the bottom of a shallow slough in south Chico. It was four days before police searchers found him.

Ramirez’s life wasn’t supposed to end that way.

After navigating some treacherous waters in his teen years, Ramirez seemed to be entering a peaceful time in his life, filled with family and children. He was planning an Aug. 25 wedding to his longtime girlfriend and active in his Mechoopda Indian tribe. He was excited about starting a new job at Lorenzo’s Express Mexican Food that Monday and proud that he was able to support his little family.

And it was a family that was about to get bigger—although Ramirez never knew it. His girlfriend was pregnant with their fourth child, and she was waiting for Ramirez’s June 21 birthday to tell him the news.

It’s been a hard month for Ramirez’s large extended family, which is convinced that that Butte County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue and Chico police investigators stalled in investigating Ramirez’s disappearance and continue to refuse to investigate fully the cause of his untimely demise.

“It’s like this,” said Ramirez’s father, Grover Sr., “my son is gone now for a month, and we still don’t know exactly what happened to him. You can bet, if he was a rich white kid, the police would have been right there, finding out exactly what happened to him.”

A rich white kid Grover Ramirez was not. He grew up in Chapmantown surrounded by a close-knit extended family whose members live just blocks from each other, the only son in of a family with three girls. He was famously protective of his sisters, his father said, tearing up as he remembered a ceremonial speech his son gave at a sister’s quinceañera party.

“He said something like, ‘All you guys, you better be good to my sister here,'” Ramirez said, “'because if you aren’t, I’ll whip you … and if I can’t, my sisters can.’ He was funny like that.”

They didn’t have a lot of money, Ramirez said, and the family struggled through hard times. Grover’s mother died when he was 7 years old, and Ramirez Sr. acknowledged that he struggled with his own demons after losing his wife.

“I let my family down at that point,” he said, dropping his head. “I know I did.”

Although several members of the family have had run-ins, some serious, with the law, they report that somehow Grover managed to stay away from the trouble that had plagued his family (although his court record shows that he was convicted of burglary in May of 1999). While many of his friends were involved with gang activity, he remained outside of their wars.

“He had friends that were Norteños and friends that were Sureños,” his sister, Anna, said. “But he wasn’t a gang member. He had friends all over. He got along with everybody. He was just that kind of guy.”

His friends and family all report that Ramirez was a peace-loving young man who was excited about getting married, settling down and raising his kids. And that’s why it’s so surprising that he died so suddenly.

In the weeks following his mysterious disappearance and death, Ramirez’s family has been trying to piece together exactly what happened to him on the night of June 3. It’s been difficult, since there were only two other people with him—both of whom reportedly hesitated to tell his family about it. Still, the day after Grover vanished, his family almost immediately grilled Marco Sandoval and Michael Burns.

Burns and Sandoval were childhood friends of Grover’s, Ramirez Sr. said, although he hadn’t seen them in almost eight years. Sandoval couldn’t be reached for comment about this story, and Burns recently was sent to prison for a parole violation.

But what Burns told them, Grover’s aunt Lenora Vigil said, was this: Sandoval had seen an abandoned truck parked out in a remote almond orchard near Edgar Slough, otherwise known as Comanche Creek, and proposed that he, Burns and Ramirez strip it for parts. They agreed that if Sandoval could keep the parts, Burns and Ramirez could keep the truck’s body to sell, Vigil said.

The friends picked Ramirez up that night and, with the errand of buying milk also to do, left to strip the truck.

However, Vigil related, Burns told her that when they arrived in the orchard and started stripping the car, “two truckloads” of people were already there, socializing in an area across the field.

For some reason, Vigil said, the group started chasing Burns, Ramirez and Sandoval toward Edgar Slough. They jumped down a steep embankment, Vigil related, and into the creek.

"[Burns] told me that they all jumped into the water, and Grover was behind him,” Vigil said. “He said he heard two splashes and he just kept running.”

When they stopped about a mile away, she said, Grover was missing.

LIFE IS LOSS <br>Grover Ramirez’s mother died when he was just 7 years old. This is one of the only pictures of her that the family has.

Courtesy Of Ramirez family

Grover’s family disputes parts of that story. Sitting on plastic chairs in the Vigils’ driveway on a recent hot morning, they pointed out inconsistencies in Sandoval’s chain of events—like the fact that, by the time he stopped running, Sandoval had inexplicably removed all his clothes except for his underwear (a claim that the police couldn’t confirm). And the fact that, when it was finally found, there wasn’t a scratch on Grover’s body (except for a small contusion next to his mouth)—even though he would have had to have jumped through a huge thicket of thorny blackberry bushes to get into the creek.

They’re mistrustful of the police, too, because Sandoval has an uncle who is a Chico police officer.

Then there’s the death threat. Ramirez Sr. said that, before Grover left the house on the night he disappeared, someone called his longtime girlfriend Kim Horn and told her they were going to kill him and her. Horn confirmed that she received the death threat and said she still wonders where it fits into Grover’s death.

She’s now two months pregnant and says she worries for the safety of the couple’s three other children.

“I don’t really know what to think about [the death threat],” Horn, 20, said. “It was pretty scary. … Everyone loved Grover. I don’t know why anyone would want him dead.”

The family charges that the Sheriff’s Department and Chico Police Department “drug [their] feet” in investigating Grover’s disappearance. They called police on Sunday morning, the day after he vanished, to report him missing but were told that he “was probably out having a good time” and not to worry, Lenora Vigil said.

“They just kept saying, ‘He’s out there partying. Don’t worry, he’ll come home soon,'” she complained. “Meanwhile, he’s dead in the creek.”

The Police Department, though, pointed out that it is department policy to wait for a missing person—especially an adult—to come home before starting a search, noting that the vast majority of missing persons eventually return home unscathed.

But Ramirez’s family is also angry about the post-mortem characterization of him. He’s been termed a “gang member” by some law enforcement officers, Vigil said. They say that implying that Ramirez had gang ties “lets them off the hook” to find out the cause of his death.

“That’s just like saying, ‘Well, he got what he deserved,'” Ramirez Sr. said. “But Grover, he wasn’t like that at all.”

After being told to wait for him to return home, the Ramirez family immediately started its own investigation into Grover’s disappearance.

“We knew something was wrong the minute he didn’t come home,” Ramirez Sr. said. “Grover never, ever left the house without telling someone where he was going, and there was no way he would have left his family all night. … We tried to tell the police that, but they didn’t listen.”

The family interviewed Sandoval and Burns, who hemmed and hawed at first but finally told their stories. Family members started a search party and combed the field where Burns reported last seeing him. They walked along the creek, even, and literally beat the bushes looking for signs that he was there.

They found none, although Ramirez Sr. got a premonition that his son was close when the medicine bag he was wearing around his neck—an Indian talisman containing his ancestors’ hair and other items meant to keep the family close—inexplicably fell off near the site where Grover was eventually found.

“At that point, I just said, ‘All right, let’s call [Search and Rescue], we need help,” Ramirez said. “I knew he was in the creek. I knew he was dead.”

Of course, he was right. Four days after Grover Ramirez disappeared, at about 1:45 in the afternoon, Search and Rescue divers finally found his body. It was face down, fully clothed, and stuck beneath some underwater brush in about three feet of water, according to a press release. There were no obvious signs of trauma to the body, said Sheriff’s Department Lt. Jerry Smith.

Grover’s uncle, Toby Vigil, was there when they pulled him out of the water.

“I had to walk away,” he said. “They’re pulling him out of the water, and I just walked away. It was too sad, just too sad.”

The family has pieced together its own version of events the night that Grover died, and although their version is part speculation and part instinct, they say they’re “positive” that they’re dead-on. They believe that Grover was lured to the orchard by his friends, who murdered him to cover up their own drug debt and then dumped his body into to the creek.

The Sheriff’s Department denies that investigators have performed anything less than a full-scale investigation into Grover’s death. While the autopsy report hasn’t yet been completed, Lt. Smith, the deputy coroner, said he expects the official cause of his death to be accidental drowning. Generally, while autopsies are completed in a matter of hours, the official reports on their findings take four to six weeks to complete.

As for reported rumors that Grover was killed or left to die, Smith shrugged them off. He said there was no evidence—forensic or otherwise—to suggest that Grover’s death was anything more than an accident.

“He was out there with friends, they were running and he fell into the creek,” Smith said, speculating that when Grover jumped into the water, he hit his head or was unable to climb up the steep, brambly creek slope. “That’s what it looks like. … We looked into this from all directions. We can’t change the facts of what we find, even if people don’t like it.”

FAMILY TIES <br>Among family members, Grover was called “Little Grover,” and his father, for whom he was named, was called “Big Grover.” Kim Horn, the younger man’s girlfriend, says that if the baby she’s carrying is a boy she will name him for his dead father. Shown here are Grover Sr. (top) and Grover Jr. with a young cousin.

Courtesy Of Ramirez family

Sgt. John Kuhn, who has led the sheriff’s investigation of the incident, agreed with Smith and noted that the investigation still isn’t complete.

“We’re looking into everything,” Kuhn said, noting that investigators examined Grover’s body for signs of violent death and found none. “These things take time. But nowhere have we found evidence of foul play or anything like that.”

He said that its common for the families of people who are killed suddenly in accidents to have trouble accepting accidental death and want to blame someone for their loss.

“It’s like in train accidents, when someone gets run over, we always get their families in here, saying they were pushed, that they couldn’t have died that way,” Kuhn said. “I can understand it, but these things do happen. … This was an accident, that’s all.”

He acknowledged, though, that he hasn’t yet been able to verify Sandoval and Burns’ story that they and Ramirez were being chased that night and declined to release the department’s theory of why Ramirez ended up in the water, other than to say his death was an accident. Sandoval and Burns, he said, have both been interviewed “numerous” times and have been forthcoming.

“We haven’t found anyone who was doing the chasing,” he said. “No one has come forward to talk to us about that.”

Ramirez’s parents and sister spent a recent afternoon poking through small heaps of discarded items left by the transients who call the slough near where Grover died home. Almost everything they found, from dirty sheets to mismatched shoes, was examined and discussed, as they searched for shreds of clues.

“Here’s a lighter with the top broken off,” said his stepmother, Cathy. “Maybe that means something.”

They noticed tire tracks in the bone-dry grass, an old white sheet that seemed to have dried blood on it, a duffel bag, and a small metal tube that looked like a sprinkler attachment stashed in a blackberry thicket, and were excited that they might have found the missing pieces of the puzzle. They said they would take pictures of the bundle and turn them over to the police.

On any terms, it was a tough trip. They pointed down a steep embankment at the tree under which Ramirez was found, noting that the blackberry bramble above it is so dense that it’s virtually impenetrable. About 25 feet upstream, they pointed out a narrow break in the thorny bramble where police speculated that Ramirez jumped into the water, which is cloudy but calm.

"[The police] are saying that he just jumped into the water here, but how could he even get in?” Ramirez Sr. said. “The bushes along here are too thick for him to be able to [jump in].”

About a hundred feet upstream, they stood on an ancient wooden bridge and speculated that maybe, just maybe, someone threw Ramirez into the water here.

“Maybe he stood right here,” said his stepmother, Cathy.

Grover Ramirez has been gone now for about five weeks, and life has started to resume its normal pace for his family. There are kids to ferry to school and groceries to buy, errands to run and bills to pay. But they make it a point to gather to remember him, as they did one recent afternoon, sitting together outside.

With a little laugh, Grover’s aunt, Lenora Vigil remembered accompanying him to try on the tuxedo he was supposed to wear at his wedding and his attempt to look taller by wearing the super-formal tails.

"[Kim] is a full head taller than him,” she said. “So he was kind of worried about looking too short standing next to her. … He was talking about getting some big shoes to wear, but then he tried on the tails, and they made him look taller, all right.

“He looked like a little clown in that big jacket,” she continued, her voice breaking a little. “But he thought he looked great, and he did look great.”

John Vigil, his cousin, remembered the last time he saw Grover, the afternoon before he died, driving his car.

“He stopped, and I wanted him to come barbecue with me,” Vigil said. “But he had the kids with him, and he said he was tired and that he wanted to go home. … I just said, ‘OK, maybe next time.'”

Grover’s father remembered that at the Chico Pow Wow, the organizers had a Blanket Dance—a kind of tribute for Indians who have recently died—for the Ramirez family, and people in attendance donated “so much for our expenses, it was like they had two Blanket Dances,” he said.

“I’ve never seen people so giving,” he said. “We couldn’t even get around the whole arena, there were so many people handing down money.”

Faustino Regino, who said he knew Grover Ramirez for about seven years, said he rarely saw him without his kids in tow. While a lot of their friends had trouble with gangs, Ramirez never got involved, he said.

“He was basically a family man,” Regino said. “He was dedicated to his family.”

Anna Ramirez, his older sister, said she still sometimes expects her brother to come home.

“It’s like a book or something,” she said. “It still doesn’t seem real, you know?”