To those who knew him, Victor Villalpando didn’t fit the profile of someone who would end up in the gun sight of a police officer.
The 16-year-old El Rito teenager was a gymnastics instructor. He taught hip-hop, studied ballet and was looking forward to attending the New Mexico School for the Arts in Santa Fe for his sophomore year of high school.
But on Sunday morning, according to Española police, he pointed a handgun at two police officers after they were called to check on a suspicious person. One of the officers fired at Villalpando, killing him. State police have been called in to investigate and are reviewing surveillance footage from nearby businesses that might have captured images of the shooting.
Friends, family and others who knew Villalpando said Monday they can’t believe he would have had a gun, much less pointed it at police.
“If he was dabbling with dangerous firearms, we would have known,” said Roger Montoya, artistic director of Moving Arts Española, a nonprofit arts education organization where Villalpando was an instructor. “Because we were all very close to him.”
Española police were called at about 10 a.m. to investigate a report of a suspicious person walking between a doughnut shop and a smoke shop. When police encountered the teenager, Española Public Safety Director Eric Garcia said, Villalpando pointed a handgun at the officers. After trying to talk Villalpando into putting the gun down, Officer Jerry Apodaca shot the teen, said Garcia, who will become Santa Fe’s new police chief Monday. Garcia also said the youth was carrying a knife.
Per department policy, the officers involved in the incident — Apodaca and Ritchie Trujillo — were placed on three days of paid administrative leave.
State police said Monday no new details would be available regarding the investigation. State police — who initially misspelled the teen’s last name as Vialpando in statements issued Sunday — have said the teenager had a weapon, but they haven’t said what type.
People at nearby businesses were hesitant to speak about what they saw or heard Sunday morning. A surveillance camera pointed at the area of the shooting was visible at a smoke shop next to the shooting scene, but employees declined to comment.
Garcia said Apodaca, who has been with the Española police force since 2008, also was involved in a 2011 shooting when a suspect tried to steal a patrol car. Trujillo, who has been with the department since 2012, hasn’t been involved in any shootings during his time with Española police.
Sunday’s incident occurred as New Mexico faces intense scrutiny over a rash of police shootings involving the Albuquerque Police Department as well as state police. In April, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing report criticizing the APD for a pattern of police brutality and unnecessary use of deadly force.
Jonah Shure, 24, the teen’s older brother, said Villalpando had spent Saturday night at a friend’s house in Española, near where he was shot. Schure said his brother told a friend that he was going out for a walk and would be back soon. He said the teen was carrying a “karate stick” that he used for his dance performances and tended to perform with in the streets.
Schure said his brother recently had been going through a typical teenage rebellion phase but that it would be unfair to characterize the teen as a troublemaker. Schure said his brother, like many teenagers, was still trying to find his identity as a young man.
“One week, he wanted to be a rapper, and one week, he was wearing a cowboy hat,” Schure said. “And then he talked about joining the Air Force.”
Schure said the family is having a hard time believing Villalpando was carrying a gun because the family doesn’t own guns and the teen never expressed interest in firearms.
“I don’t know why this happened at all, but the only thing that I can imagine is that he was trying to put on a tough guy persona that people in Española kind of have to because of the real machismo culture there,” the brother said as he held back tears. “And he was struggling becoming a man.”
Days after he was born, a lesbian couple adopted Villalpando through the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department, which had taken him away from his mother. Doctors determined Villalpando had heroin in his system at birth, which affected his motor skills growing up, the brother said.
But Montoya said learning gymnastics gave the teen confidence and enabled him to be comfortable in his own body. His athleticism was impressive to many instructors, including officials at New Mexico School for the Arts, the state-chartered high school in Santa Fe that recently accepted Villalpando to its dance program after a successful audition. He was to start at the school in September.
In the meantime, Villalpando, who was was given an instructor position at Moving Arts Española because of his leadership skills and his dancing skills, was going to serve as a senior youth mentor for children enrolled in a summer program, Montoya said.
Most of the teen’s friends and family say Villalpando was never in trouble with police.
In January, state police investigated a rumor that Villalpando had sent out threatening text messages saying something bad would happen to students at McCurdy School, where he was a student. Sgt. Damyan Brown, a New Mexico State Police spokesman, said that after conducting interviews and searching the teen’s house, investigators didn’t find any evidence to substantiate the alleged threats.
Throughout the day Monday, friends and family a visited a memorial for Villalpando on the corner of Riverside Drive and Corlett Road. At Moving Arts Española, where Villalpando on Monday was supposed to teach a hip-hop class for the start of the organization’s summer program, staff and students created a similar memorial.
Natasha Backhus, an 11-year-old who was taught by Villalpando, wiped away tears and tried to catch her breath as she talked about him as a great teacher.
“Are you going to miss him?” 6-year-old Nilah Velasquez, another student of Villalpando, asked the older girl. “I bet he’s in heaven right now saying, ‘Yeah, I’m dancing.’ ”
Contact Uriel J. Garcia at 986-3062 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ujohnnyg.
This story was amended to reflect the following correction: Villalpando's brother is Jonah Shure, not Schure.