Every time Susie Stemper looks at her granddaughter Natalie, her heart breaks just a little bit more.
On Saturday, the 7-year-old's mother was shot to death on Interstate 19 in Green Valley; her mother's on-again, off-again boyfriend was arrested in connection with her death.
Again and again, Natalie asks her the same questions, Stemper said: "How could he do that? How can he tell me he loves me and he misses me and then hurt mommy?"
Stemper has no answer.
How do you talk to a second-grader about something as complex as domestic violence? And domestic violence is what led to her daughter's death, said Stemper, who lives in Rio Rico.
Her daughter, Marilynn Patricia "Matty" Pacheco, 25, was trapped in a cycle of domestic violence for at least two years, she said.
She doesn't know how her daughter met the suspect, 21-year-old Mateo Zavala, but she says the relationship was never healthy. She first heard about Zavala two years ago and a pattern quickly emerged. The couple would argue, they'd break up and they'd get back together. Once, Stemper said her daughter pretended to be unconscious to end a fight where Zavala dragged her by the hair and kicked her in the face. She has photos of her daughter's swollen face on her cellphone.
Zavala seemed to bounce back and forth between California and Tucson, Stemper says.
"They’d go for two months, six months without speaking. She would start seeing somebody else and there he was again. He would contact her. Every single time," Stemper says. "She tried and tried and tried and he’d just reel her back in. It would be the same thing. They wouldn’t be talking for a day, two days, whatever. and it would be, ‘You’d better not be seeing anybody else.’"
Often, Zavala would convince Pacheco to get back together, saying how much he loved and missed Natalie. Then they'd fight again and he'd tell Matty he'd kill her if he saw her with another man, Stemper says. He also said he'd kill the other man. On Saturday, authorities said Zavala tried to follow through on his threats.
911 call on I-19
Motorists started calling 911 around 5 p.m. Saturday to report the driver of a Jeep Cherokee was shooting at a red sedan on northbound Interstate 19. Witnesses said both cars stopped in the median near Esperanza Boulevard and the gunman got out of his vehicle and continued to shoot at the car.
Court documents indicate the driver of the red sedan saw Pacheco, who was in the front passenger seat, bleeding heavily from the head. He then fled on foot with his 3-year-old daughter. They were picked up by a couple and taken to Arizona Family Restaurant's Easy Street Lounge, at the northwest corner of Esperanza and I-19.
Pacheco was pronounced dead at Banner University Medical Center. Her friend and his daughter were treated at a hospital for gunshot wounds and released. Zavala was arrested at the scene and booked into Pima County Adult Detention Center on suspicion of first-degree murder, endangerment, three counts of aggravated assault and one count of drive-by shooting. His bail has been set at $1 million.
During an interview Monday, Stemper said Pacheco went to California to visit Zavala two weeks ago, but they got into a huge argument two days after she returned. Zavala sent Pacheco an audiotape of him having sex with another woman, and again threatened to kill her if she started seeing anyone else, Stemper said.
She didn't hear anything about Zavala again until Saturday night.
On Saturday morning, Stemper said Pacheco asked if she could join her, Stemper's husband, Nick, and Natalie at Arivaca Lake along with a friend and the friend's 3-year-old daughter. The six met at the lake that afternoon, but they went back to their home in Rio Rico after it started raining.
They visited for about an hour, then the friend, who Stemper identified as "Danny," Pacheco and Danny's daughter left for Danny's home, located somewhere between Tucson and Phoenix.
Stemper said she missed two calls from her daughter around 4:20 p.m., and when she called her back at 4:50 p.m., Pacheco told her Zavala was in Rio Rico and he wanted to take Natalie to the movies.
"I told her, 'No, after everything he’s done to you? No. He’s not even welcome here. No,' and she said 'OK,'" Stemper said.
According to court documents, Danny told authorities that Pacheco was arguing on the phone with Zavala as they drove north on Interstate 19. He said he heard his back window shatter and felt a burning sensation in his neck.
At the hospital hours later, Stemper said Danny told her that Pacheco and Zavala were arguing about Zavala taking Natalie to the movies and Pacheco told him Natalie wasn't with her, she was back home in Rio Rico.
She's convinced Zavala opened fire once he knew Natalie wasn't in the car, Stemper said. Zavala cared about Natalie being in the car, but apparently didn't care about Danny's daughter, Stemper said.
Court documents indicate Zavala confessed to following Danny, Pacheco and the 3-year-old girl after seeing them get into the car at Stemper's house. He also confessed to shooting an unknown number of times at their vehicle.
Zavala told authorities that Pacheco shot at him, but Stemper doesn't believe it. First, she would've been too scared, Stemper said.
Second, "She had a little girl in the back seat… if she were still here she’d be totally guilt-ridden this all happened with those two people in the car," Stemper said.
DPS Trooper Kameron Lee said Monday that authorities "can’t confirm" whether Zavala was the sole shooter "right now."
A somber warning
Stemper is talking to the media because she wants people to know who Matty was and she wants her daughter's death to serve as a warning to others involved in similar relationships.
Pacheco had a big heart, an affectionate nature and dreamed of becoming a psychologist who worked with children with developmental disabilities. She worked for a few years in group homes with adults who were cognitively impaired and most recently worked at a Tucson daycare center, Stemper said, proudly showing pictures of Pacheco being hugged by some of her former clients.
Pacheco also loved the outdoors and animals. Now that she's gone, Stemper said she has four extra dogs, two ducks and a snake that belonged to her daughter.
The past few days have been incredibly painful, but Stemper said it helps that Pacheco's friends have been coming forward to share stories about her generosity and willingness to listen.
"She’s always hugging, always kissing, always hanging on you, she's a very touchy person," Stemper said, slipping into the present tense.
Whenever she walked into a room, she'd make the rounds to give hugs and kisses, Stemper said. Even if she didn't know someone, she'd make it a point to introduce herself.
Matty was so generous, Stemper said, that she didn't hesitate when Stemper asked her to donate her eggs so she could have another child. Twice Pacheco went through the egg retrieval process. She also moved home to Rio Rico from Tucson six weeks ago to help her when she became pregnant, Stemper said.
Stemper, 48, miscarried two weeks ago, but she has one more chance to have a child using Pacheco's eggs, she said.
"Ideally, it would be perfect if it worked because I’d have her, her baby, but maybe that’s just pushing it," Stemper said.
Whenever Pacheco and Zavala argued, Stemper said she was afraid if she said too much, she'd end up making her daughter mad and lose her. In the end, all she could bring herself to say was she loved and needed her.
"I had a bad feeling for a long time," Stemper said. "I was afraid to answer the phone because I always felt something was going to happen. That she was going to be taken early."
She hopes others will learn from her daughter's death.
"To me, she had all of the signs, every one was there, all of the red flags were there and she stayed," Stemper said.
On Saturday night, Stemper said she had a bad feeling when her daughter didn't answer her phone at 7 p.m. She said she even told her husband that she hoped Pacheco hadn't met up with Zavala.
At 7:45 p.m., a DPS trooper called her from UMC and told her she needed to get to the hospital; the trooper didn't say why. A trooper escorted them from the checkpoint north of Tubac to the hospital. When she arrived, investigators asked if she knew someone who would want to hurt Pacheco. She immediately said, "Mateo Zavala."
It was then she learned her daughter's fate.
As for Zavala's fate, Stemper said, "I don't think he should be on Earth."
She will never understand how he could be so cruel as to leave Natalie without her mom.
"I'm here, but I'm not her," she said.
Stemper said she plans to seek help for the little girl, whom she has helped raise from birth and who calls her "mama."
"Yesterday, she tells me, 'Mama, you can be my mommy now,' and I was like, 'I’ll be anything you want me to be.'"