Family's tragic story only gets worse

12/02/2007 12:00 AM

12/02/2007 2:15 AM

The backyard tire swing had become Stephanie House's refuge.

"She would go out there to be by herself," said Bonnie House, her mother.

It gave Stephanie an escape from the pressures of a life that long ago had swung out of control, and one that now exists only by the grace of God and the machines at Memorial Medical Center.

The 27-year-old Modesto woman's story is tragic in every respect, and her family has been left grasping for something good to come from it, for something to make sense.

Stephanie was shot in the head during what authorities say was a gang-related altercation in Modesto on June 13, 2004. She was with her boyfriend, Vince Ramirez, at the taco trucks at 14th and D streets in Modesto that night. They encountered some Sureño gangbangers who believed Ramirez was a rival Norteño, and one of them stabbed him in the shoulder. Stephanie punched her boyfriend's assailant and threw bottles at his cohorts.

When they drove off, Stephanie chased them -- the bleeding Ramirez and her niece Sierra with her in the car. One of the Sureños fired at her blue Daewoo sedan, the bullet hitting her in the head and permanently blinding her right eye.

She survived to testify twice against the man accused of being the gunman, Javier Mata. There were two mistrials, the most recent in September.

She lost her father, Dennis House, to cancer June 14 -- three years and a day after she was shot.

She endured bouts of paranoia and was on medication for psychosis, her mother, sister and friends said. Her behavior deteriorated and she became more erratic by the day, they said. She crumbled on the witness stand during the second trial, answering questions in a demeanor that left many in the courtroom stunned, family members and prosecutor Tom Brennan said.

Finally, she reached her breaking point. On Nov. 20, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and after bickering with a family member, Stephanie went out to her backyard swing. But instead of smoking a cigarette and calming herself, as she often did, this time she removed the tire and fashioned a noose from the rope. She stood on a stool, slipped the loop over her head and did the unthinkable.

Perhaps 20 minutes later, her mother came out of the house to check on her. Denise House saw her daughter hanging there. Paramedics revived Stephanie on the way to Memorial Medical Center, where she has been on life support ever since.

Now her family is grieving, though she's still alive. They're angry at a justice system they believe failed her. They're exasperated because of the many unfortunate decisions leading to the place where Stephanie now exists.

Dennis and Bonnie House were hardworking people who tried to raise their children well. Neither drank nor smoked. Yet their eldest daughter, Debbie House -- whom I profiled in November 2006 -- fell in with the drug crowd at age 14. She had three children with three men, spent time being homeless on the streets, and served two state prison stretches and some county jail time on drug charges. Bonnie and Dennis House raised Debbie's children and adopted them as their own.

Finally, after 11 years in the drug culture, Debbie extricated herself by going through Modesto Gospel Mission's New Life program and committing her life to God.

She blames herself for not being there as a daughter to her parents, sister to Stephanie and mother to her children.

Stephanie, meanwhile, began dating Ramirez a decade ago, when they were students at Johansen High School.

"I've been through everything with her," said Ramirez, 29. "Good and bad."

That night in June 2004 -- when he was stabbed and she was shot -- ranked high on the bad side.

Ramirez said he and Stephanie had gone to pick up Sierra, who had gone out on the town because Dennis and Bonnie House were out of town.

Ramirez denies ever being involved in gang activity. He wore a red 49ers jersey -- red being the Norteños' color -- while Stephanie wore a red shirt. But she wasn't a gangbanger, sister Debbie said.

"Gangbangers don't call 911," Debbie House said, which Stephanie did after Ramirez's stabbing.

But during the second trial, an investigator testified to the contrary. He depicted Ramirez as a Norteño. And Ramirez now suggests that he tried that night to counsel Sierra, a teenager, to stay out of trouble. But under direct and cross-examinations, Ramirez claimed to have forgotten most of what happened that night. In fact, prosecutor Brennan had to treat him as a hostile witness when he was supposed to testify against the person accused of being his girlfriend's assailant.

"Well, can you explain why you're the only one who seems to have amnesia as to the events of June 13, 2004?" Brennan asked.

"I don't know," Ramirez replied.

"Do you feel guilty that Stephanie fought your fight outside the car after you got stabbed?" Brennan continued.

"I don't remember," Ramirez replied.

"Are you a coward?" Brennan asked.

The family believes the pressure on Stephanie -- and on all of them -- continued to build throughout the case. During the second trial, Debbie House was banned from the courtroom because of unsolicited comments.

They believe Stephanie came apart under the cross- examination of defense attorney Rubén Villalobos.

"Don't get me wrong," Debbie House said. "I don't want to make her out to be a saint. Stephanie did things that broke the law. But no matter what she did, she didn't deserve to have what happened to her at the trial."

But Brennan and Villalobos believe the latter went "soft" on her.

"She could only testify as a victim," Brennan said.

"I would like to hope that her current situation doesn't have anything to do with my cross- examination," Villalobos said. "I realized she was a victim of crime. It doesn't do any good (in persuading a jury) to beat up on a crime victim."

Stephanie nearly caused a mistrial when she tried to hand defendant Mata a religious tract bearing scripture.

"Her heart showed when she tried to hand him the tract," Debbie House said.

Brennan grabbed it, fearing Stephanie's interaction with the defendant would cause another mistrial. The matter was discussed, and Judge Scott Steffen ultimately determined that it wouldn't affect the jury.

The second trial ended in a 6-6 jury deadlock in late September.

Debbie House said that over time, Stephanie decided she didn't want to see Mata go to prison for life.

She wanted him to understand what he'd done, and then have the chance to rebuild his life, Debbie said.

Bonnie House does want Mata to pay a price, whether its behind bars or in his own personal hell.

"I want him to live his life with this," she said. "I want him to hurt, too."

So what good can come of this?

"Stanislaus County is gang-riddled," said Michell Davis Aartman, a passer-by who came to Stephanie's aid the night of the shooting and befriended her.

"There aren't enough gang officers going into the schools and talking to the kids. I would like to see more in the education process, to get to these kids (such as Mata) before they get into gangs," she said.

The consequences are too great and too costly to society, said Aartman, who has been divorced, remarried and had a child in the three years since the shooting.

They are so tragic to families such as the Houses, whose loved one is at the mercy of God and life-support machines. Their family tragedy, in the making for decades, was compounded the morning after she tried to take her life.

Mata, The Bee reported Nov. 21, likely will accept a plea deal for 10 years in prison, rather than risk a longer term if convicted in a third trial. At that time, though, Stephanie already had tried to end her life.

"Throughout this, Stephanie feared (gang) retaliation," Debbie House said. "Had she known (he might plead), she would have felt it was over. He admitted it, and that would have been closure for her."

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at or 578-2383.

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