Monday 28 November 2022

Angie Peraza, survivor of the White House case, tells her story

The casino worker was shot twice in the head 13 years ago, along with two other women, tells how her life has been after a night of terror

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QCOSTARICA – Angie Peraza Fernández, one of the three saloneras (waitresses) of the White House restaurant and casino, located where Fogo Rodicio is today, in San Antonio de Escazú, affirms that she has managed to get out of the worst circumstances. Thirteen years later, she remembers how she managed to survive that night of terror when two men subjected her and two of her coworkers to robbery and rape and even tried to murder them all.

Peraza says that she lives grateful to God and, although some of the trauma still persists, she forgave the gunmen. Photo: Courtesy.

Angie Peraza was shot twice in the head and left for dead; she was left lying in a vacant lot, but she got up to survive. She had to undergo multiple surgeries to have her cheek and eyelid reconstructed, although she lost sight in her right eye, smell and taste.

Almost at midnight on Monday, October 27, 2008, Angie and the sisters Arelis and Yerlin Marín Salazar left work in a vehicle. They had barely advanced 200 meters when they were intercepted by another car on a lonely street. They blocked their way and, when Arelis, the driver, wanted to flee in reverse, the shots from her captors made her give up.

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The act was so violent that one of the assailants was given 193 years in prison and the other, 179, by the San Jose courts, in a trial whose sentence was read on October 13, 2019.

The murderers, Christian Mora Cantillano and Juan Carlos Mena Jiménez, are serving the maximum penalty at the La Reforma prison complex, in San Rafael de Alajuela. They were convicted of murder, rape, sexual abuse, attempted murder, deprivation of liberty and aggravated robbery.

“I remember that the casino was decorated for Halloween; they had made a scary house for the occasion,” said Angie at the beginning of the story about how these years have passed.

She lives in Orotina de Alajuela, with a two-year-old daughter, and her pet, a French poodle named Cony. Her other daughter, Tamara, 21, lives with her partner.

“I am a person who knows how to get up from the worst circumstances,” says this 38-year-old woman, who was 25 when she faced that horrible night that, in a matter of three hours, radically changed her life and that of Arelis Marín, the other survivor. Yerlin Marín, 24, was killed. They worked from 6 pm to 1 am in the casino of the White House hotel.

Angie traveled with the Marín sisters because they left could drop her off practically in front of her house, in La Uruca, where she lived with her second husband and her eldest daughter, who was eight years old at the time. She says that she still maintains her friendship with Arelis Marín and that they communicate by phone at least once a year. Arelis graduated as a nurse, is 41 years old, and the mother of two children.

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In her statement during the trial, Angie Peraza recalls that, when they were intercepted, everything happened so fast that two of them could not even lower the bag from the Aerlis’ Toyota Echo, because the subjects blocked their path, got out, shot, took them out of the car and, between violent shouts, they moved them to the Hyundai Accent in which they were traveling and that Christian Mora was driving.

In the midst of the commotion, Angie felt that it was an assault, because a few kilometers from the place, the subjects stripped them of their jewelry and were angry about the two wallets and a laptop that were left in the stolen car. As a result of that forgetfulness, both men argued with each other. In retaliation, they threatened to strip them naked and leave them lying in Leon XIII. Then they started talking about taking them to a motel. A great fear invaded them during the first minutes of the morning of October 28.

Angie says that she prayed, while the subjects spoke obscenities. Mena subjected Yerlin Marín to the first abuses during the journey. Along the way, the assailants agreed that the driver would stay with Arelis, while Mena, who was carrying the firearm, with Yerlin. Hearing that she would not be taken to the motel, Angie resigned herself to dying.

Under threat of death, the subjects forced Yerlin to open her purse and give them the pin to a debit card she was carrying. Thus they obtained the US$200 that she had in that account. Then, they went to a gas station for fuel and from there they went to the El Dorado motel in Heredia, where they abused the Marín sisters and raped them from 1:30 am and 2:30 am.

Cristian Mora, (left, in a white shirt) and Juan Carlos Mena (right, in a black shirt) were sentenced on October 13, 2009. Photo: Archive / Carlos León.

They believed her dead

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Before entering the motel, the criminals had to get rid of Angie Peraza. In order not to leave witnesses, they agreed to assassinate her, so they went to San Francisco de Heredia.

The driver stopped in front of a vacant lot and yelled “here.” Juan Carlos Mena Jiménez got out, pulled Angie Peraza out of her back seat, knelt her down, and shot her twice in the head. Believing her dead, he returned to the car and they fled in a hurry with the Marin sisters.

Angie said that she, when she felt her shots, she tried to force her body not to move and that Mena did not shoot her anymore. On his side, in the car, the driver reproached Mena for why he had used two bullets. He replied that her body was moving and he wanted to make sure with another impact.

The car left. Angie tried to focus on what was going on and she looked for light, but there was none. She felt that she was choking on the blood that came out of her through her nose and mouth; she coughed and spat, she saw very little, she had a headache and she didn’t know what had happened to her as a result of her bullets.

Knowing that she was alive, she thought that someone might find her. She saw a door and gates, and tried to get up. As best she could, she walked there. At the gate of a house, she asked for help, but no one heard her. She screamed, then started vomiting and she thought she was going to die.

At about 100 meters, in another house, a lady opened the door for her. She related that she was mugged and that she was shot. The lady called 9-1-1.

Although she told those who helped her what happened, those people did not know whether or not they believed her story. She insisted that they run for help, because her friends were taken to a motel and they were going to kill them.

By ambulance, she was rushed to the San Vicente de Paúl Hospital, where she was stabilized and, a few minutes later, she was transferred to the Hospital Mexico, due to the severity of her injuries.

Three days later, while she was hospitalized, she learned that Yerlin had died, listening to it on a television that was in the corridors of the medical center.

Later it was learned that Yerlin was murdered in a vacant lot near the entrance to the Rumba nightclub, in Escobal de San Antonio de Belén. She had two headshots. Meanwhile, her sister was located in Alto de Las Palomas, in Santa Ana, with two shots. Quick medical attention allowed her to survive.

As soon as Angie opened her eyes in the hospital, the first thing she remembers is the agents of the Organismo de Investigacion Judicial (OIJ) who were waiting for her to wake up to take her statement.

As soon as she could, Angie made the recognition of the murderers and the car that appeared at the house of a relative of Mena, the gunman, who went to hide him in Palmas del Río, Barranca, Puntarenas. From there, he was captured by the OIJ four days later, on November 1, 2008.

These recognitions fully coincided with those made by Arelis Marín and were decisive for the conviction of the murderers.

During the trial, Peraza revealed that on the way the two men spoke and coordinated normally, not as if they were drunk or under the influence of any drug, and they were careful to never call each other by name in front of them.

She affirms that after the trial, she decided not to think about them anymore, and even forgave them. “I don’t believe in revenge. I know they are both equally guilty, but I decided to forgive them and put that behind,” she added.

From the trial, she remembers the mockery and disrespect they suffered, especially when Arelis faced them. She mentions that, in a hearing, Juan Carlos Mena, the one who shot her, signaled her from a distance and asked her forgiveness through gestures.

She thinks the sentence was fair. Christian Mora Cantillano will complete his sentence in April 2049 and Juan Carlos Mena, in February of the same year, the Ministry of Justice reported, the 50 years of the sentence they are required to serve out.

Operations on the face and soul

Angie was hit by a bullet in her right eye and cheekbone. The left part of her face was temporarily paralyzed and she lost her palate and smell. Still today she lacks this last sense, she lost sight of her right eye and barely regained her sense of taste.

Years later, Angie Peraza returned to the places where she lived tragic moments with two friends, one of whom did not survive. Photo: Courtesy.

She says that the first few days she collided with everything. She underwent multiple surgeries to close the wounds and regain mobility in the eyelid, as well as to repair nerves, reconstruct the cheek and receive prosthetics. At first, she could not eat because the bones and muscles of her face were affected, she could not open her mouth wide and what she ate she did not taste like anything.

Then came the whole process of Psychiatry and Psychology, because she suffered from nightmares and she had to take pills for anxiety and to fall asleep. For months, she was afraid to go out, she was afraid of people who approached her and she preferred to be alone in her house. She didn’t want to go back to casinos. Her family also wanted her to stay in the house, for her not to go out.

Day by day, by the grace of God, she overcame the situation, she adds. What marked her the most was learning to accept herself with the lack of her right eye and her scars, for which she will never forget that day. Also, she lives with the trauma of going through something like that again. “Even though I’ve gotten over it, some of the fear is still latent,” she says.

While she was talking to us on the phone, with her two-year-old daughter in her arms, Angie remembered the great help she had at the Hospital México, mainly the one she received from the psychiatrist Erick Hirsch, although there were times when she no longer wanted medication, nor did she feel victimized.

Currently, she lives with her young daughter. Often, Tamara, her other daughter from her first marriage, who lives very close to her and studies psychology, comes over. Angie says that her father lives in Guanacaste and her mother died two years ago.

‘It has not been easy’

This survivor of the White House robbery married at the age of 16 and, four years later, she divorced. When the assault occurred, she was living with her second husband, who gave her all the support to get through such tragic moments. He died in 2012, in a traffic accident.

Shortly after the accident, she left with her daughter Tamara for Puerto Jiménez de Golfito, in the southern part of the country, where two of her four brothers live. There she set up a restaurant. Her goal was to get away from the city and be away from the places where she had suffered so much. However, the business did not work out and she had to return.

“Life has not been easy. I do not have professional degrees, but I have always been a hard worker and I have had to risk it. After my husband died, I continued to work in casinos. Then I had the father of my second daughter as a partner, but that did not work. So now I am a single mother. However, I thank God. Let’s see what the next year has in store for us, because right now I’m not working. I completed ninth grade and now they ask for high school for everything,” she said.

Years after the trial, she once or twice drove near the casino and the scene of the assault.

“I went up to face the fears, I turned around and went down. I felt normal. In fact, I also went to the place where they shot me, on a 5-a-side soccer field in San Francisco de Heredia. So I faced the fear I had of going through those places again. My life has continued the same, now I live without fear. I have tried to live in the most normal way. The main lesson that experience left me is to live to the fullest and happily, to be grateful,” she said.

She now tries not to be overwhelmed with the future and lives from day to day, to be at peace.

The article was originally published in Spanish in La Nacion and translated and adapted by the Q.

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