Dodge City is preparing to mark an anniversary. Justin Mercado died in the early morning of Oct. 6, 1996, following a shooting in the Boot Hill parking lot.
Mercado was talking to friends when five gang members walked into the other end. Words were exchanged and a confrontation ensued.
One of the young men fired shots into the crowd.
One of the bullets bounced off the pavement or a car bumper, struck Mercado, bounced off his rib and went through his heart.
Mercado was rushed to the hospital but died during surgery.
Mercado's death precipitated a strong reaction from the community. A meeting was scheduled at the Civic Center.
Following the meeting, committees were formed and at least two lasting accomplishments resulted: the police auxillary was formed and the need for a place for kids to hang out led to the creation of The Alley.
"Justin's death was a big eye opener for Dodge City and what Stop the Violence tried to do was educate parents about what to look for and what resources were available," she said.
Rafael Flores, the shooter, is now serving a life sentence in Lansing.
"But in our legal system, life only means 15 years. We've already had to testify at his first parole hearing," Mercado said.
Mercado admits she had a hard time dealing with her feelings about Flores.
"I was bitter. I spent a lot of time writing down what I wanted to do to Rafael — how I could make him hurt like we did. But the most painful thing I could imagine wasn't enough."
Working through the Department of Corrections victim's services program, Mercado eventually received a letter from Flores.
"He apologized and expressed remorse," she said.
Mercado wrote back and the two corresponded for several months.
Then Mercado decided it was time to meet with him.
"I wanted to rip him to pieces — I decided I wasn't going to forgive him," she said.
At their meeting, Flores was nervous but Mercado was calm.
"We had long conversations. They told me I could ask him any questions I wanted to and I could stay as long as I wanted — until I felt like we had accomplished what I came to do," she said.
When Mercado was finished telling Flores everything she needed to tell him, he was emotional.
"He was bawling like a baby — that did something for me," she said.
"Even though I had decided not to, I told him I forgave him and gave him a big hug. I felt like a different person — I felt like I left such a load of unhappiness there," she said.
Page 2 of 2 - Mercado still feels Flores should be held accountable for what he did and not get out of prison.
"But I'm at peace."
Melissa Province, executive director at the Alley, became familiar with Justin's story when she took the job managing the teen center last year.
"We had Justin's picture on display because it was his death that created The Alley, but I wanted to know the details. Then I decided we needed to do something to mark the anniversary of his death," she said.
Province contacted the Mercado family who expressed their desire to do something to keep their son's memory alive.
The memorial walk was born last year.
This year's walk will begin at the Boot Hill parking lot at 9 a.m. on Oct. 6.
Following ceremonies in the parking lot, the group will walk to The Alley, where a memorial ceremony will be followed by a free-will-donation chili feed and reception.
"The kids who come to The Alley see Justin's picture and want to know why it's there. We tell them the story and that Justin was the reason the facility was built and we're proud to share his story and keep his memory alive," Province said.
The community is invited to participate in the walk or the ceremony and reception.