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Tragic losses

Fiance of Denny’s victim cries for his ‘sweetheart’ and his unborn son



The fiance of a Tucson woman slain at a Northwest Side restaurant wants the man police say killed her and their unborn son to get the death penalty.

“In my heart I’m a Christian,” Steve Hager said yesterday. “I’m trying not to hate, because I know hate is wrong.”

But “he needs to die,” Hager said after a news conference held by his fiance’s relatives.

“God says an eye for an eye,” he added.

Sheriff’s detectives arrested John Paul Brown, 30, on a first-degree murder charge in the shooting death Monday of Esperanza “Hope” Hernandez, 35.

Brown was charged, too, in the wounding of Robert Fisher, 67, of Sierra Vista.

Both were shot at the Denny’s Restaurant at 100 W. Orange Grove Road. Fisher was in serious but stable condition this morning at a hospital.

Hernandez was 14 weeks pregnant. Her baby also died.

“When you kill someone who is pregnant, then you kill two,” said Hager, 40.

He said he learned after an autopsy Tuesday that he would have had a son, had the baby lived.

At the news conference, Hager spoke lovingly and often tearfully of Hernandez and their planned life together.

Hager said that minutes before Hernandez was shot, “I asked her if she was happy and she was very happy.”

“It’s amazing how in a second’s time your whole life can just change,” Hager said. “My life seemed like everything was going just right.”

Hager and Hernandez recently put earnest money down on a house in Avra Valley. She picked the interior colors for the house hours before she was killed.

Hager said he and Hernandez had been together for more than four years.

“My sweetheart, I know she went to heaven,” Hager said tearfully. “Hope was just a sweet, sincere person.”

After picking the colors, Hager said, he and Hernandez decided to have lunch and were considering restaurants.

Hernandez was paying, so they decided to go Denny’s, the lesser expensive of the two.

Hager said he is haunted by thoughts of “would have, could have,” because Hernandez would still be alive if they had decided on another restaurant.

Hager said that while Hernandez went to use the restroom at Denny’s, he stayed outside to smoke a cigarette.

When he started to walk into the restaurant, Hager was met by a man carrying a .22-caliber rifle.

“As I walked in, I walked into a guy pulling a rifle up at me,” Hager said.

“He said, ‘Get out.’ He said he wanted the customers to get out.”

“If I could have told that gunman, let me get my girlfriend out of the bathroom, I would have, but he was pointing a gun at me telling me to get out of there,” Hager said.

Hernandez’ cousin, Sylvia Vasquez, 34, said at the news conference: “In this tragedy, there was another family affected, the Fishers, and we hope they don’t become another homicide tragedy.”

Hernandez leaves behind an 11-year-old daughter, Briana from a previous marriage.

The girl is being cared for by family members.

“She’s at a very vulnerable age where she needs her mom,” Vasquez said.

But “this little girl is going to grow up without her mom,” she added.

Hager and Hernandez worked at the Wal-Mart at 455 E. Wetmore Road, where they met.

Wal-Mart and the Denny’s organization are collecting money to benefit the Hernandez and Fisher families.

Marvin Brookreson, human resources director of QK Inc. in Holbrook, which oversees the Denny’s where the shootings occurred, said donations can be made to the Hernandez/Fisher Fund at any Wells Fargo Bank location under account number 101264682.

Brown is being held in the Pima County Jail, with bail set at $1 million.

Detectives believe Brown went into the restaurant with plans to take hostages in the belief that it would help him get back a videotape allegedly containing child pornography that authorities had seized from him.

After eating lunch, Brown went to the restroom, pulled a rifle from a bag he carried, came back out into the restaurant and told customers to leave, detectives said.

Brown ordered employees to stay, detectives added.

He fired two shots, said sheriff’s Detective Sgt. Michael G. O’Connor.

One struck Hernandez in the head as she left the restroom.

Fisher was struck in the torso as he stood by a dining table with his wife.

After the shootings, Brown called 911 and an emergency operator persuaded him to surrender to deputies at 2:29 p.m.

Vasquez said the family asked that donations in memory of Hernandez be made to Homicide Survivors, a support group for family members of homicide victims.

Donations can be sent to Homicide Survivors, 32 N. Stone Ave., 11th floor, Tucson, Ariz. 85701.

Those donating may want to note in the check’s memorandum section, “In memory of Esperanza Hernandez.”

Prosecutors weigh death in Denny’s shooting case



Prosecutors say it could take up to seven weeks to decide whether to seek the death penalty for Denny’s shooting suspect John Paul Brown.

Rick Unklesbay, chief criminal deputy county attorney, said once detectives give his office the case, it will be reviewed by a panel of prosecutors that will recommend whether to seek Brown’s execution.

Prosecutors have 50 working days from the time of Brown’s arrest in which to notify Superior Court and the defendant whether they will seek the death penalty.

Detectives have said the woman who was shot and killed and the man who was wounded Monday were attacked at random. They were at the Denny’s restaurant at 100 W. Orange Grove Road.

Unklesbay said he had not read the investigative files on the case, so could not say if the random nature would have an effect on seeking the death penalty. “It’s not fair for me to make any kind of comment.”

He said prosecutors review what are called aggravating factors listed in Arizona law in determining whether to seek the death penalty.

They include killing more than one person during a crime; an earlier conviction of a serious crime; whether during the crime the defendant knowingly created a risk of death to people other than the victim; and whether the defendant killed in an especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner.

Mitigating factors include an attacker’s inability to understand the wrongfulness of conduct, or being significantly impaired and unable to conform his conduct to the law.

Other mitigating factors include the defendant being under substantial duress or not being able to reasonably foresee that his actions would create a grave risk of causing death.

PHOTO CAPTIONS: Photo courtesy Hernandez family

ABOVE: Denny’s shooting victim Esperanza Hernandez (center) is shown in a recent picture taken outside her Tucson apartment with fiance Steve Hager and her daughter, Briana, 11.

TRICIA McINROY/Tucson Citizen

LEFT: Hager is overcome with emotion while talking about his loss of Hernandez and the couple’s unborn child.

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