Advocating for Weld County crime victims is more than just a job | MyWindsorNow.com

Advocating for Weld County crime victims is more than just a job

Tommy Simmons
tsimmons@greeleytribune.com

In 2013, when Andrea Rios met the Velasquez sisters, their mother, Martha Velasquez, had just been murdered by their father, who struggled with an addiction to meth and alcohol.

The three sisters, Yessica, 22, Miriam, 29, and Alexa, 15 — found themselves in the labyrinth of hearings and meetings of a complex murder case — without a parent to help them.

Rios is one of six victim witness assistants who work for the Weld District Attorney's office. Her job is first and foremost, she said, to make sure the case moves through the court smoothly. She helps prepare witnesses for what they will experience in trial, she helps victims find the services they need, and she untangles the knot of courtroom jargon.

But as was the case with the Velasquez sisters, there's often much more to it than that.

"Often, I see victims at the lowest parts of their lives," she said. "No matter what happens, I take (their) story and (their) pain with me."

She's been doing her job this way for five years, and the Velasquezes said they would've been lost without her.

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"It took a year and a half," Yessica Velasquez said. "I just wanted to have the justice (my mom) deserved. But it was complicated seeing my father (in court) and not being able to speak to him."

In addition to providing a road map of the judicial process to the Vasquez sisters, Rios offered some emotional warmth in a system designed to be cold and impartial.

"We spoke a lot of times about being in front of (my dad) for the first time," Miriam Vasquez said. "The hardest part was testifying and seeing all those people in front of you — I wanted to hold back my tears and not cry in front of my dad."

Forty years ago, Miriam Velasquez and her sisters would have been left alone to navigate the legal system. That started to change after the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Even as president, Rios said, Reagan felt confused and lost in the shuffle as the justice system took over his case. His logic was that ordinary people must feel completely forgotten, so he created a task force to investigate. That process culminated in the passage of the Crime Victims Rights Act, which guarantees a variety of services for victims of 27 different crimes.

"When you're a victim of a crime, you get us. You get the right to be heard," Rios said.

Her relationship with the Velasquez sisters was not a confidential one — victim witness assistants don't discuss the facts of a case with victims without an officer present, and anything a victim says to them that is favorable to the defense must be handed over. But that didn't make their relationship less real.

"(Andrea) was really welcoming," Miriam Vasquez said. "She explained she was always there and even if we didn't have a court date, we could still call her."

Rios has kept in touch with the Velasquez sisters even after the end of their father's trial. Alexa Velasquez is even thinking about becoming a district attorney herself, and went so far as to talk to Weld Deputy District Attorney Robb Miller for a school project.

"(Their) tragedy doesn't leave (me)," Rios said. "But I get to take (their) goodness with me too."

The Victims’ Rights Acts

The federal government has passed multiple pieces of legislation to help victims receive fair treatment as they move through the legal system. Colorado has state legislation in place as well, and is considered to be forward-thinking in terms of victims’ rights because it also has an office for victims to report mistreatment by victim witness assistants.