Johanna: Facing Forward

Johanna Orozco and Juan Ruiz had known each other since second grade, when they attended Walton Elementary School together. They stood next to each other in a school picture, and waved in passing, but they were never close before high school. For months, after a chance meeting in the summer of 2004, they talked on the phone, on and off.

At first they chatted, laughing about memories from their grade school years. But the conversations eventually deepened.

Both high school students shared hurtful pasts. Her parents were dead and his were divorced. His parents' split had upset Juan, his grades dropped and he started getting into fights at school. His mother took him to see a counselor and he was later prescribed pills to help his moods.

Johanna and Juan were each looking for a fresh start.

He asked her to a movie. It was a Samuel L. Jackson flick called 'Coach Carter.'

But first, Juan had to pass the grandparent test.

Wosbely and Juanita Orozco were protective of their two parentless grandchildren. They had strict curfews and rules for Johanna and her younger brother, Kevin.

The couple came to the United States from Guatemala in 1985 to escape poverty and growing violence.

Juanita, a sturdy woman who has both a dagger glare and a deep belly laugh, walked most of the way to Mexico alongside highways.

Her husband, Wosbely, a short man with caring eyes, joined a few months later with their children Alberto, Hilda and Miriam. They hid in barns along the way, ducking immigration officials as they were guided from Mexico to the United States.

They eventually all gained legal status. But their ties to Guatemalan tradition and their hometown remained solid.

For decades, Juanita has collected gently worn clothes and toys from her grandkids and neighbors to ship home in oversize moving boxes.

Wosbely, who didn't own a pair of shoes until he was a teen, remembers soaking corn kernels in liquor as a boy and feeding them to a farmer's chickens so they wouldn't squawk when he stole them to feed his family. Here, he worked tirelessly in a suburban factory that makes air conditioner parts to provide for his family.

To gain the grandparents' respect, Juan came to them properly and asked permission to date Johanna. He met with them in their sparse living room on Jan. 30, 2005. Juan, who is a year younger than Johanna, was jittery but neatly groomed with a fresh haircut and shave.

Juan knew to greet Wosbely with a firm handshake and Juanita with a kiss on the cheek.

The Orozcos had reservations about Juan. His family situation was broken and he admitted to them that he had done drugs.

But meeting Johanna had given him a purpose, he said. He was working two jobs, at a bakery and in construction.

He occasionally cleaned bank offices. Juan talked about wanting to go into the military.

Johanna's grandparents felt he was sincere and gave permission for the two to date. Wosbely handed Juan a stone and repeated an adage in Spanish: 'Never pass through where there is a rock because you're going to fall. Pick the clean road, not the dirty one.'


That night, Johanna and Juan shared their first kiss. Johanna liked the way Juan treated her. He was caring and trusting. He bought her chocolate, perfumes and a cuddly Care Bear. They strolled hand in hand up Johanna's street, a mixture of wellkept and deteriorating homes. They often stopped at the corner store for chips and pop.

Once they began dating, the teens quickly became inseparable. When they weren't together they were on the phone. Juan's mother, Candida, even disconnected her phones at night so they wouldn't stay up late chatting.

Both Candida and Johanna's grandparents worried the love-struck teens were moving too fast. They encouraged them to be patient.

But Johanna and Juan wouldn't listen.

Johanna's journal was covered in hearts, flowers and girlish flourishes - all symbols of young love. Inside the hardcover book, she neatly jotted a favorite quote: 'You can't marry someone you can live with, you marry someone you can't live without.'

Johanna pushed Juan to do better in school. He transferred from John Marshall High School, where he had gotten into trouble, to Lincoln-West, where Johanna was heading into her junior year.

They acted in plays together, including 'A Christmas Carol,' where she played Bob Cratchit's daughter, and he played the ghost of Jacob Marley.

As the couple got closer over the next year, Juan began to grow demanding. He needed to see Johanna every day. Juan accused her of flirting with other boys. Johanna ignored rumors that he was cheating. The two often fought, broke up and were back together the next day.

By spring, the line between love and obsession had worn thin. On March 30, 2006, Johanna put her hurt about Juan in her journal: 'My heart is really sad right now! Today, Juan had pushed me and called me a bitch. . . I don't understand why he turned out this way. . . I really do love him.'

Johanna needed the relationship to work. She couldn't bear losing another person she loved.

But pushing soon turned to armtwisting - then kicking, once so hard it left a permanent mark on Johanna's leg.

As she chronicled her injuries in her journal, Johanna tried to grasp what had changed.

The perfect loops and curls of handwriting that Johanna's father had taken pride in became sloppy and desperate-looking.

Johanna would vow not to call Juan, only to break down. He would ignore her attempts.

'I hate him I hate him,' she scrawled in inch-high letters in late June of last year.


Johanna hoped that Juan would change, as her father had.

Her Aunt Hilda had doubts. Juan didn't look her directly in the eye. She noticed he was polite and mannerly in front of Johanna's grandparents but cussed and carried himself with a swagger when they weren't looking.

Once when Hilda and Johanna went to the mall, Juan called Johanna's electric-pink cell phone dozens of times.

Where are you? he demanded to know.

At the mall with my aunt, Johanna said. We're leaving.

Minutes later he called again.

Where are you now?

On our way home.

You should be at Snow Road already.

Hilda told Johanna to turn the phone off - or she was going to toss it out the window.

He doesn't own you, she told Johanna.

But Johanna's favorite aunt knew how hard it was to leave. She had stayed in a combative marriage for years struggling with the same feelings. Hilda knew how easy it was to come up with reasons to stay, how hard it was to walk out the door.

Her niece had to come to the decision to leave on her own.

By the late fall of 2006, Johanna had had enough.

On Nov. 27, the day before Johanna's 18th birthday, Juan was suspended from school for having a loaded gun in his backpack.

Juan voluntarily handed the .38-caliber revolver to a school security officer during a metal detector sweep. He told the guards the gun was for protection. Juan was expelled from school, though principals and students, including Johanna, signed petitions asking for Juan to be allowed to finish his senior year. Charges against Juan in juvenile court were dismissed after teachers wrote letters describing him as intelligent, charismatic and creative.

But with Johanna, his chances had waned. She told him she was sorry but unless he changed, their relationship was over. Johanna purged their shared MySpace page of Juan's pictures and name. The page was re-created to represent an independent Johanna: a bubbly and single woman who put family first.

A photo of her parents, Carmen and Alberto, became a focal point. Juan was referred to vaguely as someone Johanna loved, but wasn't with.

A month later, in January of 2007, Johanna gave him one last chance. Her friends begged her not to. They saw how carefree Johanna was without him.

That week, Juan was more obsessive than ever, trying to dictate her every move. She called Juan and cut the relationship off for good.

Johanna told her friends at cosmetology school, where she attended night classes, that she was relieved to be done with Juan. They made plans to go out and dance to celebrate.

I'm single, Johanna cheered.

Johanna was moving on.

But Juan would not allow it.

A few minutes after midnight on Feb. 16 he came to her bedroom window.

Johanna raised it to ask what he wanted.

Juan told her to stop talking so loud; he didn't want to get picked up for curfew. He climbed into her room.

Shut the f- up, he said covering her mouth.

He pulled two knives from his coat.

He held one to his throat.

Give me another chance, he demanded.