EAST CHICAGO — Within two weeks of meeting, Daniel and Julie Aviles knew they would one day marry.
The pair said “I do” on June 14, 1997, after nine months of dating.
“I was so sure he was going to be my husband,” Julie said. “And I was right.”
The couple would only celebrate four wedding anniversaries before Daniel was gunned down in a drive-by shooting July 13, 2001. He died the next day at St. Catherine Hospital in East Chicago.
Eighteen years later, his death is still unsolved.
‘A normal night’
That evening, Julie said the family was about to watch a movie at their Griffith home when Daniel received a call from his brother, Joey, about 10 p.m., asking if he would pick him up from work.
As he left, Julie said Daniel turned to their 3-year-old son, who has Down syndrome, and told the boy, “You’re the man of the house now.” A statement almost foreshadowing what was to come.
“It was just a normal night, you know — until it wasn’t,” Julie said.
Daniel stopped to pick up another brother, Samuel Aviles, from their mother’s home in East Chicago.
A few blocks from the residence, a white Chevrolet Trailblazer drove by the pair, flashing its headlights on and off as it passed. Daniel was confused but kept driving.
While Daniel was stopped at 148th Street and Wegg Avenue, the Trailblazer returned and a passenger opened fire on the brothers. Nine bullets pelted the vehicle, with the last striking Daniel in the left side. His son’s car seat sat in the back.
Daniel drove away from the intersection. But he later gave the driver’s seat to an uninjured Samuel, who took the pair to the hospital and called their sister, Joann Gonzalez, to let her know what happened, so she could tell the family.
About 30 minutes after Daniel left their home, Joann’s name appeared on Julie’s phone.
“I answered the call and all I hear is, ‘Danny’s been shot,’” Julie recalled. “My heart dropped.”
Hospital officials told the family that the bullet had ricocheted inside of Daniel, causing damage to several of his organs. He died a short time after surgery, which caught relatives by surprise.
“He was in pain, but he was talking,” Joann recalled. “I had just seen him. … I didn’t think that was going to be the last time I spoke to him, but it was — and that just kills me.”
“We knew it was critical,” Julie added. “But none of us expected that.”
Julie said police never spoke with her or to Daniel before he succumbed to his injuries.
‘It just got under my skin'
For several years after Daniel’s death, the case remained a mystery for East Chicago investigators despite claims from the family that they knew who was responsible.
Joann said a friend, who is now deceased, had been inside the Trailblazer the night of the shooting and told her that Daniel was mistaken for someone else with the same type of vehicle. Her brother had just been “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Aida Gonzales, the children’s mother, said she attempted to record the alleged confession — which occurred a few years after the shooting — but the cassette was blank when she later tried to listen to it. It was then turned over to investigators to see if they could obtain anything.
The family said they don't know where the tape is or whether anything was ever retrieved.
The case shuffled between various investigators before it landed in the hands of former East Chicago Detective David Gemeinhart in 2009. The 8-year-old file only contained an offense report, said Gemeinhart, who was determined to find justice for the family.
“I thought, ‘Where’s the rest of it?’ ... It just got under my skin,” Gemeinhart said. “I don’t want to bash my ex-department, but the case was kind of handled crappy. I pretty much had to rebuild it from the ground up. It had gone cold at that point.”
He then spoke with the family and several witnesses — some who had never been interviewed before by police. Gemeinhart said he put up a billboard asking for tips, collected new evidence and even tracked down two suspects. He just needed charges to be filed.
“(Gemeinhart) is the best,” Aida said. “I never felt confident about the case until he came on. ... He was the only who took it seriously.”
Around this time, Gemeinhart said the Police Department was investigating several gang-related cases with help from the U.S. attorney’s office under the RICO Act. He believed the circumstances surrounding Daniel’s death met the qualifications for federal indictment.
Gemeinhart said investigators were hoping to get “more bang for your buck” by pursuing charges in federal court, where judges often impose loftier sentences.
In 2014, he started working with Jason Gore, an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. However, Gemeinhart never heard back from Gore. Daniel’s family, who were interviewed and provided evidence to the agent, didn’t either.
"Per policy, I can not comment on an ongoing investigation," Gore said in an email Wednesday to The Times.
The case fizzled federally, Gemeinhart said. But he’s never understood why.
“I thought we had enough for charges,” Gemeinhart said. “It’s just never gotten to that point.”
Since it has never officially been presented to the Lake County prosecutor’s office, Gemeinhart remains hopeful that those responsible eventually will face criminal charges. He’d like to work with his former agency to re-examine the case and finally find justice for the family.
Lt. Detective Brian Paine, who is familiar with Gemeinhart and the investigation, said he plans to assign a detective to the case in the near future, having just come into his position in June 2019. He declined to comment on the department’s efforts in trying to solve the case.
“We’ll go through the case from A to Z and kind of see where we’re at,” Paine said. “Our ultimate goal is to bring anybody involved to justice, as would be for any murder investigation. We take all investigations seriously, and hope to bring some justice to the family. We’ll present it the best we can, but then it’s up to the courts to take it from there.”
‘I can’t let it go’
Aida avoided the intersection where the shooting occurred for years after Daniel's death.
“It was just too hard,” she said. “It still is. … It is the worst thing that has ever happened to me.”
Aida is flooded with emotion each time she discusses the fatal shooting, with tears stinging the corners of her eyes at just the thought of Daniel — her “sweet, sensitive and loving boy.”
But despite the pain of rehashing old wounds over and over, she continues to search for answers and won’t stop until she has them. Neither will Julie.
“I can’t let it go,” Julie said.
Like Aida, Julie said she didn’t feel confident in the various East Chicago investigators until Gemeinhart took over the case and wishes the Police Department would allocate resources toward finally solving it, especially since he is retired.
“I know that every case isn’t going to be solved,” Julie said. “But at least from the Police Department show me some effort of what’s been done. Nothing happened for the first eight years. … That’s where my anger is.
“My husband was a lifelong East Chicago resident. He wasn’t a thug or a gangbanger. Why are you treating him as if he was? Even if he was, it shouldn’t matter. I just don’t get it.”
Julie said the hardest part of Daniel’s death is seeing their four children — three daughters and one son — grow up without him, especially since he had been such an active father.
“His children were everything to him. They were his main concern after he was shot and kept asking about them,” Julie said. “He’s a grandfather now, but he’ll never know it. It’s so cruel. … They were little — only 3, 7, 10 and 13 — and to this day, it still hurts. It’ll never stop.”
“I just love him so much. He was such a good son and always wanted me to be happy,” Aida added. “I know he wouldn’t want to see me cry and in pain, but we just want justice for him."