Chicago EMT Who Rebuilt his Life After Prison May Lose It All After Police Shooting

© Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/TNS A woman talks to a member of the Chicago Police Department at the scene of a police-involved shooting on September 9, 2016, in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago.
© Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/TNS A woman talks to a member of the Chicago Police Department at the scene of a police-involved shooting on September 9, 2016, in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago.

For 10 years, Michael Arquero built a new life after leaving prison. He changed his name, found a job he loved, married a woman he loved even more, had two sons and settled into a nice home in Avondale away from the streets where he ran with gangs.

But a split-second decision last weekend threatens to tear all that apart.

Arquero, 33, was at a food stand in the Humboldt Park neighborhood on Sept. 9 on an errand for his pregnant wife who had a late-night craving for tacos, according to police and his family. Just before midnight, a Honda Civic circled the 2500 block of West Division Street two or three times before someone inside started shooting, hitting Arquero, according to police and court records.

Arquero fired back, killing the 18-year-old driver, police said. Two plainclothes officers heard the gunfire, pulled up and fired at Arquero, possibly hitting him, too, according to police.

Arquero, an EMT who works for a private company, began treating himself at the scene and was taken to Stroger Hospital, where he underwent surgery for four gunshot wounds. His wife said Arquero often works in the Englewood neighborhood and carried the gun for protection.

“His first instinct was, ‘I have people here I have to protect,'” said Melissa Betancourt, pregnant with the couple’s third child. “He’s not a bad guy whatsoever. He doesn’t take lives, he saves them. He puts others’ needs before his.”

Arquero’s troubles were only beginning, though.

Police sought to charge him with first-degree murder, but prosecutors declined, calling the shooting self-defense. However, the state’s attorney’s office did agree to charge him with unlawful use of a weapon by a felon. Arquero’s past had caught up with him.

Arquero was somehow able to buy a gun and obtain a concealed-carry permit despite his arrest record, which includes a conviction for attempted murder and aggravated assault of a police officer that sent him to prison for five years, according to his family and court records.

His arrest record is under the name of Michael Travisano. He changed it after he got out of prison in 2008, taking his mother’s maiden name, according to his family and records on file with the Cook County clerk’s office.

A year later he married Betancourt while living with his mother in New Jersey, records show. The couple eventually moved into a home in Avondale owned by his wife’s parents. Arquero attended EMT training classes at Malcolm X College and got a job with ATI Ambulance, which said it was aware of his record.

“To now be in this situation, where he’s worked so hard to avoid exactly this,” said ATI coordinator Cynthia Brier, who hired Arquero. “In a way, I feel like this one night kind of negates all that, 10 years of his life.”

Officially, Chicago police have not released many details from that night at Guerrero’s Tacos and Pizza, and have not said why they sought murder charges even though Arquero was shot first, according to court records.

Betancourt said she and her husband had been at a wedding Friday and got back late. She had a craving for tacos, so Arquero drove down California Avenue to the small restaurant at Division and Maplewood Avenue.

Arquero was standing with his sister and his sister’s friend when the Civic rolled past around 11:30 p.m. and someone inside opened fire, according to police and court records. There had been some kind of commotion at the restaurant earlier, according to a law enforcement source familiar with the investigation.

Arquero was hit and fired back with a 9 mm handgun, “subsequently shooting and killing” the driver of the car, 18-year-old Luis A. Rodriguez, according to a police report and court records. Rodriguez died on the scene and the passenger fled.

Two gang investigations officers heading away from the restaurant heard the shots and made a U-turn, the source said. They ordered Arquero to drop the gun, but he wouldn’t stop firing, the source said. “In fear for their lives and that of the general public, the officers fired their duty weapons,” the report said. It was unclear if they hit him.

As Arquero was under guard at Stroger, police sought murder charges, but they were rejected, according to state’s attorney spokeswoman Tandra Simonton, who said the office determined Arquero shot in self-defense.

“This was not murder,” she said. Instead, Arquero was charged with unlawful use of a weapon by a felon because of his record.

Chicago and state police issued a statement Friday afternoon saying they were investigating how Arquero was able to get a concealed-carry permit under his new name when a fingerprint check should have uncovered his record under his previous name.

Arquero, in a wheelchair, appeared in court Friday morning on the charge. It was the first time he saw his wife since Saturday at the hospital. Arquero smiled a little and lifted his right hand and waved.

He wore a yellow jail jumpsuit and had bandages on his left calf and foot, his neck and on one of his arms. He said only, “Yes, ma’am,” when Judge Ann O’Donnell asked him if he had asked for a different attorney.

Minutes later, Arquero again waved as a deputy slowly turned his wheelchair and pushed him back to the lockup.

This has been a double shock for Betancourt, a health-care supervisor. She hadn’t known about her husband’s past until the shooting. But she says it hasn’t changed how she feels about him.

“Who doesn’t have a past?” she asked the Tribune in an interview. “He became a man that’s a law-abiding citizen. He’s like a cuddly teddy bear. When you have his friendship, he’s so loyal. He’s loyal to his medic friends, to his cop friends. He’s redeemed himself.

“I worked so he could go to school and he worked so I could go to school,” she continued. “He works nights so I can work days . . . Michael Arquero is the man I married. The family man. I don’t know that other person. That was when he was a young kid. It’s just life. Of course, you hang out with the wrong crowd as a kid, but why should that matter now?

“He’s done great for his family,” she continued. “He changed his whole life around and not a lot of people can do that. He has a great job — not just doing anything — but saving lives. I’m in love with him. He’s my best friend and he’s been with me in the good and bad times. There’s nothing I could hear that would change that. The other person, that’s not who I know. It honestly doesn’t matter to me. ”

After the hearing, Betancourt questioned the actions of the police, claiming bullets from the officers struck her husband in the back. “They shot a medic,” she said.

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Source: Chicago Tribune | Katherine Rosenberg-Douglas, Rosemary Regina Sobol and Jeremy Gorner