Brother of slain boy becomes Ill. officer
For Jason Contreras, becoming a police officer means more to him than most would understand
The Beacon-News, Aurora, Ill.
AURORA, Ill. — Early Monday morning, the Aurora City Council chamber was filled with proud family and supportive friends as 10 young men, standing ramrod straight in their dark suits and ties, were sworn in as Aurora's newest police officers.
Cellphones clicked. Cameras rolled. Parents beamed. And only hugs outnumbered the handshakes going around the room.
But most of the attention, certainly from the media, was focused on the second young man who took this oath on a snowy Martin Luther King Jr. Day … for no one knew more personally than he did the impact a police badge can have on a family and a community.
Jason Contreras was only 3 years old when in November 1996 his older brother Nico was shot and killed while asleep in his bed at their grandmother's house.
If you know even the basic outline of Aurora's ugly history with gang violence, you probably recognize the name of little Nico. And you likely are familiar with his sweet face, as well, for this 6-year-old child's senseless murder became a rallying cry that set off a wave of anti-gang activism in the community.
While Jason was barely old enough to remember the night his brother was slain or the immediate aftermath, he spent the next two decades as a member of a close-knit family as determined to seek justice for Nico as the police department and prosecutors who eventually got convictions for the two men responsible.
Elias Diaz — who authorities say planned the shooting and drove the getaway car — was found guilty in 2008 and sentenced to 60 years in prison. Mark Downs, who fired the gun into the bedroom — reportedly Nico's uncle was the target, whom they believed was a rival gang member — was convicted in 2009 and received a 70-year sentence.
The murder not only became an integral part of Aurora's dark history and road to redemption, it also came to define much of this family's story — as they became involved with law enforcement, clergy and other activists trying to stem the tide of gang violence that had ripped apart the community. So it's no wonder there were so many family members gathered in the council chamber to watch this young man being sworn in as an Aurora police officer.
And there is little surprise why this celebration — including those hugs, smiles and tears — was also for a little boy who, only in death, had a chance to make his mark in the world.
Jason's mother, Sandi Saltijeral, admitted she was "scared out of my mind," when Jason announced his senior year of high school he wanted to become a police officer. But trying to change his mind was futile, she said, because when "Jason makes up his mind to do something," there is no talking him out of it.
"And I know how much he wants to make a difference,how much he wants to help people," said Saltijeral, who moved to Chicago several years ago but remains tightly connected to the Aurora community.
There is "no doubt" Jason gravitated to law enforcement because of Nico, said his father, Javier Contreras. Jason was a Plano High School student when the men accused of his brother's murder came to trial. After graduating with a degree in law enforcement from Western Illinois University, he joined the Plano Police Department in the fall of 2016. But his goal, the family told me, was always to be part of Aurora's force, which had played such a vital role in his life.
"Becoming an Aurora cop means a lot to him and to all of us," Contreras said. "It is coming full circle for the family."
In addition to loved ones, there were plenty of city and county officials on hand who played an active role in the Nico case, including two Kane County assistant state's attorneys who have been working on it since the killers were arrested and who continue to deal with the ongoing appeals process.
"Something good came out of something really bad," noted Sal LoPiccolo, a 29-year veteran prosecutor who got to know Jason and the family as they faithfully attended all court proceedings through the years, and have had to endure so many emotions as appeals have snaked through the system.
His colleague agreed. "This was a horrible crime," said Mark Stajdohar, who has been a prosecutor for 17 years and admits he's grown particularly close to the family. "And seeing this (ceremony) helps."
As police liaison for the county's state's attorney's office, Linda Hagemann has also become personally involved. And as the longtime victims advocate gave Jason's mother a congratulatory hug, she reminded Saltijeral of the powerful impact her slain son has had on so many people in this community.
"Nico," she said, "will always have a special place in our hearts."
Now that his little brother is a member of the Aurora police force, the family could not be more proud.
"Jason knows who he is," said his beaming grandmother, Mary Saltijeral. "And I do not worry, for God will watch over him."
©2018 The Beacon-News (Aurora, Ill.)