Tina Soto and her longtime boyfriend and father of her children, Steven, were childhood sweethearts, meeting when they were 15 and 19.
They had a well-kept home. Their three little girls, ages 4, 5 and 6, were button-cute. Tina, ever the fashionista, was vivacious and charming and found the perfect fit in a customer relations job.
But as the decade wore on, Steven became more controlling. He would tell her what to cook or tell her to change if he didn’t like a dress. He had to give approval for her to go to the store. She couldn’t have a cell phone, and was only able to call her family on the home phone when he was out at school.
Her aunt, Tucson Medical Center employee Rachel Tineo, would ask if everything was OK. Tina assured her everything was fine – at least until just after Mother’s Day in 2013, when she left, her three kids in tow, saying she had enough of the abuse and realized things weren’t going to change.
When Tineo asked why she didn’t say something earlier, her niece had two answers: She was afraid that he would retaliate by hurting her family. And she was ashamed – maybe because she knew Rachel had walked away from a domestic violence situation herself when she was pregnant with her second child 23 years ago; maybe because the women in the family are all strong.
There’s no way to know. A week later, Steven forced her car off the road in their neighborhood and shot three bullets into her head. She died instantly, with her two youngest girls screaming in the back seat. Her sister in the passenger seat suffered a non-fatal gunshot wound to the torso.
Her death caused other ripple effects through the family. Tina’s sister healed physically from the shooting, but turned to drugs for comfort and was sent to prison, leaving her son with his grandmother, Rachel’s sister, who is also raising Tina’s three girls.
The three little girls – far too young to have such profound and graphic loss – only know how to express the way they feel in their hearts by walking in Tucson’s All Souls Procession each year, carrying their mother’s photo. Rachel paints their faces and walks with them for the 2-mile parade to help keep Tina’s memory alive in the hearts of her family.
Tina will always be “Tina my baby” in her aunt’s cell phone, since Rachel can’t bring herself to erase the contact, and she will always be 25 in photos in Rachel’s office – even though Tina’s oldest daughter turned 10 this year.
And because her mommy was not there to celebrate her 10th birthday, Rachel threw her a grand birthday party to remember, full of family and friends. Rachel plans to have big milestone birthday parties for each of Tina’s daughters. In part, it’s to honor Tina’s memory, Tina and Rachel did almost all party planning and family gatherings together.
Through support from Homicide Survivors, Rachel found out about Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse, a nonprofit providing crisis intervention, housing, support and advocacy to anyone experiencing domestic abuse. TMC and Emerge! are participating in Paint Pima Purple, an effort in conjunction with the Pima County Attorney’s Office, Pima County and the City of Tucson to raise awareness about domestic violence throughout the month of October.
“If I had known about Emerge! then, her story might have been different. Maybe we would have a survivor’s story to tell. We don’t. And now my mission in life is to share with other people what happened, to try to inspire them to get help before it’s too late,” Tineo said.
Tineo has become a speaker advocate for the organization. “I really want Tina’s story to be told so that people understand lives really are at stake. Because she didn’t know about the resources that were available to her, she didn’t have a choice. I want others to have a choice – and a chance for a different story.”
Tucson Medical Center CEO Judy Rich is a former Emerge! board member. The nonprofit hospital, which was honored with an award as part of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week this year, has partnered for nearly two decades to provide compassionate care to survivors of sexual assault and strangulation.