- Mark Wilson American-Statesman Staff
Victoria Rocha had never visited downtown Austin to celebrate a major holiday before she and her fiancé arrived just before the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve.
After being hit by a stray bullet, she’s happy to have survived the adventure.
Rocha was hit by celebratory gunfire, a topic gaining attention after a state lawmaker was hit in the head by a reveler’s bullet that same weekend in South Texas. State Rep. Armando Martinez, D-Weslaco, has said in media reports that he expects to be recovered enough to attend when the legislative session starts Tuesday and is considering legislation that could possibly prevent injuries or deaths caused by celebratory gunfire.
Rocha is struggling to recover from her experience, which began after she and her fiancé got a late start New Year’s Eve. They finished dinner around 10:45 p.m., then headed downtown.
After struggling to find parking, the couple arrived at the intersection of Sixth and Brazos streets just in time. As 2017 began, the pair prepared to wade into the hustle and bustle of partyers filling the streets, but first she stopped to give her son a call.
She sat on a planter near the Driskill Hotel for the brief cellphone conversation. Just after hanging up, she heard a loud bang.
“It was exactly 12:03 a.m.,” she said. “You would think that, it being a gunshot, in my mind, everybody would be running and screaming. But it didn’t happen like that. Nobody knew I was hit. I didn’t even know I was hit.”
It wasn’t until Rocha tried to stand that she realized something was off. She pulled up her dress and found a hole in her leg.
“I kept asking out loud, ‘What is it? What is it?’” she said.
She was at University Medical Center Brackenridge within 20 minutes, getting a .45-caliber bullet pulled from her leg. Since the night she was shot, the pain has been unbearable, Rocha said. She can’t lift her leg or even put her shoes on by herself.
“It’s not fair,” she said. “These guns are to protect people, not to play around with. I just want to know why that night? Why me?”
Despite the shooting, Austin police officer Destiny Winston said celebratory gunfire hasn’t been a huge problem in the city, and authorities hope to keep it that way.
“What goes up must come down,” Winston said. “You don’t know who it could strike and the careless harm it could cause.”
Winston said it’s hard for authorities to know for sure when people are firing celebratory shots. Investigators don’t know it has happened unless it is specifically reported, she said.
Anyone who does fire a gun into the air can face a variety of charges, depending upon where their bullets land.
Declining to discuss specific techniques, Austin police Detective Paul Bigini said investigators have methods of tracking down shooters in such cases.
“I can say that we conduct a thorough investigation,” Bigini said, including processing physical evidence and talking to witnesses to link a shooting to a suspect “and determine if probable cause has been developed to support an arrestable offense.”
Winston said any time someone uses a weapon in a dangerous, threatening or reckless manner, it is a crime. People who fire a weapon into the air can be charged with felony or misdemeanor deadly conduct, depending upon the circumstances surrounding the incident.
If a bullet strikes someone, the charge becomes aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. If a person is fatally struck, the shooter can be charged with a criminal homicide.
Earlier this week, a South Austin man was charged after police said he fired rounds from a shotgun into the air to scare off neighbors who were celebrating the new year by setting off fireworks near Gold Moss Cove and Windrift Way. The man, identified by police as Shawn Smith, has denied firing the weapon, according to an arrest affidavit, but police said they believe he was the shooter based on cellphone footage and witness interviews.
“We ask people to be responsible, especially when it comes to firearms,” Winston said.
Rocha said police haven’t informed her of any suspects in her case and said she fears that she might never know who pulled the trigger.
“I could have been killed,” she said, calling for whoever fired the .45-caliber bullet in the air to come forward. “Why did you not think that it had to fall? Why did you not think that someone could get hurt?”