Three and a half years before Marco Romero’s fatal shootout with police on the Boise Bench, a 4th District judge warned him that he was on a path toward destruction.
Judge Deborah Bail’s admonition foreshadowed what may be remembered as one of the Treasure Valley’s most violent crime sprees.
“Addiction is a major part of your life, and it leads to all sorts of problems for others and you,” Bail told Romero during his sentencing in May 2013 for felony leaving the scene of an accident.
“You’re very out of control when you’re using. It’s hard to see that you have changed directions — it’s not clear to me because, really, your history is so bad.”
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Bail gave Romero up to five years in prison. He served about three before he was released in late January 2016. Then from late July to October, he was jailed on a parole violation.
A month later, he unraveled.
Romero shot four people and a police dog in two separate incidents. He paralyzed two victims: Boise Police Cpl. Kevin Holtry, who also lost a leg, and Melinda Salas, one of his longtime friends. Between the shootings, he carjacked an 89-year-old motorist.
The violent four days followed years of drug addiction and poor decisions by the 33-year-old father of two. But no one expected how Bail’s warning would actually play out.
Holtry is now back in Boise after more than two months of grueling rehabilitation work at a Colorado hospital. He said he doesn’t wonder about Romero’s past or what brought him to his last desperate moments on the Boise Bench.
“The guy is a meth user. He’s a gang member. He’s a criminal. He victimizes people. Plain and simple,” Holtry told the Statesman. “I guess if you’re a psychologist, you could look at it and go long term and say, ‘He didn’t get enough hugs when he was a kid.’
“Whatever it is, that’s his life. That’s what he does.”
Romero started drinking alcohol at 11 and became a daily drinker, according to parole records. He then tried marijuana, LSD, mushrooms, cocaine and meth, using the latter daily by the time he was 13.
“He struggled with addiction his whole life,” said Michelle Amber Hill, the mother of his two children.
Romero’s family lived in Billings, Mont., during his early childhood, said younger sister Felicia Hernandez, now 32. Their parents eventually split up, and their mother took the three kids to live near family in Boise.
Their father died before they were teenagers.
Romero, a skateboarder who once dreamed of being a pro skater, was in and out of juvenile detention throughout his childhood. Topping out at 5-foot-4, he was a tiny man with an outsized personality.
“It started with him rebelling against his mom. He would turn to the streets,” said Hill, who first met Romero when they were both 14, at a Downtown Boise dance club called Bogie’s. “His mom was pretty strict.”
Arrests in his court record date back to 1996. As a teen, he was charged with marijuana possession, tobacco possession, alcohol consumption and providing false information to an officer.
Hernandez, who also described herself as a troubled kid, said their hardworking mother did the best she could under difficult circumstances.
Romero went to Fort Boise Mid High, an alternative junior high that has since closed. He was in the school’s “Work and Learn Program” from 1997 to 2000, according to school district records.
He dropped out in February 2000, before finishing 10th grade, and indicated in court documents that he later earned a GED. He trained to be a welder in Job Corps, Hernandez said.
Romero spent so much of his youth and young adulthood in jail or prison that he never really learned how to function without the structure and supervision, his two sisters said. He became increasingly demoralized, felt like a failure and lost hope, they said.
They said he told authorities that he didn’t want to be released from jail last fall.
“He told them he was not ready,” said Jenilee Lopez, 34, his older sister.
In and out of prison
Romero’s two children are now 11 and 9, and they are struggling, their mother said. They found out about their father’s shootout and death through a TV report, when they saw one of their aunts sobbing at the scene on Irving Street.
“It destroyed my kids,” Hill said. “One of the newspeople got their pictures on Facebook. Kids tease them about what happened with their dad.”
The children had already gone without seeing their father during his longest stint in jail and prison, from October 2012 to January 2016.
“The last time he went to prison ... I had just had enough,” Hill said. “He still called and talked to his kids. That’s how they communicated.”
In all, Romero spent at least seven years incarcerated. He struggled with rules while he was in prison and had trouble staying clean when he was out.
His voluminous criminal record includes more than 20 arrests. He was convicted of possession of a controlled substance, driving without a valid license, reckless driving, and possession of a concealed weapon.
In a 2012 case, he was charged with four felonies and three misdemeanors, including robbery, grand theft and an enhancement for use of a deadly weapon. That case was consolidated with another, and all but one charge was dismissed in a plea deal; he pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance.
Two people were injured, one seriously, in the hit-and-run crash Bail sentenced Romero for in 2013. He was absconding from parole at the time.
“Your honor, due to my selfishness, I put a couple of people’s lives in danger,” said Romero.
At a parole hearing in April 2015, Hernandez told the hearing board that she had been out of her brother’s life because she didn’t approve of his lifestyle.
“If released, they have a job for him and a place to live but he has to make the decision to change,” the minutes from that meeting read.
On release in early 2016, Romero spent time with his family. He posted photos and video of his kids on Facebook, including one of his son shaving his head.
In a June post, he talked about a trip home with his mother to see family in Billings — the first time in almost a decade, he said. He wrote of “feeling right at home” and said he couldn’t “wait to get to the picnic and see some family itll be real nice.”
Romero’s last public Facebook post was on July 24. He said he had to go see his probation officer.
“I really have not done one thing I was supposed since I got back from Montana. I guess I’m ready to face the reality of heading back [to prison],” he wrote. His concluding comment about the need for sober friends to hit him up if he got out brought positive responses from about 10 people, some of whom encouraged him to contact them.
Hill was arrested on drug charges Feb. 15, about two weeks after speaking with the Statesman for this story. She was pulled over while driving in Nampa; she told the officer that she was wanted on a warrant related to a petit theft case from 2016, the probable cause affidavit says.
Investigators said they found a meth pipe in Hill’s purse, as well as a plastic bag with white crystal residue and a container with “a leafy green substance” in bags. The contents of those items tested presumptive positive for meth and marijuana. Hill told police that she’s been using meth since she moved to Nampa two years ago, officers said in the affidavit.
Hernandez says Hill and Romero’s children are currently being cared for by their grandmother. Hill, who bonded out of jail, has pleaded not guilty to the charges, online court records show.
Good employee, but odd behavior at work
Romero worked different construction jobs over the years. His last job was as a polisher on the 2-10:30 p.m. shift at Advanced Marble & Granite Inc. in Meridian.
He worked there from early February to early June. He quit because he had failed a drug test, leading to one of his stints in jail.
“To be honest with you, he was a good employee,” said Don Massey, owner of Advanced Marble, who described Romero as generally punctual, productive and quiet. “He seemed to come in and do his work. I didn’t hear a lot of complaints.”
After the shooting, a couple of Advanced Marble employees talked about some odd behavior.
“I think toward the end, he thought a couple of his immediate supervisors were working for the FBI, trying to frame him,” Massey said. “He went a little off the wall on us.”
Massey said he heard Romero wrote a letter of apology to his coworkers from jail. Some were too afraid to come to work when he was on the lam, Massey said.
“They were worried that he was going to come after them for some reason,” Massey said. “There was definitely people who knew him and liked him but were scared of him. When he wasn’t on drugs, he was cool and kind, and a normal person. But I think it was on meth that he would change.”
Hernandez said Romero kept saying he believed he was being followed by federal agents. She asked him why they’d be following him, and he said he didn’t know. She told him not to worry about it.
Massey said he didn’t know Romero had a substance abuse problem. He said he has hired people in the jail/prison work release program for about a decade.
“We like to think that we’re giving them a second chance,” he said.
Romero goes ‘crazy’
On the night of Nov. 8, Marco Romero snapped — violently.
Earlier that month, Romero had a confrontation with his older sister, Jenilee Lopez, over several things, including their father’s guitar — one of their few mementos of him. The altercation got physical, and he shoved Lopez into a table hard enough to leave bruises on her back, she said.
He showed up unannounced at Hernandez’s residence on Nov. 8. He was so upset about the fight with his older sister, and a call from his mother about it, that he broke down in tears.
Hernandez said she spent the day with him, then took him over to his friend’s place to hang out and spend the night. They were all drinking and playing cards before things turned violent.
“I couldn’t tell you why [it happened]. I think about it every single day,” said Hernandez, who also found herself dodging bullets from a gun held by the brother she loved dearly. She was not injured during the shooting.
Salas and Castaneda declined to talk with the Statesman.
One of the first officers on scene said Salas had a gunshot wound to her back. In Facebook posts over the past few months, Salas has talked about missing the use of her legs. She said she used to love to dance in a video posted on March 12.
Castaneda had gunshot wounds on his right upper thigh and shin. At the hospital, police asked Castaneda why Romero had shot him.
“[He] continuously told me he didn’t know, claiming he was sitting on the couch watching television and drinking a beer when all of the sudden his ears started ringing and he’d been shot,” Officer Dustin Moe said in his report.
Asked again later, Castaneda said only that Romero was “high as hell” and “sounding paranoid.” He insisted Romero had no grudge against him. He finally told police that mentions of the Norteno gang may have triggered Romero.
Regardless of whether Romero once belonged to a gang — he denied such involvement in parole hearing records — investigators weren’t able to conclude whether that played any part in the shooting, Meridian Police Deputy Chief Tracy Basterrechea said.
Sgt. Christopher McGilvery tried to talk to Hernandez about the shooting. He said in his report that she was hysterical.
“Each time someone would call her, she would tell them that Marco had gone ‘crazy’ and had tried to kill her and had shot two of her friends,” McGilvery wrote. “She would tell whoever she was on the phone with that they were in danger because she believed Marco was going to try to ‘settle’ the score with anyone he thought ‘had done him wrong.’”
She told police her brother was an IV drug user and noted that he had been acting strangely in the days leading up to the shooting, “making statements about being done with everything, proclaiming he was not going back to prison, and suggesting his various associates were ‘snakes.’ ... and he was going to make sure they get what they deserved.”
Romero made strange faces and mumbled in the minutes before he drew the handgun and began firing.
Hernandez told police that she did not believe Romero was high or intoxicated — he was delusional.
Among the evidence police collected from the shooting scene: a small baggie containing a white crystal substance, a clear glass smoking pipe with white residue, and three cellphones, including two that had broken screens.
Investigators never determined whose drugs and paraphernalia that was, Basterrechea said. No one else in the apartment was charged with any crimes.
For two days, Romero disappeared.
Carjacking: ‘He was polite.’
On Nov. 10, Romero popped up in the backseat of an elderly woman’s car as she was driving away from the fitness center at the Touchmark at Meadow Lake Village retirement community.
At nearly 90, the feisty Meridian great-grandma gardens, cooks all her meals and bakes homemade bread. She was headed home from twice-weekly pool exercises when she heard a male voice.
“Ma’am, could I get you to pull over to the curb. I need some cash,” the man said.
The voice was soft and gentle.
“It did not scare me,” the woman recalled. She turned to look at the man’s face — it was Marco Romero, whom she recognized from the newspaper the day before.
He made no aggressive actions toward her, she said, and he never touched her. But she instinctively felt that if she stayed in the car, she’d be a dead woman.
“I said to him, in a very loud voice, ‘I’m leaving. I’m not staying in this car, I’m getting out of this car,’” she said.
She stood outside the car, shaking from the rush of adrenaline. Romero slipped into the driver’s seat. Without prompting, he handed over her cane and water bottle.
“He was not scary to me, other than I knew what he did to someone else,” she said. “He was polite. He didn’t threaten me.”
At first, a witness in the car behind the woman’s thought she was changing seats with the man. He told police it appeared Romero was helping the elderly woman and seemed to have a friendly demeanor.
“[The witness] said the male even waved at him and smiled,” Meridian Police Det. Seth Washburn wrote in his report.
The woman asked that her identity not be published in this story due to her family’s concerns about her safety. She does not wish to have any contact with Romero’s family, but there’s something she wants them to know: “There was a nice man inside of that body. ... He got on drugs, that’s all there was to it.”
Romero ended up with the woman’s purse, which she said had only $25 and gift cards for Applebee’s and Dutch Bros.
“I fed him that night,” the woman said.
She also lost her house key, cellphone and medical alert fob. Police pinged the latter two. The cellphone was found in Boise in a fenced lot at Bramblewood and Southdale, and the alert device on the side of the road along Victory west of Five Mile.
Though the woman is convinced that Romero wasn’t in her car when she left her house that morning, police were initially concerned that he might have gained access when it was parked in her garage.
“The Meridian police immediately sent a gentleman to my house to make sure that it was safe, and they called a person to change all my locks,” she said. “By the time I got home, three hours later, the house was totally safe, the police were still here, new locks, and everything was safe.”
She believes she forgot to lock her car when she arrived at the pool, just before 9 a.m. When the car was returned to her, she found a few things inside that weren’t hers, including a meth pipe. She didn’t feel comfortable in the car, so a few weeks later the pastor at her church organized a group blessing in it.
“It was the most wonderful thing,” she said.
‘I think about him because he died here’
On Nov. 11, someone spotted the woman’s car in an area north of Orchard Street and Overland Road. They called police, who eventually found Romero walking down a street. He took off running; police cornered him in a neighborhood along Irving Street, between Wilson and Roosevelt.
The police dragnet of the neighborhood was intense, with streets blocked off, officers standing watch with guns drawn and the Special Operations Unit doing a yard-to-yard search for hours.
Vern Lenz, a tech writer, was working at home that day. His wife saw Romero run through the backyard and pull himself over their fence. The SOU team was looking for Romero from their roof.
“One of the things that made it so odd was that we were involved — and not involved,” Lenz said.
The police cordon trapped Romero along Irving. He hid behind a pair of garbage cans outside of a rental house. Cpl. Kevin Holtry, part of the SOU, went to open a gate to let a police dog through when he caught a glimpse of Romero out of the corner of his eye.
Lenz was in an online chat with a project manager from work when the gunfire erupted outside his house.
Romero, said Holtry, was pointing a handgun up at him. Holtry had an assault rifle slung over his shoulder, but was too close to the fence to turn and engage. He tried instead to get some distance.
Romero began firing.
Holtry, part of the initial search after the stolen car was spotted, didn’t get a chance to put on his SOU gear. He was wearing a bulletproof vest and plates, but not that even the full SOU gear would have made a difference, he said, because of the bullet’s path.
“That first round went just below my belt in an upward trajectory,” he said. “I just went [down]. It paralyzed me, and I knew it right that second.”
Holtry used his arms to do a modified Army crawl down the driveway, ripping off the skin in the hopes of saving himself.
“It’s my understanding that he moved or stood up and was shooting me,” Holtry said. “I got shot in the leg, the femur, the hip, the stomach and another one in the butt.”
Holtry believes Romero was about to “finish him off” when Jardo — the heralded police dog — jumped on the fugitive. The dog was shot one time in the struggle. Jardo died less than a week later.
Other officers opened fire, including from the Lenzes’ roof. At some point, Boise Cpl. Chris Davis was hit in the leg.
Holtry’s fellow officers carried him to the SOU Bearcat, which sped off to Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center. As he was being loaded in the vehicle, he saw the baseball-sized hole below his left knee.
“I said, ‘Man, that’s going to be a real problem later ... I’m going to lose my leg,’” Holtry recalled.
He did later lose that leg below the knee. A rod currently holds his right leg together.
Romero was pronounced dead on arrival at Saint Alphonsus. Davis and Holtry saw each other in the hospital’s emergency room. Holtry had been there many times — but not as a patient.
“It was really surreal laying there on the table,” Holtry said. “I looked over at Chris and said, ‘You all right?’ He said, ‘Yeah, you doing all right?’ ”
Holtry blacked out soon after that exchange and woke up about 10 days later. He was told that a bullet that went into his stomach had hit an artery, but doctors had trouble finding the source of the bleeding.
“I had to go into (a radiology) lab, where they injected some dye into my veins, and then they could look at all the veins in 3-D,” he said.
He suffered a stomach infection after he woke. He described it as the worst pain he’s ever experienced. He was also so thirsty, he thought he might die.
“I thought I was in hell,” he said. “It took a couple weeks to get through that. But, eventually, the clouds parted, and I started feeling a lot better, and I was able to get out of bed.”
Why such sudden violence?
Romero’s distraught family members soon came to the neighborhood, gathering at the police line and speaking with officers.
Lenz read about them after the fact.
“How can you not feel for them?” he said.
He has also followed reports of Holtry’s treatment and rehab. He has wondered about Romero, whose actions mystified him.
“I think about him because he died here,” Lenz said.
One factor appears to be Romero’s long history with methamphetamine, which the Ada County coroner said his blood tested positive for at the time of his death. Throughout more than 20 criminal arrests and seven full years incarcerated, he kept returning to the drug and to other bad decisions.
“Delusions of persecution cause users to interpret normal behaviors of others as hostile and threatening,” The Meth Project’s website says in an explainer about methamphetamine and violence. Long-term effects of meth use can include psychosis, with paranoia and hallucinations, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Two of Romero’s friends chalk up his actions to drug-induced psychosis from methamphetamine and/or other drugs. (They didn’t want to be named publicly because of his crimes and their own checkered pasts.)
“I knew him when he wasn’t on drugs. He was a really good guy,” said one friend, a 32-year-old Boise State student who is two years sober after battling her own heroin/meth addiction. “He made jokes about everything ... He would go out of his way to help someone.”
Romero told the presentence investigator in the 2012 crash case that he was afraid drugs would kill him. While battling his own demons, he tried to help others, his friends said.
“There were times I wanted to give up on everything,” said a 28-year-old Boise man who knew Romero both in and out of prison. “He just told me, ‘You’ve got kids. Don’t make mistakes like me.’”
That friend lives and works on the Bench. He heard the gunshots that killed Romero, and said he did not attend Romero’s funeral for several reasons.
“He shot cops. I can’t condone that,” said the friend, a married father of two who noted that he has been sober about a decade. “He ruined people’s lives.”
Romero’s body was so riddled with bullets that at the funeral, his family was not permitted to see more than his arms, Hernandez said.
She said her family eventually also got permission for a quick, makeshift memorial in the driveway of the rental house where Romero was hiding before he died. The family did not run an obituary. They plan to bury his ashes in a family plot in Billings, Mont.
Hernandez said she still cries about his death every day.
“He was still a father, son, brother and good friend to those who knew him,” said Lopez, his other sister. “He was a person who should have had an obituary like everyone else.”
The neighborhood, shocked in the moment, has in large part moved on.
“I think we felt lucky we weren’t more directly involved,” said a resident of a house near where the shootout occurred. No one from her family, including two young children, was home at the time of the shooting.
“For us, we’ve mostly forgot about it,” she said.
Hard work at Colorado hospital
Holtry’s recovery was just starting.
His sister encouraged him to go to Craig Hospital in Colorado because of its specialization in neurorehabilitation. He began doing physical therapy in early January, about 10 days before leaving for Craig.
His time at Craig was grueling.
“It’s not summer camp. I wasn’t doing decoupage,” he said. “It was hard-ass work from 8 in the morning until 4 or 5 at night, except Saturdays and Sundays.”
Craig’s patients each arrived with different injuries, and outcomes were equally varied. Holtry recalled a 16-year-old boy who had broken his neck. The boy arrived as a full quadriplegic but regained his ability to walk with crutches and braces below the knee.
In the roughly 2 1/2 months, Holtry’s feeling increased about one vertebra. His paralysis began just above his belly button, and now it starts just below it.
“You gotta understand, especially about spinal cord injuries. ... You have zero idea if you’re going to get any sensation back,” he said. “It’s all hope and luck, really.”
He learned the basics of how to get around, to move in and out of car and plane seats, to shower. He also had to learn how to instruct other people to help him. The hospital learning environment was easier than what he’s experienced back in Boise.
“Craig is smooth, wide, flat,” he said. “The real world is narrow, bumpy and difficult.”
He said adjusting to his body’s new physical limitations has been harder than dealing with the psychological impacts of the shooting. He won’t say the name of the man who shot him — and he doesn’t spend any time thinking about him either.
“You know what I think about him?” Holtry said. “Honestly, I just hope that he’s in hell, and there’s 50 Jardos biting him over and over for all of eternity. I don’t waste one breath of my thoughts. I don’t think about him. I don’t do any of that. He’s done. It’s all over. It’s behind me. And I’m just moving forward.”
Return to Boise, return to work
Holtry was born in Nampa and grew up on the east side of the Valley, playing football at Meridian High School. He wanted to become the “next great American writer” when he was young.
He did a four-year stint in the Army, which helped him cover the costs of his literature degree. He minored in secondary education but was more interested in writing. For several years, he worked as a fishing guide, lived in a bunkhouse in Picabo and wrote for magazines.
Holtry’s cousin works for the Ada County Sheriff’s Office. After doing a couple of ridealongs, Holtry got interested in joining the force. He worked at the jail for about 18 months and had planned to stay at ACSO, but when he took a patrol test for BPD, he was offered a job in 1999.
The 49-year-old father has made his living there ever since.
Still a sworn peace officer, he’s looking forward to getting back to work — in the training department, he said.
“I have a lot to offer and a lot of experience, so I’ll be good to go there. I have no desire to go anywhere else,” he said.
But there will be adjustments.
His pain strikes unexpectedly. And often. He compares it to getting stabbed and electrocuted at the same time.
“Stabbed with an electrical rod,” he told the Statesman. Some spasms are light, but he has waves of pain that can last up to 30 seconds.
When it happens, he stops what he’s doing to focus on breathing techniques. The pain is around his waist.
“It feels like I’m wearing a big leather belt,” said Holtry, who continues to work with doctors on pain management. “It’s called banding pain. It’s not uncommon with lower motor neuron injuries. The real focal point is where my bullet entry is in my lower back.”
Of Romero’s five shots two bullets and a fragment are still in Holtry’s body.
Daily tasks that he once did mindlessly now require significant effort from a wheelchair. He hasn’t been back to his house since he left for work that November day — it’s been under renovation, and he’s stayed in a rental.
“Every single thing I do is hard,” Holtry said. He doesn’t expect to regain much of the feeling he lost from the waist down, but he plans to keep doing occupational therapy and hitting the gym with the determination of an athlete.
The Fraternal Order of Police set up a GoFundMe account for Holtry after the shooting, with a goal of $100,000. People are still donating to the account, which now stands at more than $88,000. The group also held its first-ever policeman’s ball to raise another $60,000 for Holtry.
All the letters and other support he’s received from the community have lifted his spirits, he said. He’ll be doing something fun with his buddies on his 50th birthday in July.
“Maybe do some parasailing?” Holtry said to a fellow officer and close friend who scooped him up off the street after he was shot.
“Drag racing?” his friend responded.
“Harley drag racing,” Holtry said. “We’ll figure something out.”
He boasted that he’ll be the most “badass wheelchair officer” at the Boise Police Department.
Are there others?
“No, that’s what makes it easy,” he said with a laugh. “When I say that, I say that kind of tongue-in-cheek. I’m going to be the most capable wheelchair guy I can be.”
Romero’s last week
Nov. 8: Marco Romero shoots two friends at the Cherry Lane Apartments in Meridian, then flees.
Nov. 10: Romero carjacks an 89-year-old woman in the parking lot of Touchmark at Meadow Lake Village retirement community. The woman was not physically harmed when he stole her car, purse and keys.
Nov. 11: Romero is spotted in the stolen car in a Boise Bench neighborhood. He ditches and flees on foot. He is killed in a shootout with police, but not before wounding Boise Cpls. Kevin Holtry and Chris Davis and K-9 Jardo. The police dog died about a week later.