As the evening light slowly faded over Memorial Park on Friday, the family and friends of Daniel Piedra Garcia gathered on the lawn. Most of them wore green, Piedra’s favorite color. With embraces and soft greetings in English and in Spanish, the mourners paid homage to the memory of their husband, cousin, brother and tío.
Piedra, 52, died on Wednesday, five days after he was shot while working as an Uber driver. His passenger, Phoebe Copas of Kentucky, told El Paso police that she feared she was being kidnapped and taken to Mexico after seeing signs for the Juárez exit on U.S. Highway 54.
“Everyone needs to know who my uncle was,” his niece Didi Lopez said. “He’s not a criminal. He wasn’t trying to kidnap her. He was a humble man.”
The shooting occurred shortly after 2 p.m. June 16 on U.S. Highway 54 South near the César Chávez Border Highway section of Loop 375. An El Paso Police Department press release said that Copas had requested a ride from the Westside to a destination in the Lower Valley.
Copas, 48, was arrested and charged with aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury. That charge was changed to murder after the family took Piedra off life support on June 21. Copas is currently being held in the El Paso County jail on a $1.5 million bond, jail records show. A bond hearing is set for Thursday.
Investigators have said that there is no evidence to “support that a kidnapping took place or that Piedra was veering from Copas’ destination,” according to an EPPD press release.
Family members and some border experts believe outsiders’ false perception of the region as dangerous may have contributed to Copas’ actions.
“I think El Paso and Juárez combined have a bad reputation. There’s a wave of negative perceptions about both communities,” Richard Pineda, associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Texas at El Paso, said Monday. “I think that’s the real danger.”
A 2022 bulletin from the FBI field office in El Paso warned of “an increase of kidnapping for ransom extortion crimes in the borderland.” The victims of these schemes are typically non-U.S. citizens who are trafficked or smuggled from Mexico into El Paso, not from El Paso toward Mexico, the bulletin states.
Lopez said she believes that xenophobia and misconceptions about living at the border contributed to her uncle’s murder. She also criticized early commentary on social media that incorrectly speculated her uncle did not speak English.
“I wish that when people who don’t live here come, (they would) familiarize themselves or do their research before coming so that they would know that we are so close to the border and there are signs all over the freeway, so it doesn’t happen to anyone else,” Lopez said.
Imelda Belen, Piedra’s cousin, said she wants the world to know that El Paso is a safe place.
“We have to show the world that anyone can come to El Paso and nothing bad will happen to them,” Belen said. “We are not a city of criminals. El Paso is safe, El Paso is friendly. They don’t have to fear coming.”
Pineda, however, fears that even while people recognize the tragedy of Piedra’s death, the story may still stick in the public’s imagination as an example of danger at the border.
“I think that sort of fear will get replicated when the story is told. They’re gonna say it’s a horrible incident. But I don’t think people are going to say, ‘Well, that’s silly. Why did she even think that?’” Pineda said. “So I think the individual story is going to be used as a kind of a generalized cautionary tale, which I think is dangerous.”
Piedra’s brother-in-law, Rene Bueno, said the shooting has left many questions unanswered.
“There are a lot of questions still in the air,” Bueno said following the vigil at Memorial Park, 1701 N. Copia. “She could have done a lot of other things before shooting him.”
“(Copas) could have spoken up, she could have called the police, she could have used the panic button,” Lopez, Piedra’s niece, said.
The Uber app has an emergency assistance button that automatically connects riders with emergency services and provides vehicle location and plate information to first responders.
Copas did not call 911 before shooting Piedra, according to a police press release.
Copas’ family established a GoFundMe for her legal expenses, which has since been removed from the site.
Before it was removed, the petition’s organizer, who identified himself as Copas’ father, asked for help for his daughter, who had been involved in an “altercation” with an Uber driver. He described El Paso as one of the highest areas for human trafficking in the country.
‘A great human’
On Friday, Bueno and other relatives told stories about Piedra, emphasizing his generosity and willingness to help others. He never said no to anyone who needed a favor, his sister-in-law said.
“I am so angry that someone would take him from us,” his niece Liliana Piedra said. “He was such a great human.”
Belen said that he had been recovering from a knee surgery that he had as a result of a workplace injury.
“I told him last week to stop (driving Uber),” Belen said, noting that her concern at that time was for the condition of his health rather than for his safety. “He needed to rest.”
But he was still not able to return to his regular job at a local trucking company and his employer had demoted him and then stopped paying him around April or May, Belen said. He wanted to find a way to support his wife.
At Memorial Park, Belen clasped her hands to her chest as she addressed the crowd of mourners in Spanish. Nearby, Piedra’s wife, Ana Piedra, wept softly as Belen told stories of her husband’s unselfish nature.
Belen said that Piedra used to walk her home every night so she would not be alone, even getting sick after accompanying her in a rainstorm one evening.
“That was him, that was Daniel Piedra,” Belen said. “He never had any intention in his heart of doing her harm.”
Family members thanked the El Paso community for its support. They established a GoFundMe to help with medical and funeral expenses.
“We feel the community,” Lopez said. “A comment online that touched me a lot was someone (who said), ‘He’s our tío now, so let’s protect him.’ We are very appreciative of all the love.”