HOUSTON—It was before dawn on Christmas Eve when a drunk driver struck the police cruiser on Houston’s far southeast side, flipping the SUV and trapping two officers inside. Leaking gas, it caught fire, the officers desperately trying—and failing—to escape.
Then came Juan Carlos Salgado Villalobos. Hearing the crash from his nearby apartment, he and another man, Oscar Flores, ran toward the burning wreckage and saw the cops inside. Officers Alonzo Reid and John Daily were fighting and screaming for their lives. Salgado punched through a window with his right fist, breaking his hand, and freeing Reid. Daily was freed minutes later, but remains unconscious at a local hospital with burns on more than half of his body, according to police. It will be a struggle to survive, let alone return to the streets that the 25-year-old cop was patrolling the night his life changed forever.
After the officers escaped, Salgado left the scene, leaving Flores to take credit for the pair’s heroic efforts.
Sixteen days later, just before 7 p.m, Salgado was walking across the exact same section of busy five-lane road of unlit asphalt when two cars struck and killed him. Houston police who responded didn’t know then that Salgado had also helped save their fellow officers’ lives just two weeks before.
“Our hearts are broken because we didn’t have the opportunity to thank him while he was alive,” Assistant Chief Troy Finner said at Salgado’s funeral in front of a closed casket on Saturday.
More than 50 of Salgado’s family and friends listened to Finner from worn, wooden pews inside Santana Funeral Home under bright blue skies. Many crying, they filmed and took photos of Finner and assistant chiefs Pete Lopez and Henry Gaw, all of them dressed in pressed blues and polished patent leather oxfords—the same uniform they would wear to any officers’ funeral.
“From the hearts of our family and friends, I give my most sincere and profound support and profound gratitude for you being here in this sad time,” Gilberto Marin, a cousin through marriage of Salgado, told the police chiefs. “We appreciate all of your generosity, not only toward our family but also to our Latin community.”
It was clearly a moment of pride for Marin, a U.S, citizen, and the others in attendance. Here were three of the city’s highest-ranking cops, paying homage to Salgado, an undocumented immigrant, according to Marin’s son, John Alexander Marin.
“All the negative things we hear all over the country about the spirit of the immigrants—we know you are loving, good, God-fearing people who we love,” Finner assured Salgado’s friends and family. “We love you.”
After learning of Salgado’s death, Reid was too distraught to attend his savior’s funeral.
“I spoke to him yesterday,” Finner told Salgado’s family. “He wanted to come but he’s so emotional because he couldn’t say thank you to Juan. He didn’t want to break down in front of you all.”
A local reporter tracked down Salgado, and found him back at work cutting grass the day after saving Reid and Daily’s lives, his right hand swollen to the size of a baseball thanks to the window he punched out to free the cops.
"How am I going to leave a person in need? We're all people," Salgado told KPRC-Houston’s Joel Eisenbaum.
That day, he wore a shirt that read Love knows no borders. But the story didn’t run until after Salgado died.
“I just talked to this man less than three weeks ago—he was friendly, he was unassuming, certainly wasn’t seeking the spotlight,” Eisenbaum said of Salgado after he was killed. “I think this really is tragic.”
Like many undocumented immigrants, Salgado lived a quiet, humble life. He worked and he sent money home to his mother in the far southern Mexican state of Guerrero, keeping to himself, according to family. The night he died, Salgado was walking across Telephone Road to La Michoacana Meat Market—a bustling one-stop shop for the area serving tacos al pastor, carnitas, barbacoa, menudo and other Mexican favorites—to grab dinner, according to family.
On the police report detailing his final moments after he was struck in the road, Salgado is listed simply as a Hispanic male, name “UNKNOWN.” In the “injury severity” column, police marked K for killed. The first driver who struck Salgado told police he didn’t see him until it was too late. He hit Salgado, then pulled over and ran toward him while calling 911. A second driver didn’t see Salgado until “she was already on top of him,” according to the report.
A cross marks the spot now. It bears a picture of Salgado smiling, wearing a Texas Rangers hat.
Following his death Salgado’s family learned just how expensive it would be to send his body back home to Guerrero, where his mother waits to bury her son. John Alexander Marin, Gilberto’s son and Salgado’s cousin through marriage, is leading efforts to raise the necessary funds.
“Someone told me I should have put that he was undocumented on the page in addition to saying he saved those officers, and maybe that would help,” Marin said of the GoFundMe page he started.
So far, the family has raised less than $500 of a $9,000 goal.
“Before I got involved the family was going door-to-door asking people for donations,” Marin told The Daily Beast.
For now, Salgado’s resting place is a funeral home off the interstate in one of the fastest-growing, most diverse cities in the country; a place where daily complexities bely the simplistic, fear-mongering rhetoric about undocumented immigrants from the president in Washington.
The three police chiefs at Salgado’s funeral said didn’t know whether he was undocumented. More to the point, they didn’t care. “There’s no such thing as a sanctuary city,” Gaw said following the service. “If you break the law, we hold you accountable whether you’re documented or not.”
Lying in a casket on Saturday, Salgado was given a public service award from the Houston Police Department. In death, it was documentation of his service and contributions to this city and country that he never received in life.
Salgado’s sister cried as she thanked the chiefs. They responded by offering their gratitude to her fallen brother.
“I just want to say thank you to the family,” Finner said. “For the Houston Police Department and the city of Houston, our immigrant population is our family. Juan simply saved lives on the 24th. Just understand that once you become a part of the Houston police family, you are always a part of the Houston police family.”
Editor’s Note: Juan Carlos Salgado’s family is raising money to bury him body to Mexico through GoFundMe.