It might be 9 at night and Johnny Tirado would be out somewhere with his girlfriend. Or 7 in the morning and he’d be getting ready for work.
The phone would ring and Tirado would see that it was Joe Ramirez. Nine at night? Seven in the morning? Must be something important.
“I’d answer and he’d just start rapping some Eminem song,” Tirado said. “I’d be, like, really? Now? I’m busy, bro. And he’d just keep going. And he’d be like, ‘OK, now you take a verse.’”
And, because that’s what best friends do, Tirado would take a verse.
Tirado and Ramirez had been friends since their days on the wrestling team at Wasco High School. They’d been faithful workout partners and mutual motivators-in-chief. They shared a playful fantasy: hip-hop fame.
Now they share something else. Something terrible, something that defies reason or justice.
Twelve years ago Tirado’s mother was stabbed to death by her boyfriend. He was 9 when she died, a victim of domestic violence.
Today Tirado is 23 and his best friend has died, a victim of domestic violence.
Sunday afternoon in Wasco, Jose Manuel Ramirez III — Joe to most everyone who knew him — was murdered by his father. Also killed were Joe’s mother Viviana, his 17-year-old brother, Angel, and the Kern County Sheriff’s SWAT team member who valiantly tried to save them, Deputy Phillip Campas.
Also killed was the presumed shooter, Jose Manuel Ramirez Jr., 41.
Four others who’d been in the house, including Joe’s wife of two years, Sarai Ramirez, escaped.
As soon as Tirado found out what had happened he raced from his home in Tulare to the little yellow house in Wasco, which by then was quiet but riddled with bullet holes from the SWAT siege.
It was there, in vivid, agonizing detail, that Sarai told him what she later told me.
Sarai, 25, and her 24-year-old husband — she preferred to call him Jose rather than Joe — had been spending their Sunday afternoon as they spent most Sunday afternoons — in the studio apartment behind his parents’ house where they’d lived since July 2019, relaxing and doing laundry. But this was a special Sunday: Joe’s little sisters, Ami, 9, and Luna 7, had come over to help them enjoy their fluffy white Persian’s new litter of kittens, delivered just that morning.
But then they heard arguing coming from the main house, more intense than what they’d become accustomed to hearing. Joe — Jose III — decided to see if he could calm things down, and he walked over to the house.
After a few moments Sarai heard a burst of what sounded like gunfire. Terrified, she called 911 and, after a long lull of silence coming from the house, she told the dispatcher she had to check on her husband.
She found him inside, on the floor, bleeding from a wound to the back of his head.
“At that moment I knew there was nothing I could do anymore,” Sarai said.
"I stayed with him and I told him, ‘You're going to be OK. Help is on the way. I'm on the phone with them. Just stay with me.’ … I was preparing myself, if he doesn't make it, to be strong for him. And the last thing he said to me was, 'I love you.'"
Moments later her father-in-law approached from another room. It was only then that she was able to confirm what she had already feared: the shooter hadn't been some intruder.
Her husband’s father waved a gun in her direction as, with eerie composure, he ordered her to back away from his son.
"His dad was just telling me, 'Leave him alone, he's going to heaven. Don't touch him, just leave him there,'" she said.
The thought of her own mother finding her dead on the floor, as she had just found her husband, gripped her. If she stayed where she was, she told herself, that might happen.
Her father-in-law took away her cell phone and then walked to another room. She quietly tip-toed toward the door and, as soon as she felt she had the opportunity, bolted outside.
She hadn’t seen Angel or Viviana in the house but she later learned they had died there. But the little girls had escaped, along with Angel’s 17-year-old girlfriend.
Tirado joins the devastated survivors of the extended Ramirez family. But for him, the loss hits in a uniquely personal place.
His mother, Sandra Aparicio, 39, died after being stabbed inside a Shafter bar, Graddy’s Lounge, just after midnight on May 24, 2009. Shafter police arrested her 54-year-old boyfriend, Jose Rosario Aguilar Lopez of Bakersfield, and he was eventually convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 16 years in prison.
Tirado had been at his father’s house in Los Angeles at the time of the murder. After his father, an undocumented immigrant, was deported to Mexico a short time later, Tirado went to live with his sister.
“Joe was always supportive of me and what I’d gone through,” Tirado said. “That's what I loved about him, too — he knew I didn’t have anybody. ... So Joe reserved time for me. Every time I needed to speak to him, every time I needed some help, he was always there to talk to me. He would do stuff for me to get my mind off of things so I wouldn’t be depressed.”
That was his way, Sarai said.
“He was a positive person,” she said of her husband. “He was funny, he was kind.”
And he was his friend’s only sounding board.
“We would talk for hours over the phone,” Tirado said. “He would FaceTime me and we would just talk and talk. We both loved Eminem and every time he dropped an album we would freak out together. We would literally study every song and every bar and then we would write our own. We would constantly rap songs to each other.”
He fantasizes now about convincing Marshall Mathers, the rapper known as Emenim, to show up at Joe’s funeral. Or at least send a video.
Tirado said he knew Joe’s father, even liked him.
“I could never have imagined something like this,” he said, although he admitted Joe sometimes told him about the elder Jose Ramirez’s occasional dark episodes and moments of depression.
Joe Ramirez had an entrepreneurial spirit and the confidence to act on it. He had a small trucking business with another friend, Daniel Vidal, as well as an automotive smog shop in Delano. He was looking to move on from the smog shop, however, and he had suggested to Tirado that he take over.
Tirado, at a crossroads in life, had been considering that possibility, but he was also thinking about becoming an EMT or a correctional officer.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said.
And he wasn’t just talking about a career.