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Denver man pleads guilty to 16-year-old's death as mother looks to forgive, offer safe space to at-risk youth

Denver man pleads guilty to teen's death as mother looks to forgive, offer safe space to youth
Denver man pleads guilty to teen's death as mother looks to forgive, offer safe space to youth 02:32

It's been more than a year since 16-year-old Aaliyah Cortez was shot and killed during an attempted robbery in Denver's Montebello neighborhood.

Now one suspect in the case, 18-year-old Brandon Sandoval, who was 17 at the time of the shooting, has pled guilty to second-degree murder.

This comes as the state has seen an increase in the number of young people admitted for homicide and manslaughter-related charges.

In the 2023 fiscal year, Colorado saw 172 homicide or manslaughter charges against young people; a 61% increase for the Division of Youth Services from the year before.

Though the family says no time behind bars will ever bring their loved one back, they're glad one of the two suspects has now pled guilty.

Holding on to Cortez's graduation cap, Wendy Gonzalez, mother of Cortez is heartbroken knowing her daughter never had the chance to make her dream of graduating high school come true.

"Her biggest thing was I am going to graduate and prove everybody wrong," said Gonzalez.

In a turn of unfortunate events, her life would be cut short a year before she could make that a reality.

Cortez was fatally shot during an attempted robbery in Montebello in January of 2023.

Aaliyah Cortez CBS

As part of Sandoval's guilty plea, other charges were dismissed.

Sandoval was arrested in January 2023 without bond in connection to the deadly shooting of Cortez that month.

According to police, Sandoval disclosed his plan saying he and Marvin Perdomo-Cil, who was also 17 at the time, had planned to use a gun to rob Cortez and her sister Jennifer Cortez, who was 19 at the time.

Sandoval and Perdomo-Cil were planning to meet up with the Cortezes to purchase vape pen cartridges.

During the incident, the sisters were in their car when Sandoval threatened Jennifer with the gun, prosecutors say. As the sisters tried to drive away, Sandoval held onto the car door, eventually shooting Aaliyah.

Brandon Sandoval Denver District Attorney's Office

She was then taken to the hospital where she died of her injuries the next day.

"Nobody knows this pain that a mother has to go through after burying their child," cried Gonzalez.

Pictures of Aaliyah Cortez decorate her mother's walls inside her Westminster home.

Wendy Gonzalez  CBS

Aaliyah Cortez may be gone, but her legacy lives on through Gonzalez's work with her organization called Slowly but Surely.

It is a non-profit created to promote teen positivity. As a nonprofit, they aim to provide a safe space for at-risk youth, while also inviting them to participate in community service.

"We have a good handful that they don't just come to us for community service, they're family now," said Gonzalez.

Gonzalez is a mother of nine and uses the memory of Aaliyah Cortez to motivate her every day. As someone who was part of gangs herself, Gonzalez understands why young people look for acceptance through this lifestyle. After leaving that life almost 14 years ago, she now wants to help other young people understand it's not the way to go.

Through this work, she hopes to prevent the same pain for another family.

"I am doing this for my daughter as well because she was just so loving and so forgiving, she always wanted us to teach somebody else a different way, a better way," said Gonzalez.

Despite a heavy heart, she grants the person who took her daughter's life some grace and offers forgiveness.

"I just hope he accepts his wrongs and lives up to the consequences like a man, like the man he wanted to be when he pulled that trigger," said Gonzalez.

Sandoval is set to be sentenced in September. Gonzalez shared the family's plans to be in attendance. Perdomo-Cil's case is still pending.

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