Karen Gutierrez points to last Thanksgiving as one of her favorite family-bonding moments since she and younger siblings Robert Jr., Nasseen and Corin joined the Cartwright family 2½ years ago.
Like so many household traditions on this holiday, each family member expressed their thanks around the dinner table. The gratitude and appreciation was overwhelming for Wes and Kathy Cartwright, a Vancouver couple who became the Gutierrez children’s legal guardians after the four children lost their parents and maternal grandmother in a July 2015 double murder-suicide.
But what made last Nov. 23 special for Karen Gutierrez, the eldest of the four, came from a soft-spoken Nasseen Gutierrez, a Columbia River High School senior.
“Love was in the air,” Karen said. “What got me was when Nasseen cried.”
Nasseen couldn’t be more proud of how he, his sisters and older brother have overcome a tragedy so great through achievements, growth and progress in the 2½ years since their father, Robert Diaz Gutierrez, fatally shot their mother, Elizabeth Orozco, and grandmother, Adela Ruiz-Gonzales, before turning a gun on himself.
Three of the four children witnessed the killings inside their Hazel Dell home.
Nasseen said he and his siblings could have gone in different directions since that day, yet all four picked themselves back up after the worst fall of their lives.
“Even though we have some struggles today,” Nasseen said, “we’ve all grown and we’ve come so far.”
Nasseen is 17 and a 6-foot-6 starting forward on Columbia River’s varsity boys basketball team. What’s helped his healing process is basketball, the sport that has, and always will be, his first love.
It’s the sport that also saved him.
“Basketball helped me cope through sadness and my negative thoughts,” he said. “It gave me something to look forward to.
“I will always have that with me.”
Crammed in a bedroom with a queen bed and a portable mattress on the floor, Karen, Robert Jr., Nasseen and Corin did their best to sleep and put an end to a trauma-filled day.
Depending on who you ask, July 14, 2015, ranges from a blur to a bad dream. Details of that night are as crisp now as they were then for Kathy Cartwright, whom Karen Gutierrez considers a second mother. At age 10, Karen became best friends with the Cartwrights’ youngest daughter, Alexis. The two graduated from Columbia River in 2014.
That motherly figure is why Kathy Cartwright was the first call she made after dialing 911 at 3:43 p.m. on Tuesday, July 14, 2015. When Clark County Sheriff’s Office deputies and investigators arrived, they discovered Robert Diaz Gutierrez, Elizabeth Orozco and Adela Ruiz-Gonzales dead inside a two-story home on Northeast 98th Street.
Nasseen, just 15 at the time, lay in his upstairs bedroom on an otherwise normal sunny summer day when a domestic dispute between his parents suddenly escalated into loud, puzzling sounds.
Quickly, Robert Jr., tried to intervene. Nasseen ran across the hall to Karen’s room; she already was on the phone with 911. Nasseen wanted to make sure their father didn’t hear their call to 911, “just in case …” he said.
They were scared, yes, but never frightened for their own lives.
“I knew my dad wouldn’t want to harm us,” he said.
None of the three children at home were injured.
"Time has helped" Nassen Gutierrez
Over the next 72 hours, Nasseen’s smartphone received countless missed calls, voicemails and text messages. He didn’t respond to most of them, but he did take Coach David Long’s call.
Long teaches marketing at Columbia River and has more than 400 career victories as a basketball coach. Basketball, though, never was mentioned when the two connected while Long was vacationing with his family in Palm Springs, Calif.
Long and his wife, Holly, along with their three children, have housed team members for various reasons in the past, and were prepared to take in Nasseen and his siblings.
The Longs, too, have been down a recent path of family loss. In 2014, David and Holly’s daughter-in-law, Tiffany, died of pancreatic cancer and still to this day, part of Coach Long’s words to Nasseen on that long-distance phone call still resonate: Time heals.
And it has. The hardest days are behind him, he said.
“Time has helped,” Nasseen said.
Nasseen eventually found sleep that first night. He was safe, yet suddenly, parentless. In a long day filled with few answers to many questions from authorities to extended family, the compassion, care, and comfort shown by the Cartwrights told Nasseen one thing was certain — this new home is home and the Cartwrights are family.
“They’ve meant a lot and helped us through a lot,” he said. “That’s all I can ask for.”
Every home basketball game at J. Hoover Gymnasium, you’ll find Wes and Kathy Cartwright in their usual spot directly behind Columbia River’s bench.
Wes is an electrical engineering manager and Kathy was the building secretary at Vancouver’s Sunset Elementary. The couple still are picking up basketball’s nuances; their daughters, Danielle and Alexis, are both River graduates but did not play basketball.
“I know most sports,” Wes Cartwright said, “but I don’t know basketball.”
Under the guardianship umbrella, the Cartwrights are legally responsible for the Gutierrez children until each turns 18. Living with the Cartwrights was the children’s best option to remain together and in Vancouver.
“We knew we had to do something to keep them together,” Wes Cartwright said.
“It hasn’t been easy,” Kathy Cartwright said. But without hesitation, they’d do it again.
Especially for these four.
“A lot of people ask, ‘How could you do this?’ ” Kathy Cartwright said. “How could you not? If the same situation is put in front of you — how could you not do it?”
There have been major re-adjustments for everyone. The Cartwrights were empty-nesters for a year before taking in four children they watched grow up over the years who ranged in age from 11 to 19 at the time.
The Cartwrights’ main goal is to have all four children be college graduates. Two are on track now; Karen, now 22, is studying to be a nurse at Clark College, and Robert Jr., 20, is in his junior year at the University of Washington. All four are excellent students because their parents stressed the value of education and urged them to be at their best.
“If any of us didn’t value education,” Karen said, “I don’t know what we’d be doing.”
How Nasseen and his siblings describe their late parents comes in glimpses of sorrow and joy.
Robert Diaz Gutierrez and Elizabeth Orozco were married 20 years and came to Vancouver in the 1990s from Uruapan, a city of 315,000 about 200 miles west of Mexico City. Their dad worked tirelessly; he was a self-employed man who owned an auto repair shop to support a family of six. Their mom, a stay-at-home parent most of her children’s lives, cherished simple family treasures, including church outings and Sunday walks. And their grandmother was in town visiting her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren.
Nasseen said that in time, he may forgive his father. He has admiration for the man who gave him life, sacrificed a lot for his family’s well-being, and instilled core values in his children for whom he showed endless love.
“Even though he did have his own personal issues, he still loved me and still cared for me … and protected us,” Nasseen said. “And he was still hard on me like any other dad would be.”
Karen Gutierrez saw her brother’s natural basketball talent early. The same finesse touch Coach Long saw in a player who walked into his program in 2014-15 she saw when their father first coached Nasseen in third grade.
“He was the one who pushed him all the time,” Karen recalled.
Nasseen grew to his eventual 6-foot-6 frame, a height he got from dad, who stood 6-4. The low-post skills and midrange game came from the same guy who once told stories of dreaming to play for the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs.
“A lot of (my) craftiness,” Nasseen said, “comes from his teachings.”
Nasseen’s love of basketball didn’t rise to its strongest peak without first hitting rock bottom.
When junior year of high school arrived, he expected it to be his breakout season. But 11 games in, and averaging 1.4 points per game, Nasseen’s playing time diminished, and younger players passed him in the rotation. Struggles came academically, too. A difficult course load and poor sleep habits led to a slip in grades.
This is what Nasseen described as the “worst point.”
Older sister Karen saw the struggles, too. His diet suffered; he dropped weight. She couldn’t help but share the pain when he came to her in tears not knowing how to help himself.
“I’ve never seen my little brother like that,” she said. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever witnessed.”
Improvement came only when he rediscovered a focus, but more importantly, using himself as a self-motivator.
Nasseen joined a handful of other teammates for hourlong 6 a.m. basketball workouts with Jesse Norris, an ex-Mountain View standout. He’s currently a paraeducator at Columbia River and the girls’ junior-varsity coach at Washougal High School.
What lacked in Nasseen’s toolbox wasn’t basketball skills, but rather, consistency on the mental side, Norris said.
“He needed to develop the confidence that comes from reps,” Norris said. “Always being in the gym, getting confident with those moves over, and over and over again.”
A flip of a switch came at the end of the 2016-17 season. Soon enough, Long, River’s longtime coach, couldn’t keep Nasseen off the floor. He said in 30 years of coaching, he’s never had a player make a transformation so quickly in the midst of a season.
Within a month, Nasseen went from sixth on the depth chart at forward to significant minutes when the 2A district tournament arrived in February 2017. The Chieftains’ season ended one win shy of reaching 2A regionals, but Nasseen’s seven points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots against Centralia got the coaching staff’s attention.
“It might’ve been in the end of our season,” Long said, “but it was the beginning of his.”
For Nasseen, the fire and drive came from wanting to improve himself. In turn, everything else fell in line, too.
“I knew I could play; I knew I shouldn’t not be playing,” he said. “I was tired of wasting my time.
“I had to personally work at it; it’s not given to you and that’s what I finally understood.”
He still rises at 6 a.m. most mornings to put in extra work. And he’s not one of the Chieftains’ top players by coincidence.
“I don’t think he’s missed a day,” the coach said.
Nasseen is averaging better than 9 points a game on a senior-laden team that shared the 2A Greater St. Helens League title and has ambitions to reach the Class 2A state tournament in Yakima. His career-best 23 points came earlier this season against Mountain View.
Junior guard Caden Dezort is one of the many Chieftains who’s drawn from Nasseen’s strength. A player who they’re proud to call their leader.
“The way he carries himself,” Dezort said, “nothing fazes him.”
Nasseen’s post-high school plans might include basketball, too. The University of Puget Sound, an NCAA Division III school in Tacoma, is one of the small-college programs recruiting Nasseen. He’s also applied to Washington, Gonzaga, and Portland.
Long said a program like UPS, or any team in the D-III Northwest Conference, is perfect for a player with Nasseen’s skillset: a 6-6 athletic forward who can shoot the 3 and also is a tenacious defender.
“If he wants it, it’s there for him,” Long said. “He’s worked hard enough to earn a spot on those teams.”
In his college admissions essay, Nasseen wrote how basketball impacted and shaped his life, and helped him through the worst situation imaginable for him and his siblings.
As Kathy Cartwright said of a January game in which Nasseen scored the team’s first three field goals in a win over Woodland, “you don’t need to push Nasseen, he pushes himself.”
Thanks to hope, love, and basketball.
“And it’s something I’ll always have with me,” Nasseen said.
Meg Wochnick is a sports reporter for The Columbian. Reach her at 360-735-4521 or email@example.com