CHICAGO — Faced with the barrel of a gun, Brandon Cage was determined to stand his ground.
His longtime girlfriend, Lily Valdez, was told as much after she learned Cage, 33, had been killed in Chicago Lawn the night of her daughter's high school graduation party in June.
He'd left the party with a friend to grab a few beers, Valdez said, and told her he'd be back in 10 minutes. But he didn't return.
Cage was shot multiple times about 1:25 a.m. on June 12 in the 3300 block of West 60th Street, according to police. Cops described the shooting as a gang feud in which Cage and another group threw gang slogans back and forth before someone pulled a gun on him.
But Valdez, 39, maintains her boyfriend of 15 years, with whom she had two sons, wasn't in a gang. He spent most of his time at his job as a mechanic at a suburban mailing center, she said.
According to Valdez, shunning gangs is exactly what got him killed.
Valdez was told by Cage's friend, who was there that night, that a man pointed a gun at the two of them and demanded they throw a gang sign. Cage's friend agreed to his request, but Cage refused, and the man shot him, according to Valdez. Her boyfriend was dead by 3 a.m.
Abel Ruiz, 21, of the 3600 block of West 57th Street, was charged with first-degree murder in the case the same week. He pleaded not guilty in July and won't have another hearing until December, a Cook County State's Attorney's office spokeswoman said.
"Abel Ruiz has no idea how he destroyed my family," Valdez said.
Valdez said her youngest son still hasn't grasped that he'll never see his father again.
"He is still like asking 'When is Daddy coming back home?' I don’t think he realized what really happened," Valdez said.
The Tribune reported after Ruiz's bond court hearing, when he was held without bail, that Cage had told Ruiz that he was a "GD" before he was shot.
Her older son deals with confrontations at school by the other boys who said they heard his dad was in a gang. But Valdez said her son knows who his dad is, the same dad who warned him not to put on clothes with gang colors or wear his hat a funny way so he'd avoid any trouble at at school.
"How you dress is how other people treat you, is what he would say," Valdez said.
Now, Valdez lives each day without the man she said helped raise their kids and who she said helped her fight cervical cancer for three years until she was cancer-free in 2012.
But one of the hardest times was the one before she knew his fate, the night he didn't come back to bed.
"That was so hard for me," Valdez said. "For the first time in my life, he didn’t come to sleep. He didn't call me to let me know he’s all right."