From time to time, Carlos Morales would walk from his auto body shop to the Super T's store down the street to pick up soda and chips.
Perhaps that's where he was, thought his longtime girlfriend, Brenda Gibler, after she tried the door at the body shop and found it unlocked.
She went inside.
The cars and tools in Morales' shop, in an industrial area near 40th and Lake Streets, were in the dark, though a light was on in the office at the back, at the top of maybe 15 steps.
Morales, 47, usually did not go in to work on Sundays, but he had an estimate to do.
On days when Gibler dropped by, she would whistle, and Morales' head would pop into view in the office window.
But not on Dec. 2.
Morales and another man, Bernardo Noriega, 40, were lying dead in the office.
Both deaths are homicides, said an Omaha police spokeswoman, though she declined to say how the men died. Police have announced no arrests.
Before she went deep into the shop that day to look for Morales, Gibler, 42, returned to her sport utility vehicle to take the keys out of the ignition. The couple's son, Alec, and a friend were waiting in the back seat. It was Alec's eighth birthday and they all were to go to Chuck E. Cheese's.
That was the plan. They needed to get going.
Gibler had phoned Morales a few times during the afternoon. He had brushed her off, said he couldn't talk.
“I'm busy, mama,” he said.
They had spent the previous night together. They had tortillas filled with eggs and cilantro for dinner. Morales and Alec watched a movie. They strung lights on a Christmas tree in the living room.
That Sunday afternoon, looking for Morales, Gibler went inside Genuine Auto Body. She climbed the stairs to the office. He was lying face up on the floor. His hands had been tied together. She touched him.
“I thought he was alive. I tried to get him to breathe,” she said in an interview. Tears welled in her eyes as she recalled it.
She did not see the other dead man, Noriega, until a few moments later, when she stepped farther into the room.
She dialed her cellphone, calling Morales by mistake. When she finally reached 911, she was coming unglued. She screamed the address, 4010 Grant, again and again, but could not be understood. Her tears made the keys of her phone wet. She stumbled down the steps and ran outside.
“He should be here right now,” she recalled, her voice breaking. “He should still be right here.”
Gibler said Morales did not use or sell drugs. She said Noriega was one of Morales' customers. Neither man had a significant criminal history in Nebraska. Morales pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in 2005 and was sentenced to serve 30 days in jail.
Morales didn't deserve this, Gibler said. He was a good man who worked hard.
Business had been slow. A few months ago, he couldn't make the rent, and the landlord padlocked the door until he scraped together the money.
Now Morales is gone.
“Carlos was all we had,” Gibler said.
She has been buoyed by Sadie Bankston, who runs a group to support the relatives and friends of homicide victims. Bankston's son was shot dead in 1989 when he was 20.
Gibler has Morales' cremated remains in a bag but has not been able to afford a memorial service.
And then there is their son. How could she explain this, she asked, as he played a video game in his bedroom down the hall.
“He asked me, 'Is my daddy dead?'” Gibler said. “I told him that daddy fell at work.”
She said he was in heaven.
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