“Mom, I’m 20. Thank you for giving me life. For everything you have done to get me to this point in my life. You are my rock. I could not give you enough thanks even if it meant my life. I love you Mom with my whole life. Always thank you for making me the man that I am today. These last years have been really the hardest, but we got this mom. We’re going to get through this. I love you.”
Michelle Arbizo re-reads those words every so often, when she’s feeling the loss of her son, Dominic Romero, the most.
He sent her that text just a few hours before his death, the last thing he ever told her. Dominic died on his 20 birthday—Jan. 4, 2019—in a hit-and-run while walking on the side of a desolate desert road outside Marana, Arizona. Authorities still haven’t identified the driver.
Dominic’s loss—coupled with the loss of Michelle’s fiancé, Arizona roping producer Rudy Clark Sr. just a year and eight months prior—could have broken the Arizona mother of five. But instead, Michelle picked up a rope, stepped on her son’s horse, and pulled her hat down tight.
Dominic “CheChe” Romero was the fifth of Michelle’s five boys, her baby from the start.
“Dominic was very shy and very quiet,” remembered Michelle, 51, who works as a medical assistant and surgery scheduler for Tucson Orthopedic Institute. “He never, ever left my side. We were inseparable. He was a really good kid, and very quiet. He became more outgoing from junior high all the way through high school. He always had good grades, participated in student council, and he played football and wrestled. There wasn’t anything he didn’t try.”
Dominic didn’t grow up with horses, though his mother’s family had them years earlier. Michelle, following local tradition, took her son to watch Tucson’s famous La Fiesta de Los Vaqueros ProRodeo when he was 13. Mid-performance, Dominic turned to his mother and said he wanted to learn to team rope.
“That’s all he had to say,” Michelle said. “From that point on, I bought him his first horse. I told him he had to learn how to ride before he could learn how to rope. After school, after wrestling and football practice, he’d saddle and go riding in the desert. We didn’t have an arena or anything. I’d buy the Arizona Jackpot, and every month we’d look at the calendar and find ropings that my old friend, Rudy Clark Sr., was putting on. Rudy had roped with my brothers growing up, so I asked him if Dominic could help him at the ropings.”
Dominic pushed up steers for Rudy, who quickly took a liking to the eager-to-learn kid. Eventually, as Dominic gained confidence, he and Rudy, who was dating Michelle by then, started entering ropings.
“It was his biggest thrill to be able to rope with Rudy. He loved to rope with his cousin Patrick (Cavoulas), too, who started roping at the same time he did.”
“He was so funny to rope with,” Patrick said. “He always had a funny face coming out of the box. We’d all give him crap about it. Especially with me, he wanted me to be better than him. So he’d get nervous and he’d tell me all the time when we’d rope together that all he wanted to do was catch and take the right steps nice and slow so that way me and him could rope together and get times down and do good at local jackpots.”
Miguel “Guero” Martinez owns Savantos Land and Cattle, and he produced a lot of the ropings and practices Dominic attended. Guero watched as Dominic developed confidence in the arena.
“He was a fun kid, and he had a blast whether he was catching or missing or falling off,” Guero said. “He was learning how to do everything at once on a greener horse. He hit the ground a few times, but he’d always get back on and try it. He was enthusiastic and always smiling all the time. There was no reason to be in a bad mood around him. He wanted to learn and get better. He was on his way to being successful and improving every week. He’d be getting his number raised soon. He really enjoyed it. And his mom was right there—always hauling with him and going to his practice.”
Dominic did fall off his horse a few times in practice and occasionally at a roping, but it never dampened his spirits and he was a good sport about the ribbing he took.
“He would fall off a lot,” John Henry Gaona, Dominic’s higher-numbered cousin, recalled, laughing. “But he was so energetic and always happy. He was the life of the party and never sad. He was happy whether he caught or missed. We did everything together, and we would go to jackpots all over—Show Low, Tucson, everywhere. He was the most dedicated kid I’ve ever seen. He started late, but he wanted to learn and was so passionate. He was truly a team roper.”
Dominic was starting to turn more and more steers, and as his high school rodeo career came to a close, he had goals of college rodeo at Central Arizona College, the same place his hero and his mother’s fiancé, Rudy, had attended.
“But a month before he graduated from high school is when Rudy passed away,” Michelle said. “I could not get him to go to school. He wanted to, but he didn’t want to leave me alone. He wanted to be here for me, and said that we were going to stick together and get through this.”
Dominic—who friends and family nicknamed CheChe thanks to his love for his mother—did just that. Always his mother’s favorite dance partner, he made sure to take her out dancing any chance he got. He threw Michelle a fabulous 50 birthday bash, where they danced the night away. He was by her side more than ever, with his lumbering frame often hugging his mama while she cooked dinner.
Upon graduation, he got a job installing gas lines, coincidentally on a crew with a number of other team ropers.
“With all of us roping, we missed some Fridays,” joked Gus McKibbin, a friend and coworker of Dominic’s. “Dominic was the nicest guy ever. He’d talk to a stranger the same way he’d talk to his best friend. He was happy all the time and never really had a bad day. He’d do anything for anybody. He was cheerful all the time. Everybody loved him.”
Dominic saved his money and bought himself a truck and trailer, paid his bills and then spent the rest of his paychecks jackpotting with his buddies.
“He became a typical cowboy roper. He was spending his money wisely, but roping was his passion, and that’s what he got into,” Michelle said.
His favorite roping—the one he’d gone to every year with Rudy before Rudy died—was the Ted Meredith Memorial, held each July in Young, Arizona. His mom never missed going to watch him there, where he won the #10 in 2018.
On the drive home that year, Dominic told her, “You should start roping so we can rope together in the family roping.”
They laughed about it, and she agreed to try.
The January night Dominic died was just like any other. He was with his friends, celebrating his birthday about 10 minutes from his house.
“He started walking home. And he got hit just feet or yards from the front gate of that house. There was another vehicle a little farther behind the one that hit him, but it wasn’t close enough to get a description of the vehicle. It was pitch dark. They could see the lights but couldn’t make out anything. The house was farther back off the street, so all the other kids could see was a vehicle drive by. They said they thought it sounded like a diesel engine. Some thought they saw headlights on top, some thought it was a dark color. But it was too dark to see. Shortly after Dominic was hit, the other vehicle saw Dominic in the road, and Patrick called 911.”
Dominic was killed upon impact, the coroner told his mother weeks after his death.
For months, Michelle leaned on family and friends and a therapist, trying to come to terms with the loss of her youngest son and, just over a year earlier, her fiancé.
“I was still angry, and I couldn’t process the therapy,” Michelle admitted. “I felt like, ‘What the hell am I doing here? I have no business here.’ I couldn’t believe somebody could explain to me how I am supposed to feel losing my son, losing my world.”
Feeling the loss, too, was Dominic’s red heeler puppy, Coors. The dog had been Dominic’s constant companion in his short life, and losing Dominic made him stop eating. He wouldn’t leave Dominic’s room, and the vets were worried about him. Heartbroken, Michelle did what she could to make the dog her own, and eventually he came around.
Dominic’s horses were still at her house, too, and despite Michelle’s sorrow, she still had to feed and care for them. One day, Michelle, who hadn’t been on a horse since she was a young girl, threw her son’s saddle on PJ, his high-powered, 16-plus-hand sorrel gelding.
“I realized when I’m riding a horse, I feel so much at peace, so much at ease. I thought, ‘This is what I’m going to do. Every day I’d go ride his horses and mess around with the dummy, and I’d play with the dog.’ That was my circle: Me, the dog and the horse. That’s where I felt Dominic the most. That’s when I realized, I still need to rope with Dominic.”
By the time Michelle had that revelation, the Ted Meredith Memorial was just two months away.
Enter again long-time-family friend and roping producer Guero Martinez, who helped Dominic get started years earlier. A 5.5 header and 6 heeler, he offered to help Michelle when she needed it most.
“I’m no teacher, but I just know what I know and try to help people out the best I can,” Guero said. “I kind of just jumped in and started helping her out. I wanted to see what she needed to work on with her riding, and we started on the ground, roping the dummy. We were tweaking a little bit to get those catch percentages up on the dummy. On her horse, I wanted her to learn how to keep her balance coming out of the box. We went to chasing that machine, and we’d lope circles and use her hands and legs and keep her balance without balancing on the reins.”
But time was of the essence. While Guero wanted to take it slow, the clock was ticking to get Michelle ready for the roping in mid-July. Guero and Michelle practiced every night—sometimes until 10-, 11- or 12 o’clock at night.
“She had a goal, and she stuck with it,” Guero said. “A lot of nights, she was sore. You could see the frustration in her face. But she persevered to reach that goal, and she didn’t give up. It’s inspired a lot of people, and they saw the progress we had in such a short time.”
By the time the roping weekend rolled around, Michelle was prepared. She had a run in the family roping; her cousin, Rene Arbizo Sr., and she entered the all-girl and #8 that weekend, too. So, she loaded up the pickup and three-horse trailer Dominic was so proud of and headed to the jackpot.
“I had so much fun,” Michelle said. “It was bittersweet. My girlfriends, my fellow roper friends, we laughed, we cried, but that was the biggest thrill and the biggest honor to be there and rope in Dominic’s honor. I didn’t have any luck, but I did catch some steers and I achieved my goal. And it’s just the beginning.”
Michelle has been a regular jackpot junkie since then, still practicing with Guero and roping every chance she gets. On Fridays she misses her son the most, because he’d call her and talk her ear off about their weekend plans. But now, she’s got jackpots to look forward to on Friday afternoons to ease the sting just a bit.
“My goal is to get good enough to be able to rope in the World Series ropings,” Michelle said. “Dominic wanted to rope with Rob Duncan, another friend of ours, out of Thatcher, Arizona. Dominic wasn’t old enough to go to the World Series, but he’d do the add-on ropings they’d have. He wanted to rope when he turned 21. I want to make it to Vegas for the Finale. That would be honoring Dominic.”
For now, Michelle calls the Arizona Jackpot her little Bible. She’s got ropings highlighted each month, prioritizing memorial ropings above all else. She and Guero are in the process of planning a two-day Dominc Romero Memorial Roping the weekend of January 4, 2020 at the Marana Heritage Arena.
“He’d be ecstatic about it,” Michelle said. “He loved being the center of attention. I know that without the situation we were put in, we wouldn’t be having one of those, and I would love to be not having one. But in memory of Dominic, this is what he’d have wanted.”
Justice for Dominic
Dominic’s family is still searching for answers in the hit-and-run that took his life. They’ve raised funds for a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the individuals responsible. If you have any information, call (520) 882-7463.