So far, no one has been arrested in the death of a Marion man gunned down in the parking lot of a Hickory restaurant earlier this month.

Family members describe the victim as a hard worker and a loving son.

At approximately 11:58 p.m. on Jan. 15, Hickory Police officers responded to IHOP on U.S. 70 East after receiving reports of a man suffering a gunshot wound in front of the building. The victim, 26-year-old Rafael Cerda-Ramirez, was transported to Catawba Valley Medical Center and pronounced dead that night.

On Tuesday, The McDowell News spoke with Margarita Zerimar and Bertha Alicia Ramirez, the sister and mother of Cerda-Ramirez.

“He was the baby of the family,” said Ramirez. “He was an excellent son. I loved him very, very much, and he loved me.”

The youngest of eight children, Cerda-Ramirez was born on Aug. 9, 1991 in Los Angeles, California. Between 1995-96, Cerda-Ramirez moved to McDowell County, where he attended McDowell High School and worked for his father Martin Silva at Silva Masonry, Inc.

“He had multiple jobs,” said Ramirez, “but the one he liked doing was construction. People would come to look for him here and fight for him to help with them because he was really good at construction.”

“He always talked about how he liked the outside,” said Zerimar. “He didn’t like being inside like Baxter’s – he tried working at Baxter’s and Ingle’s warehouse, but he always talked about how he liked to work outside. He worked hard. He would come home dirty of cement. He would lay rock, he would lay brick, and he would bust his ass.”

In talking with The McDowell News, Zerimar and the soft-spoken Ramirez painted an intimate, often complex portrait of Rafael. He loved to dance and listen to music, primarily Latin American music like corrido and bachata. He lived with his mother and considered her “his whole world,” and loved to play around with his siblings.

“My last time I saw my brother, we were in Walmart buying lunch for our mom, and he kept bumping his buggy into mine,” said Zerimar. “I thank God that’s the last memory I have of him.”

A constant theme surrounding their reflection of Cerda-Ramirez was family, in particular his relationship with his 9-year-old son, Natavian DeLeon.

“He loved Natavian, and he loved his father. They weren’t seeing each other that often,” said Zerimar, in reference to her brother’s separation from Natavian’s mother, “but he loved him. That’s why he stayed away from him sometimes, like maybe he wasn’t doing so good and didn’t feel right to be with him at the moment. But they were both devastated when they heard what happened.”

The night Cerda-Ramirez was shot, as it turns out, fell on their mother’s birthday. Three days later, his funeral was held on his son’s birthday.

The family has said that authorities have not provided new information on what happened.

“We don’t even know what kind of gun was used,” said Zerimar. “The police are investigating, but they don’t want to go into too much detail. What happened to him, what they’re telling us, is just crazy and we don’t have the answers yet.”

Thus far, Hickory police confirmed they are looking for two white males believed to be involved with the shooting, potentially driving a small burgundy car between 10:30 p.m. and midnight on Jan. 15.

While Zerimar said she believes Cerda-Ramirez wasn’t involved in any illegal activity at the time of his death, she implied that her brother surrounded himself with questionable friends and “shady people.”

“You know McDowell – everybody does pot, everybody drinks beer and stuff like that. That was Rafael; he liked to party and get high with friends, and he would do it some of the time, but not all the time, and I don’t think he did when he died. Rafael would get into trouble and do stupid stuff, but nothing too serious for people to say, ‘They killed him because he did that.’ The only problem Rafael had was the people he was hanging around with. Everyone – me, my mom – tried telling him, ‘Stop hanging around these people.’ He had potential. He had a son. He loved working, and he wasn’t lazy at all. He was not a criminal and I don’t want people to judge my brother as, ‘Oh, he deserved it.’”

In terms of details leading up to the shooting, those who were with Cerda-Ramirez at the time of the murder told the family that he was dropped off at IHOP just before midnight in order to meet up with an individual in the parking lot.

“This is their story, I don’t know if it’s true,” said Zerimar. “But they said they were sitting in the car waiting on him, one of them got worried and got out of the car and found him lying there. They were the one who went into IHOP and called for help.”

Cerda-Ramirez’ funeral was held on Jan. 18 at Westmoreland Funeral Home and he was laid to rest at Murphy’s Chapel Cemetery the following day. According to Zerimar, expenses for the service were costly in order to provide her brother the funeral of his wishes. While initial funds came in through family outside of North Carolina, a Go-Fund-Me page was launched Jan. 16 to cover additional and subsequent costs. As of Jan. 25, the page met $575 of its $5,000 goal.

“We spent every little penny on this funeral, because he wanted music,” said Zerimar. “So, we had a mariachi band at the service and another band playing at the cemetery, cause that’s what he liked. Right now, we don’t have the money for a tombstone. We can go back to the cemetery and see that there’s nothing with his name there, just a little metal thing that lets you know he’s there.”

Despite the costs, Zerimar described the funeral as “one of a kind,” with family members from Georgia to Florida paying final respects, mariachi playing throughout the service and adults in attendance taking a commemorative sip of tequila in honor of their loved one.

“That’s what he wanted,” said Zerimar, “so we had to honor it.”

As Cerda-Ramirez’ family awaits new information on the shooting, they’ve turned to spiritual guidance to help in the grieving process.

“We’re Catholic, and we do the nine days of prayer. We’re on the fourth day, and people come here and we pray for him and pray for his soul,” said Zerimar. “Cause we know he’s in heaven and want to make extra sure that he’s in heaven. The only comfort we’re going to feel as a family is to find the killer, look him in the eye, and say, ‘Why?’”

When asked for final remarks, Ramirez said of her son, “He was very happy. He loved living life. And we never thought he was going to go.”

The Ramirez family is currently offering an undisclosed reward to anyone with information leading to the arrest of the potential suspects. Anyone who may have information about the shooting is urged to contact HPD Investigator K. Craig at 828-261-2616 or kcraig@hickorync.gov.

For more information on the Rafael Cerda-Ramirez Go-Fund-Me page, go to https://www.gofundme.com/uskzw-funeral-de-rafael-cerda-ramirez.

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