In two decades as a Maricopa County prosecuting attorney, Gina Godbehere has seen some grisly crime scenes. Though her main function is to prove guilt in court, she takes a boots-on-the-ground approach, arriving at murder scenes as police are still identifying witnesses and investigators taking photos of those who were living just minutes before.
Godbehere investigates dozens of homicides each year and has seen it all — shootings, stabbings, horrific car wrecks.
What she saw five years ago at Independence High School in Glendale buckled her knees: Two 15-year-olds were dead after a murder-suicide.
When she arrived at the campus the morning of Feb. 12, 2016, police officers were putting up crime scene tape and helicopters flying overhead.
“What was different was all of the parents in the blocked-off areas. You could just see in their faces the sense of urgency,” Godbehere said.
She paused in her description to compose herself.
“I’m a mother of two girls and can’t imagine that happening to my daughters — the school is on lockdown and a lot of anxiety, figuring out what we had and making sure the school was safe,” she said.
As the investigation unfolded, it only disturbed the veteran prosecutor more.
“In the days after, we heard there was some indication that (the shooter) had got a gun and had some conversations with other people. But nobody took that threat seriously,” Godbehere said.
“When you think about that, with almost every shooting that occurs it’s the same story: When you look back, there’s warning signs.”
Another reason the Independence High tragedy hit Godbehere so hard was it was in her backyard. She was raised in Peoria and educated in Glendale, first at Cactus High, then at Glendale Community College. She moved to then-sleepy Goodyear two decades ago to start a family.
In 2016, the Independence High horror was on her mind when she attended the Leadership West conference in Goodyear.
Godbehere was on a panel with then-Glendale Police Chief Debora Black and Dr. Lily Matos DeBlieux, the Pendergast Elementary School District superintendent.
“We were talking about missed warning signs. How can we get youth when they see something to speak up?” Godbehere recalled.
“Dr. Lily was there and said, ‘We tell kids to speak up all the time — but they never do.’ So we thought, ‘Why don’t we put together a conference. If kids see something, they actually say something.’ We wanted youth to know it’s not being a tattletale or a snitch. They can speak up.”
Months later, Godbehere and DeBlieux launched Speak Up, Stand Up, Save a Life.
The conference clicked with communities around the West Valley. More districts heard about it each year, as the conference grew to huge crowds last year at Grand Canyon University Arena.
“Who would have thought we would have 10,000 people? It’s exciting,” Godbehere said.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 Speak Up, Stand Up, Save a Life conference is virtual. Parts of the Jan. 19 conference will be shown at speakstandsave.com, which also has highlights from the 2020 conference.
Though she said she will miss the electricity of kids in-person buzzing in groups, Godbehere thinks the virtual conference will help spread the message even more, with the conference expanding to include parents and family members of students.
The mission of the conference: “encouraging students to speak up to a trusted adult about depression, suicide, grief, abuse and bullying is the first step toward saving a life.”
As Godbehere put it, “As a community, stop that stigma of being a snitch or a tattletale. … We’re bringing all the stakeholders together. Everyone knows we have a problem with people missing warning signs.”
DeBlieux said Godbehere is more than just a co-founder of the conference.
“Gina has been the glue that has held the organization together. Her vision and insight have helped save lives. She has raised funds for the conference, collaborated with community partners and put her heart and soul into the organization,” the Pendergast leader said.
“Gina is a true rock star, a great friend and colleague — and we are grateful for her servant leadership,” DeBlieux said.
Working with kids, Godbehere thinks back to her days at Cactus High. “I presented a speech in English, and my teacher (Lyn Whaley) asked me if I ever thought of being an attorney,” she said.
“I thought I was going to be a teacher until that day.”
While attending Glendale Community College, she started working at the Glendale City Court, still living at her family home in Peoria near Thunderbird Acres. “Where I grew up, it was all cotton fields,” she said. “It was a great place to live.”
Godbehere moved to Tempe, studying law at ASU, where she quickly ruled out criminal defense or corporate law.
“I always wanted to be a prosecuting attorney. I have a lot of family involved in law enforcement, and I wanted to represent the victims of crime,” Godbehere said.
After law school, Godbehere started working at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, where she helped develop the first Juvenile Drug Court.
With homicides skyrocketing during the pandemic, Godbehere shakes her head at the growing pile of murder cases on her desk.
“I have seen in my (homicide cases) a large number of younger defendants who were just making spontaneous decisions. … I’ve seen a lot of impulsive behavior by young adults with weapons. Like the shooting at the (Desert Sky) mall. That’s heartbreaking — a 15-year-old who lost his life after having words with the wrong person,” Godbehere said, referring to the March shooting of a teenager after an argument. Daymond Deray Hayes was arrested and charged with murder.
“And then there was a young kid who lost his life Christmas morning after coming home from work,” she said, referring to the West Phoenix murder of 18-year-old Tyler Cardiel.
“We’re seeing senseless loss of life.”
According to the Phoenix Police Department, homicides and aggravated assaults increased by 25% in 2020 over 2019.
While most of the West Valley has not seen huge jumps in murders, homicides significantly increased in Glendale.
In 2019, 19 murders happened in Glendale. The average number of homicides in the city from 2009-19 was 16.
In 2020, the Glendale Police Department investigated 26 homicides. That is the highest number in 12 years and about 40% higher than the average.
“We are seeing a huge spike (in homicides) because of the pandemic across the county. We’re also seeing a spike in domestic violence,” Godbehere said.
“We’re also seeing an increase in substance abuse. That and financial stress with people losing their jobs can lead to domestic abuse,” she said.
“We just know substance abuse often plays into things and spontaneous decisions. Being isolated, they’re letting loose — maybe from being cooped up,” she said.
She called the rise in violent crime “unprecedented. And scary.”
During the pandemic, Godbehere has worked from her Goodyear home, except when she is at a crime scene or in court.
Being home so much, she spends more time with her teenage daughters — and has to monitor her husband, a computer programmer.
“He loves watching ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ and all the crime shows,” Godbehere said with a chuckle. There’s even a popular cable show called “The First 48,” which follows murder investigations. “He loves that show,” she said.
Her, not so much: “It’s kind of my life.
As on the TV show, talking to family members is a grim task.
“You meet with the next of kin, they want answers and they want justice. You can’t bring their loved one back. Which is why I love the fact of preventing (killings) from occurring,” she said.
“The worst part of my job is seeing the pain in the next of kin and knowing no matter what you did, you aren’t going to make the pain go away and make them whole. A lot of time it’s a senseless death they’re never going to completely understand,” Godbehere said.
With grieving family members grasping to make sense of horrific acts of violence that snatch their loved ones away, this homicide attorney perhaps has the perfect name.
“I kept my name after I got married,” Godbehere said. “It gives a lot of comfort to my victims’ families.”