And his family can't understand why a changed man who lived for family was gunned down in front of his wife and children at the mall.
Johnny Benjamin Vialpando, 25, was shot and killed Saturday evening while he was a passenger in a vehicle parked at Animas Valley Mall.
Two brothers have been charged with murder in connection to his death. Alejandro Ramirez, 22, and Luis Ramirez, 28, both of Kirtland, have been arrested on suspicion of several charges, including an open count of murder, conspiracy and child abuse.
Johnny Vialpando, who was often called Ben-G or Big Happy, lived in Kirtland and was a truck driver at Triple S Trucking.
Police said that moments before Alejandro Ramirez allegedly shot Vialpando, he mentioned the name of a man who was killed in an unsolved gang-related homicide in 2008. Vialpando had ties to gangs several years ago and was questioned while police investigated Gary Martinez's death in 2008, according to officers.
But Johnny Vialpando's friends and family said that he turned his life around in 2007 when he met his future wife, Rhiannon Vialpando.
"He was never charged with anything, and he was never convicted of anything," said Tammie Vialpando, his stepmother. "We believe he was killed because of hearsay. And to do it in front of his wife and his kids is unspeakable. Our grandkids and our daughter-in-law are traumatized."
The only time Johnny Vialpando appeared in court was when he received a citation for not having a clean windshield, according to a state court website.
"He met the love of his life, and he fell in love with her, and it started changing him," said Jonnie Vialpando, his father. "I was damn proud of him. I was very proud of the grown
man he turned out to be."
He met his wife, Rhiannon Vialpando, when she was dating her future husband's tattoo artist. They were best friends and eventually started dating, Tammie Vialpando said.
"Once he met her, he turned his life around, and his life revolved around his family and his work. He would go to work and then come home and be with his family," she said. "In the last few years, I can't think of anyone who knew him and didn't love him."
The Vialpando family has received an outpouring of support from Johnny Vialpando's friends after his death. Triple S Trucking donated a day's wages to the family. His friends have been arriving at the Vialpando home in droves since the shooting to comfort the family and share stories, Jonnie Vialpando said.
"Ben-G's done a lot of good," said Cherilyn Pearson, a friend of the Vialpando who knew him for his entire life. "I hope there's not any retaliation that comes from this because he had been out of it for so long."
Johnny Vialpando had planned to work the day of his death, but his shift was canceled at the last minute, and he spent the day with his wife and three of his five children, Tammie Vialpando said. They were at the mall that evening to buy Johnny Vialpando a hat for his collection.
As usual, his family said he was happy.
Police said Johnny Vialpando was a passenger in a black sport utility vehicle when, shortly before 5 p.m., a white Chevrolet Blazer parked behind his vehicle to prevent it from leaving.
A person matching Alejandro Ramirez's appearance got out and approached Johnny Vialpando.
The two men reportedly exchanged a few words before Alejandro Ramirez pulled a gun and said, "This is for Gary," and then started shooting at Johnny Vialpando, according to court documents.
Vialpando suffered 15 gunshot wounds, including six shots to his chest and two to his head. His wife drove him to San Juan Health Partners Urgent Care across the street from the mall, while one of his children put pressure on his head wounds, Jonnie Vialpando said.
Rhiannon Vialpando was not available for an interview, Jonnie Vialpando said.
"She's taking it pretty hard," he said. "She was sitting right beside him when those animals killed my son."
When their son was shot, Tammie and Jonnie Vialpando were eating dinner at Applebee's, about 100 yards from where the shooting took place.
Jonnie Vialpando received a frantic call from his granddaughter. When he answered the phone, he heard, "Papa, Papa, Happy's been shot in the head," Jonnie Vialpando recalled.
Tammie and Jonnie Vialpando raced to the San Juan Regional Medical Center, where their son was taken via ambulance.
"I got a lump in my throat and I knew something was majorly wrong," Jonnie Vialpando said. "Then the doctor and the hospital chaplain came in. I was pacing around in a little room, and the doctor told me to sit down. He said, "Sir, you have to sit down because I'm about to tell you the worst news that you'll probably ever hear in your life.' And he told me my son had passed away."
After the shooting, the Ramirez brothers fled east on N.M. Highway 516 and were arrested shortly after. They declined to speak to investigators and were booked into jail. They are scheduled to have preliminary hearings next week.
Investigators found a semi-automatic handgun off the side of a county road in Flora Vista. The gun is being analyzed to determine if it was used in the shooting, police said.
Luis Ramirez has had five felony convictions since 2005. Two of the felonies were for drug possession, one was for a felon in possession of a firearm and two convictions were for burglary.
In February, Luis Ramirez was arrested in Kirtland after San Juan County sheriff's deputies said he was caught with a stolen car and drug paraphernalia. He was in jail from Feb. 6 to March 29, when he posted bond and was released, according to court documents.
Those charges are still pending.
Alejandro Ramirez has one felony conviction for a child abuse charge from 2010, according to court records.
A woman who answered the phone at the Ramirez home in Kirtland on Wednesday said there was no one at the home who could comment.
Ryan Boetel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 505-564-4644. Follow him on Twitter @rboetel.