‘She was a bruja. She was an artist’: Friends remember yoga instructor Alyssa Gunn-Maldonado, who was killed in the Denver mass shooting

“It’s hard for me to believe somebody would want to hurt people that really are needed in this world right now.”
4 min. read
Mourners pay their respects outside Denver’s Sol Tribe Custom Tattoo and Body Piercing, on Broadway at 1st, on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021.
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

Ernesto Burbank was eager for New Year's Eve to roll around. On Friday, he would see his old friend Jimmy Maldonado. The Denver piercer was planning to come join Burbank in Winnemucca, Nevada, to spend a week supporting Indigenous elders attempting to protect their land from a proposed lithium mine.

On Tuesday morning, a few days before Maldonado would arrive, Burbank got a text message from his friend's family. He assumed it was about the plans. Instead, the message stated that Jimmy and his wife, Alyssa Gunn-Maldonado, had been shot at Sol Tribe Custom Tattoo and Piercing Shop on Monday evening, along with the studio's owner, Alicia Cardenas.

Burbank had to read the message a few times. Gunn-Maldonado, whom he regarded as a "ceremonial sister," was dead. Jimmy was in the intensive care unit at Denver Health, struggling to survive.

"It doesn't make sense to me," Burbank said. "It's hard for me to believe somebody would want to hurt people that really are needed in this world right now. People that are of genuine love and care for more than just themselves. It hurts to have that taken away. We're already living with so much ugliness."

Cardenas and Gunn-Maldonado were the first of five people killed on Monday night in a shooting rampage that started at Sol Tribe and ended when a Lakewood police officer fatally shot the gunman in the Belmar shopping district in Lakewood. The other victims of the shooting were Michael Swinyard, who was killed at a condo near Cheesman Park, Danny Scofield, who was killed at Lucky 13 tattoo shop in Lakewood, and Sarah Steck, a hotel clerk at the Hyatt House in Belmar. Police said all but Steck had connections to the gunman.

Burbank remembers going on a hike with Alyssa and Jimmy a few years back.

They walked to a body of water and sang songs. They thanked the water for giving them life. They asked for forgiveness for all human beings. This was one of many rituals he shared with the couple, sometimes at sweat lodges, whenever they met. They had a profound spiritual connection.

Poet LadySpeech Sankofa, who was close friends with Cardenas, studied yoga under Gunn-Maldonado.

"She was a yoga teacher. She was a bruja. She was an artist," Sankofa said. "She's one of those teachers who was real. She did not come to any of her practice as a way of fad. She really was interested in self-improvement and self-love and -growth."

Unlike many in the yoga community who embrace "toxic positivity," Sankofa said, Alyssa didn't shy away from confronting life's struggles.

"She was someone who was transparent with her shadow," she said. "She was very clear about where she was f****** up and working on those things actively."

Alyssa brought intention to everything she did -- her work as an artist, a yoga instructor and also a stepmother of Jimmy's child.

Friends were in awe of how much love the couple shared.

"I experienced Jimmy and Alyssa as being like these lovebirds," said Denver poet and friend Dominique Christina. "They almost hated to be away from each other."

"She was a really beautiful soul, and her and Jimmy really loved each other," said Sankofa. "They really cultivated a relationship. You know, they were very honest about the ebbs and flows. They were very honest about the fact that having a relationship was hard. I really appreciated that... They really cultivated a beautiful relationship."

And both were committed to their Indigenous roots and rituals, which they leaned on in yoga, piercing and tattooing. They used those skills to help others heal.

Alyssa, said Sankofa, was on a brilliant path.

"She was, you could tell, someone who has an elder energy," Speech explained, "who's gonna grow up and be an elder and you're gonna be like, 'Yeah, you're gonna know all the knowledge and you're gonna be so cool.' And she had that in her already. She already walked with a regal-ness and her spirit was statuesque."

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