The night of June 23, 2005, was supposed to be a night of celebration — the Spurs had touched NBA Heaven for the third time with a 81-74 seventh-game victory over the Detroit Pistons. But in the shadow of the old Pearl brewery, Ramiro “Ram” Ayala, was reluctantly opening Taco Land. The bands had cancelled on him, and with no TV in the place, it was nearly deserted at 10:30 p.m. There was only Ayala, waitress and bartender Denise Koger, doorman Douglas Morgan, two men playing pool, and two other patrons.
“The night before, he told me he was looking forward to the basketball season to be over,” said Jeff Smith, singer for the Hickoids, a band that headlined what was probably the first punk concert at Taco Land in June of 1984.
Koger noticed one of the men talking in Ram’s ear. “Ram was sitting at the end of the bar, where he always sat, and all of a sudden I hear Ram yelling, ‘Hey, f— you!’” she said. “And the guy shot him in the stomach.”
Koger remembers freezing as the men proceeded to rob the place, asking doorman Morgan to open the register. “[Morgan] didn’t know how to open up the register, so the guys got all mad and shot him in the leg,” she continued. One man, later identified as José Nájera, told his associate Joseph Gamboa: “‘Make the bitch do it.’ And he grabbed me by the hair and dragged me to the register and I opened it as fast as I could.”
After she gave them the money, the men wanted more. “They had seen earlier in the night were I had put more money, because they were watching us, and they dragged me over there to that drawer and made me give them that money,” Koger said. “I gave him the money, and he shot me in the stomach.”
She passed out, but Morgan’s last words could’ve saved her life.
“When I came to, the guy was kicking me in the behind and in the head while holding a gun to my head,” Koger said. “He was going to shoot me again, and then Doug started saying something, I don’t remember what. And the guy came around and shot Doug again, but in the stomach. I just played dead, and they left.”
Ayala died that night. Morgan died July 13. Koger’s bullet went through her kidney and lower intestines and out her back, but she survived after 10 days in the hospital. Two other patrons survived by hiding in the back.
“I always lock that room they were hiding in, except for that night,” Koger said. “So it was just by the grace of God that they were able to hide from these ugly people.”
Gamboa and Nájera were charged, tried, and found guilty of the murders. Gamboa was sentenced to death, and Nájera was sentenced to 50 years in prison.
The news of Ayala’s death was a historical, cultural, and emotional blow to the city.
“It was the meeting place and the glue that held the underground music scene in San Antonio together from the early 1980s to the mid-2000s,” said Smith, a co-organizer of the Ram Jam memorial concert for the last six years. “It was the only consistent local tour stop during that time for a wide range of up-and-coming, under-the-radar bands, including Nirvana and GWAR, among others.”
Taco Land was an underground music mecca, and Ayala himself became a symbol of that scene: his persona equal to — if not surpassing — that of his own business. Upon his death, his face and name were immortalized in the Current’s annual Rammy Awards and on the façade of Taco Land’s now-decrepit building on Grayson Street around which rumors continue to swirl.
David Reyes, publicist for actor Ricardo Chavira (Desperate Housewives), who co-owns the property as a member of a company known as Taco Land Studios, LLC, dismissed rumors circulating on Facebook that the property was about to be converted into an ice house. “It’s just a very interesting property and people like to talk,” Reyes said, “but everything’s in the air right now.”
As for Koger, it took her a while to be able to walk again, and she is still trying to put her life back together. But there is one thing she’s not ready to do yet. “Working at a bar ever again is out of the question,” she said. “I freak out just walking into a bar, but these are fears I must overcome. I’m just trying to live a normal, good life, always remembering Ram for what he was: a good man who always helped people. Even when he gave you the F-word, you felt in fellowship with him. He didn’t die in vain. His legacy moves on.”