Matt Casias Takes a Bullet for a Stranger

updated 03/14/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/14/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

Matt Casias looked out the window last October, when a flash of movement in the street caught his eye. Not 50 feet from his ground-floor office, four guys were quickly gaining ground on an older woman—and then one lunged at her. "That's when I ran out there," says Casias, who arrived to find 63-year-old Brynda Turner sprawled on the sidewalk, one thug pulling at her shoulder bag. "I grabbed the guy and got him off her. I looked down to see if she was all right," the former Golden Gloves boxer says. "When I looked back up, there was a gun in my chest, and he fired point-blank." Shot, Casias stumbled back into the Denver printing shop where he worked, asked someone to call 911 and lay down on the floor. "Every time I took a breath, blood was coming out," he says. "I remember thinking I just want my family and friends to know that I love them before I go."

Instead it was Casias who received the outpouring of appreciation, not only from those close to him but from a community heartened by his selfless act. Thousands of dollars in donations helped pay the cost of the uninsured single father's medical bills. Dozens of local artists, including the grateful Turner—a jewelry designer who was shaken but otherwise uninjured by the attack—donated works for a silent auction. On Nov. 19, which the city named Matthew D. Casias Day, Mayor John Hickenlooper and Police Chief Gerry Whitman hosted another fund-raiser. And in January Colorado Gov. Bill Owens presented Casias, now 27, with a Medal of Valor. "Matt's one of the good guys," says Whitman. "What he did is especially amazing when you realize he might have been on the other end of the gun had he not straightened out his own life."

"My daddy helps me a lot," says Faith (with Casias). "He treats me good." Not so many years ago Casias was a troubled teen, not all that different from the four charged in the assault. (Three of them pleaded guilty to robbery and were given probation; alleged shooter Michael Cordova, 17, has been charged as an adult with four felonies including attempted first-degree murder.) Following his mother's marriage when he was 14, Casias moved from the rural community of Brighton, Colo., into a tough Denver suburb. Soon he started to rack up arrests for a string of minor crimes: underage drinking, fighting, petty theft. Says his mother, Geneva Casias-Sena, now 48 and a thrift shop manager: "At one point I told him, 'I love you, but I do not like the person you have turned into.' " The turning point came when Matt was arrested during his junior year of high school for possession of a loaded gun. He pulled it during a fight and would have fired, but the gun jammed. "I made a promise to myself that day," Casias says, "that I would never see that look of sadness and disappointment on my mom's face again. Ever."

That's a pledge he's kept, starting by returning to an Adams County high school with a monitoring bracelet on his ankle and earning a 4.0 average. After seven years of experience at Kinko's—where he worked his way up from cashier to a service rep for major accounts—Casias formed his own digital printing business, Power Imaging, with friend Jeff Nadeau. With a $70,000 loan from the Denver Mayor's Office of Economic Development, the company opened in October 2003. "Starting off, I knew there were certain sacrifices we'd have to make," says Casias. One of these was health insurance, which is why Denver citizens sent in money.

Despite the demands of getting a start-up off the ground and sharing custody of his 6-year-old daughter Faith with former girlfriend Jennyfer Gonzalez, 24, Casias somehow manages to find time to mentor the youngsters in the D-Town Boxing Club. (What he doesn't have time for, he admits, is dating.) Four nights a week Casias has been throwing open the doors to his red-brick-lined basement for an average of
15 to 20 boxers to hone their skills; within the next few weeks, the group will start training in a new facility nearby. "This will keep them off the streets," says Casias. "It really shows them that with hard work and dedication, good things happen."

As they continue to do for Matt Casias. Last month, when surgeon Michael Fenoglio found out how the guy he was operating on got that slug in his right shoulder, "he didn't even charge me to remove it; he said the only thing he would ask is that I go talk to his son's high school," Casias says. "I'm still amazed that so many people came together to help someone they didn't even know."

Vickie Bane in Denver

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