VANCOUVER, Wash. (AP) — Karen Gutierrez points to last Thanksgiving as one of her favorite family-bonding moments since she and younger siblings Robert Jr., Nasseen and Corin joined the Cartwright family 2½ years ago.

The gratitude and appreciation was overwhelming for Wes and Kathy Cartwright, a Vancouver couple who became the Gutierrez children's legal guardians after the four children lost their parents and maternal grandmother in a July 2015 double murder-suicide.

But what made last Nov. 23 special for Karen Gutierrez, the eldest of the four, came from a soft-spoken Nasseen Gutierrez, a Columbia River High School senior.

"Love was in the air," Karen said. "What got me was when Nasseen cried."

Nasseen couldn't be more proud of how he, his sisters and older brother have overcome a tragedy so great through achievements, growth and progress in the 2½ years since their father, Robert Diaz Gutierrez, fatally shot their mother, Elizabeth Orozco, and grandmother, Adela Ruiz-Gonzales, before turning a gun on himself.

Three of the four children witnessed the killings inside their Hazel Dell home.

Nasseen said he and his siblings could have gone in different directions since that day, yet all four picked themselves back up after the worst fall of their lives.

"Even though we have some struggles today," Nasseen said, "we've all grown and we've come so far."

Nasseen is 17 and a 6-foot-6 starting forward on Columbia River's varsity boys basketball team. What's helped his healing process is basketball, the sport that has, and always will be, his first love.

It's the sport that also saved him.

"Basketball helped me cope through sadness and my negative thoughts," he said. "It gave me something to look forward to.

"I will always have that with me."

Crammed in a bedroom with a queen bed and a portable mattress on the floor, Karen, Robert Jr., Nasseen and Corin did their best to sleep and put an end to a trauma-filled day.

Details of that night are as crisp now as they were then for Kathy Cartwright, whom Karen Gutierrez considers a second mother. At age 10, Karen became best friends with the Cartwrights' youngest daughter, Alexis.

That motherly figure is why Kathy Cartwright was the first call she made after dialing 911 at 3:43 p.m. on Tuesday, July 14, 2015. When Clark County Sheriff's Office deputies and investigators arrived, they discovered Robert Diaz Gutierrez, Elizabeth Orozco and Adela Ruiz-Gonzales dead inside a two-story home.

Over the next 72 hours, Nasseen's smartphone received countless missed calls, voicemails and text messages. He didn't respond to most of them, but he did take Coach David Long's call.

The Longs, too, have been down a recent path of family loss. In 2014, David and Holly's daughter-in-law, Tiffany, died of pancreatic cancer and still to this day, part of Coach Long's words to Nasseen on that long-distance phone call still resonate: Time heals.

And it has. The hardest days are behind him, he said.

"Time has helped," Nasseen said.

Under the guardianship umbrella, the Cartwrights are legally responsible for the Gutierrez children until each turns 18. Living with the Cartwrights was the children's best option to remain together and in Vancouver.

"We knew we had to do something to keep them together," Wes Cartwright said.

"It hasn't been easy," Kathy Cartwright said. But without hesitation, they'd do it again.

Especially for these four.

"A lot of people ask, 'How could you do this?'?" Kathy Cartwright said. "How could you not? If the same situation is put in front of you — how could you not do it?"

How Nasseen and his siblings describe their late parents comes in glimpses of sorrow and joy.

Robert Diaz Gutierrez and Elizabeth Orozco were married 20 years and came to Vancouver in the 1990s from Uruapan, a city of 315,000 about 200 miles west of Mexico City. Their dad worked tirelessly; he was a self-employed man who owned an auto repair shop to support a family of six. Their mom, a stay-at-home parent most of her children's lives, cherished simple family treasures, including church outings and Sunday walks. And their grandmother was in town visiting her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren.

Nasseen said that in time, he may forgive his father.

Karen Gutierrez saw her brother's natural basketball talent early.

Nasseen grew to his eventual 6-foot-6 frame, a height he got from dad, who stood 6-4. The low-post skills and midrange game came from the same guy who once told stories of dreaming to play for the NBA's San Antonio Spurs.

"A lot of (my) craftiness," Nasseen said, "comes from his teachings."

Nasseen's love of basketball didn't rise to its strongest peak without first hitting rock bottom.

Improvement came only when he rediscovered a focus, but more importantly, using himself as a self-motivator.

Nasseen joined a handful of other teammates for hourlong 6 a.m. basketball workouts with Jesse Norris, an ex-Mountain View standout.

What lacked in Nasseen's toolbox wasn't basketball skills, but rather, consistency on the mental side, Norris said.

"He needed to develop the confidence that comes from reps," Norris said. "Always being in the gym, getting confident with those moves over, and over and over again."

A flip of a switch came at the end of the 2016-17 season. Soon enough, Long, River's longtime coach, couldn't keep Nasseen off the floor. He said in 30 years of coaching, he's never had a player make a transformation so quickly in the midst of a season.

Within a month, Nasseen went from sixth on the depth chart at forward to significant minutes when the 2A district tournament arrived in February 2017. The Chieftains' season ended one win shy of reaching 2A regionals, but Nasseen's seven points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots against Centralia got the coaching staff's attention.

"It might've been in the end of our season," Long said, "but it was the beginning of his."

For Nasseen, the fire and drive came from wanting to improve himself. In turn, everything else fell in line, too.

"I knew I could play; I knew I shouldn't not be playing," he said. "I was tired of wasting my time.

"I had to personally work at it; it's not given to you and that's what I finally understood."

He still rises at 6 a.m. most mornings to put in extra work. And he's not one of the Chieftains' top players by coincidence.

"I don't think he's missed a day," the coach said.

Nasseen is averaging better than 9 points a game on a senior-laden team that shared the 2A Greater St. Helens League title and has ambitions to reach the Class 2A state tournament in Yakima. His career-best 23 points came earlier this season against Mountain View.

Junior guard Caden Dezort is one of the many Chieftains who's drawn from Nasseen's strength. A player who they're proud to call their leader.

"The way he carries himself," Dezort said, "nothing fazes him."

Nasseen's post-high school plans might include basketball, too. The University of Puget Sound, an NCAA Division III school in Tacoma, is one of the small-college programs recruiting Nasseen. He's also applied to Washington, Gonzaga, and Portland.

Long said a program like UPS, or any team in the D-III Northwest Conference, is perfect for a player with Nasseen's skillset: a 6-6 athletic forward who can shoot the 3 and also is a tenacious defender.

"If he wants it, it's there for him," Long said. "He's worked hard enough to earn a spot on those teams."

In his college admissions essay, Nasseen wrote how basketball impacted and shaped his life, and helped him through the worst situation imaginable for him and his siblings.

As Kathy Cartwright said of a January game in which Nasseen scored the team's first three field goals in a win over Woodland, "you don't need to push Nasseen, he pushes himself."

Thanks to hope, love, and basketball.

"And it's something I'll always have with me," Nasseen said.


Information from: The Columbian,