Parents of the Murdered Use Candles, Flowers and Words to Keep Memories of Fallen Loved Ones Alive

An organization that supports survivors, friends and families who have lost their loved ones to violence held their 19th annual ceremony Sunday evening that they hope will increase public awareness about victims' rights.

Prior to the 6 p.m. Candlelight Vigil and Names Dedication Ceremony at Memory Garden Memorial Park in Brea, family members, victims' rights advocates, and members of the Greater Orange County Chapter of Parents of Murdered Children (POMC) crowded around the main marble monument inscribed with the words, "Dedicated to those who lost their lives in violent crimes."

Each placed candles, roses and other flowers near the dedicated names etched on marble.

Marie Belmontez became involved with POMC when her nephew Stephen Sanchez was murdered in the year 2000. She is now the Orange County chapter leader, and her goals are to honor Sanchez's memory and spread awareness about violence and the many innocent lives being taken away.

During the ceremony, Belmontez introduced the board of directors: Anita Lewis, Carol McVeigh, Lena Gonzalez, Gail Currier, Laura Gardhouse--each of whom had lost loved ones to violence.

A quilt honors the memories of those who have been murdered in Orange County.
A quilt honors the memories of those who have been murdered in Orange County.
Photos by Monica Luhar/OC Weekly

Photos by Monica Luhar/OC Weekly
A quilt honors the memories of those who have been murdered in Orange County.
Paul Paulsen

led the remainder of the ceremony. Paulsen had devastatingly lost his sister

Debbie Paulsen

, on July 12, 1976, to the highly publicized California State University, Fullerton massacre that was planned out by killer

Edward Charles Allaway

. In discussing National Crime Victims' Rights Week, Paulsen stated, "Several organizations have held events throughout this week. The purpose of these events is to send a strong message that we, the survivors, must continue to speak for those who can no longer speak for themselves."

The invocation was then led by Chaplain Brad Stetson, who is an author and educator at Cal State Long Beach.

To lighten up the mood amongst such a heavy topic, Paulsen later posed a question for the audience: "What do Betty Crocker and POMC have in common?" She then explained that, this year, POMC is fund-raising by letting families and friends send in recipes that their loved ones enjoyed in hopes of compiling a book to sustain the memories of all of the individuals.

Among many of the guest speakers, Todd Spitzer, a former Orange County prosecutor, state assemblyman and supervisor (who has announced he is running to rejoin the board). But the capacity that rang most true for POMC members were his roles as chairman and director of legal affairs with the statewide Marsy's law campaign, the so-called Victims' Bill of Rights Act of 2008.

Lights to remember those who have fallen.
Lights to remember those who have fallen.

Lights to remember those who have fallen.

Spitzer spoke about the justice system and how he lost his chief of staff and Orange City Councilman

Steven Ambriz

, who died in 2006 from a driver under the influence of drugs and alcohol. When Spitzer received the chilling phone call about Ambriz' death, he couldn't believe it.

During the speech, Spitzer held up a shattered side-view mirror from Ambriz's car, symbolizing how for many people, their lives will never be the same.

"It's shattered," Spitzer said. "Our lives have been shattered. And so we have choices. Difficult and terrible choices. Because all of us have been immediately thrown in a criminal justice system that is not necessarily just. The crime victim is always perceived as the redheaded stepchild. The person that is seen but not heard. We've come a long way. But we have a long way to go."

Several white doves were released by Megan Bufford, whose mother Yolanda Meraz was murdered. Along with the release of the doves, bagpiper Piper Fahrney performed with singers and friends of POMC, including Matt Villa and Holly Pitrago.

Chris Lewis, who lost his sister Mary Lewis and grandfather Lester Lewis to violence, read a poem entitled, "Gone Too Soon" highlighting the tragic truth about losing someone too soon:

"[. . .] Like the loss of sunlight on a cloudy afternoon, gone too soon. Like a castle built up on a sandy beach, gone too soon. Like a perfect flower that is just beyond our reach, gone too soon. Our loved ones were born to amuse, to delight, to inspire. Here one day, gone at night. Like a sun set dying with the rising of the moon, gone too soon."

Family, friends and advocates of victims' rights clenched each others' hands, offering tissues, hugs and smiles for support during the ceremony as the main candle was lit in front of the beautiful marble monument.
 

Nine new names were added to a marble monument that already bears names of 465 murder victims.
Nine new names were added to a marble monument that already bears names of 465 murder victims.

Nine new names were added to a marble monument that already bears names of 465 murder victims.
Debra Dizon-Hernandez

lost her 20-year-old son,

Jonathan Dizon

, in 2007. Debra shared the moment when she received a phone call that changed her life forever:

"I am sure we can all recall the exact date and time and where we were when we received that fatal call." he said. "For me, it was November 27, 2007, at 8:30. The phone rang and at the other end of the phone, a voice said, 'I don't know how to tell you this, but your son just got shot.'"

Three weeks after her son's tragic murder, Hernandez decided to join POMC in search of something she didn't quite know of. What she later found was a dedicated group of loving supporters. As an active member of POMC, Hernandez's main goal now is to keep Jonathan's memory alive.

Matt Murphy, a senior deputy district attorney in Orange County discussed working in the Homicide Unit and seeing on a day-to-day-basis what innocent victims go through.

"People have asked me, 'Doesn't it get depressing when you see these nice people who have been murdered and experiencing the grief?' [. . .] You see this horrible act but right on the heels of that, you see good people showing up. People start processing the crime scene. You see the dedication they have toward these cases."

Ryan Hawks, who devastatingly lost both his parents, Thomas and Jackie Hawks, provided a hopeful message to the audience. He thanked prosecutors, law enforcement officials and advocates of victims' rights for making change happen and for bringing justice to others.

"No one is trained to be a victim of crime. It's an education," Hawks said. "It's not an education you can pay for. It's not an education you want. It's not an education anyone deserves. But it's an education and you have it--whether you like it or not. It's important to maintain a productive attitude."

The last guest speaker before the candlelight vigil began was Richard Tapia, who lost both his sons to murder: Richie II Tapia in 1996 and Michael Tapia in 2001. The father proudly tattooed his arm with an image of his two sons so that he can celebrate some of the great memories he's shared with them.

Richard Tapia's tattoo honors his fallen sons Richie II and Michael.
Richard Tapia's tattoo honors his fallen sons Richie II and Michael.

Richard Tapia's tattoo honors his fallen sons Richie II and Michael.

Richard Tapia and his wife live with the hope of honoring their children and spreading the word about victims' rights.

"Today I'm celebrating their lives," he said. "I come from a big family, and they want me to move on because nobody realizes what your loss is; only you. You're the one who has to bite your tongue and say, 'I understand.' The reality is: we move on each day. Some days are better than others. [. . .] It's 14 years later, and we are still here. And it's just like day one. It doesn't change."

Paulsen described how 465 names were dedicated along with 9 new names. Family and friends walked up near the monument to speak the names of those they've lost and ending with the words, "never forgotten" while lighting a candle. All attendees in each row were then asked to stand up, speak the name of their loved ones and hold up a flameless candle.

The night ended with hundreds of brave attendees singing, "We are the Survivors" while holding up their candles and remembering the victims and survivors. 


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