Now begins the holiday season--and for Annette Harris and the six kids, it is the cruelest season of all, calling up a rush of memories of their lost loved one.
Today's Thanksgiving and the upcoming Christmas festivities will be difficult. But New Year's Day will be the worst.
"I've already told the kids," Harris said the other day, "that on January the first, I'm closing my bedroom door and I'm not coming out. They understand."
They understand because it was on Jan. 1, 1984, that Patricia Coleman was found strangled on a picnic table in Inglewood's Darby Park.
The petite 28-year-old black woman was Victim No. 2 on the list of 17 women whose deaths have been attributed to the Southside Serial Killer.
Patricia Coleman also was the oldest daughter of Annette Harris, the sister of Keisha Harris, then 9, and the mother of four sons and a daughter, then ranging in age from 2 to 11. At the time of her death, the young divorcee was 6 1/2 months pregnant.
In a very real sense, the 45-year-old Harris and the six children also are victims of the serial slayer. Harris was forced to leave her job, Keisha has tried to take her own life and grief has driven the family to move from familiar surroundings. And they are not the only "other victims" scarred psychologically, their lives disrupted and thrown into disarray by a killer or killers whose murderous attacks began in September, 1983.
Community activist Margaret Prescod, founder of the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, said she knows of at least six other children in four other families left behind by Southside victims. "And," Prescod said, "the effect on all of the families has been simply devastating."
Patricia Williams, coordinator of the coalition's efforts to aid the other victims of the Southside Slayer, estimates that there may be as many as 30 children, all of them in need of both counseling and financial aid. Williams is the aunt of Southside Victim No. 15, Verna Patricia Williams. She and others are trying to put together gifts of food and clothes for the families. Turkeys and traditional fixings were delivered Wednesday to three of the families, including Patricia Coleman's.
Although they may or may not be typical, the surviving family of Victim No. 2 certainly is the largest household, and there is no question that Patricia Coleman's violent death has been devastating emotionally and financially.
Today, nearly four years after the murder, her mother is able to talk about her first-born child and sometimes even smile as she remembers her daughter. But neither Keisha nor the children can bring themselves to talk about the vivacious, bright-eyed woman they miss so much.
"Pat, she was a very loving person," the mother said in an interview. "To tell the truth, that was one problem she had--her generosity. She and I had the same problem. She would give her last penny, go without, to give to someone else. And she didn't have very much. Sometimes, when she wasn't living with me, she would have people who didn't have a place to live come stay with her. And she would take food from my house and give it to friends who didn't have food."
Her voice can grow tense with suppressed anger when she is asked whether Pat was a streetwalker. Police, who believe there may be two or more multiple murderers preying principally on black prostitutes in South-Central Los Angeles, say that records show Patricia Coleman had been arrested on a prostitution count on Jan. 23, 1981.
Despite the fact that her daughter pleaded no contest, and served a sentence of two weekends in jail, Harris still does not believe that her daughter worked the streets.
"At the time that happened," the mother said, "she was living with me. . . . She didn't have any rent to pay; I was doing everything for the kids. She was getting the (welfare) check. So why did she have to go out on the streets?"
Pat's story was that she was simply walking down the street "and the policeman saw her talking to one of those ladies of the night. . . ." Harris paused, then went on with her daughter's version: "So when they picked this other girl up, they picked up Pat, too. . . . I had to bail her out of Sybil Brand (the women's jail), and I asked her about it, and she told me what happened, and I don't think she lied to me."
Harris can even recount how she learned that her daughter had been murdered. But in the telling there are moments when her voice fades to an almost inaudible whisper and tears come to the corners of her eyes.
Pat, then studying child development at Southwest College, was spending the holiday vacation with friends. She had left the children with their grandmother. Harris recalled that she had the flu and was lying down when the detectives came. The children were outside playing.