Michelle and Nicole Stevens often cautioned their mother that it was dangerous to go out in her Sun Valley neighborhood at night. But Rufina Stevens would brush aside her daughters' warnings, telling them that the darkness was just as safe as the daylight.
It was, after all, her neighborhood: She had lived in the same green bungalow near Burbank Airport for 21 years. When crime began to rise recently, Stevens joined Neighborhood Watch and spent weekends painting out graffiti that scarred the walls of local businesses. If she saw someone breaking the law, it was not unusual for her to give them a tongue-lashing.
"She was not going to let anyone scare her out of her neighborhood," Michelle Stevens said. "She was very brave. She was not scared of anything. Not a thing."
That bravery, her daughters said, may have cost Rufina Stevens her life.
Four hours after Stevens went on a routine nighttime shopping trip Friday, her mangled body was discovered on the railroad tracks a few hundred yards from her home. Police said Stevens was murdered before her nude body was placed on the tracks in the 7800 block of San Fernando Road.
A Southern Pacific railroad engineer spotted the body about 1:10 a.m. Saturday but was unable to stop the train in time to avoid running over it. Stevens' clothing was found a short distance from her body.
Police said they had no motive for the attack and no suspects. Neither could they explain why her killer stripped the body and placed it on the railroad tracks.
While police detectives and coroner's investigators were examining the details of Rufina Stevens' death, her two daughters spent Sunday reminiscing about their mother.
She worked for Pacific Bell as an engineering aide, but was spending hours after work taking a class in fiber-optics so she could move up.
"She wanted all of us to become something," Michelle Stevens said.
Some of her five grandchildren milled around the house Sunday, playing on the swing set, not understanding that their grandmother was dead. Nicole Stevens recalled how her mother would sit for hours on the patio and patiently tell stories to the children. A favorite was one about how birds chirping at the end of the day means they are telling each other about their adventures before they go to bed.
But she also had a stubborn streak that blinded her to the growing dangers around her. If she needed something, she hopped on the bus and went to the store, regardless of what time it was or what her daughters said about her safety.
Michelle and Nicole Stevens were bracing themselves Sunday for the task of sifting through the possessions their mother had accumulated during her 47 years. They had been stalling, they said, because Rufina Stevens was particular about her things and knew when someone had been in them.
That was the way Rufina Stevens was, her daughters said: She knew what was best, and until Friday she had been right.
A month ago, Stevens brought home a rose branch she had salvaged from a trash can.
Her daughters teased her. "Why'd you bring that thing home?" one of them asked. "You're crazy, it's just trash."
Their mother planted it in the front yard and insisted it would grow.
On Sunday, three green leaves were sprouting from the branch.