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Rebuilding Lives After Family Tragedy : Crime: Apparently mistaken for a gang member, Gavino Ruiz was murdered a month ago. Now neighbors try to help his widow and 3 children.


POMONA — Gavino Ruiz was working more than 60 hours a week at two jobs to support his family when someone apparently mistook him for a gang member and shot him to death in an alley near his home last month.

His death left his wife and three children impoverished, although a union official said they are entitled to the proceeds of a $10,000 insurance policy.

Meanwhile, neighbors and friends have stepped forward to try to help them rebuild their lives.

Despite a full-time job at a laundry during the week and a part-time job cleaning up at a fast-food restaurant at night and on weekends, Ruiz, the 30-year-old father of three, was bringing home only $500 every two weeks. More than half that amount went toward rent.

"He was exhausted and tired," his wife, Dominga, 27, said in Spanish. "He saw it was getting him nowhere, so much work and not getting ahead. . . .

"He felt it was too much. He didn't have enough time for his family."

So, the couple had begun thinking of their native Mexico. Maybe, instead of staying here permanently, they could just save enough money to buy a pickup truck and return to the small town near Guadalajara where they grew up. That was their new dream. The reality was that the couple was struggling.

After working eight hours at the laundry and five hours at a Jack-in-the-Box restaurant on Jan. 27, Ruiz returned home at 10:30 p.m.

He had just parked his car next to his apartment on Chanslor Street when someone came up and fired shots through the car window. Wounded in the torso, Ruiz died at Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center.

Neighbor Mary Elliott was talking to her brother, Noel Whaley, on the telephone when shots rang out.

"It was so loud; it really shook me up," she said.

Elliot said she ran outside in time to see Ruiz, fatally wounded, fall out of the car.

Pomona Police think Ruiz might have been mistaken for a gang member. There are no suspects.

"It's tragic. . . . It's senseless," Capt. Chuck Heilman said.

When news crews arrived the next day, Elliott said, she was appalled to find everyone pointing out the blood stains and talking about the violence without paying any attention to the surviving family members. So, although Elliott does not speak Spanish, she ventured up to Ruiz's apartment and, through an interpreter, asked the family if she could help.

Then, with her brother's assistance, Elliott began calling the media, asking them to focus on the family's plight. She persuaded the Pomona Valley Council of Churches to establish a fund to collect donations. And she appointed herself to take charge of helping the family deal with the various government bureaucracies that might be able to offer long-term aid.

Elliott said she and her brother, who are both in their mid-30s, decided to get involved because they are Irish immigrants who lost their parents at a young age and have, themselves, faced financial adversity. She said they know how difficult it can be for an immigrant to get all the required papers to qualify for benefits they have earned.

With the help of a Spanish-English dictionary, and the bilingual skills of the Ruiz's oldest child, 9-year-old Rodrigo, Elliott is able to communicate with Dominga Ruiz well enough to find out what the family needs and to fill out forms.

Elliott said she plans to continue helping until the family achieves financial stability. Perhaps, she said, Dominga can learn English and acquire job skills.

Although it had been the family's intention to return to Mexico, Dominga Ruiz said she now hopes to remain in Pomona because of the children, whose education and employment opportunities will be much better here.

Gavino Ruiz started coming to the United States as a migrant farm worker 10 years ago. In the beginning, he would work six months in the United States, then return to his family in Mexico. Three years ago, after finding jobs that were permanent, though low-paying, he brought his wife and three children to Pomona.

Pat Irish, executive director of the church council, said that before Ruiz was killed, the family was so low on funds that they had sought food through the council's hunger program and financial help for payment of utility bills.

Irish said the family was paying $575 a month for the apartment, "about as cheap as we can find" in Pomona. But, like others dependent on low-paying jobs, the family did not have enough money to pay all its bills, and not many options when the breadwinner was already working two jobs.

"There's such an absence of hope," Irish said.

After Ruiz was killed, the council set up a fund to aid the family. So far, Irish said , the council has received 37 donations totaling $1,964.

And there has been other help.

Nancy Lopez, head of the local Hispanic Youth Task Force, solicited the assistance of the Pomona Police Officers Assn., which donated clothing. She also paid a utility bill, and arranged for medical care and a bank account for the family.

Employees at Angelica Healthcare Services Group, where Diaz worked in the laundry cleaning hospital uniforms, took up a collection and presented $900 to the family.

In addition, Thomas Luna, executive secretary-treasurer of the Laundry and Dry Cleaners International Union Local 52, said the family is entitled to a $10,000 benefit from a union insurance policy for accidental death. The money has yet to be paid.

Dominga Ruiz said that the children have been saddened by the death of their father, but are unwilling to talk to her about it. She said her youngest son, 4-year-old Sergio, "gets his play gun and says when he grows up he's going to kill all those kids (gang members)."

Sister Leticia Gomez, who directs an anti-gang program in Pomona, said the children will receive counseling. The Roman Catholic nun said situations like this are "always very painful. These are the things that shouldn't have happened."

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