SAN CLEMENTE — It was sadly ironic that one of Steve Woods' favorite songs was "Tears in Heaven."
The acoustic melody by Eric Clapton was played one more time before friends and family who gathered Saturday afternoon for an emotional funeral for the 17-year-old San Clemente senior whose death has become a symbol of senseless violence for the local community.
Woods died Tuesday after he was speared in the head with the metal rod from a paint roller Oct. 15 by alleged gang members who attacked his car in an altercation at a beach parking lot. The teen-ager remained in a coma for nearly a month and died at an Anaheim hospital with his sister and friend at his side, holding his hand until the end.
More than 250 people attended the funeral at St. Andrew's By the Sea United Methodist Church in San Clemente, many of them high school and work friends of the popular Woods.
"One can't help but smile when you think of Steve," said Alison Moore, a manager at the local Denny's restaurant where Woods worked.
Whether he was skiing on the slopes at Mammoth, walking down the halls of San Clemente High School or standing behind the counter serving a customer at Denny's, Woods always had a "smile on his face . . . and a whimsical look," Moore said.
"No matter what was happening, (he) always had a way of making sure everyone was having a good time," she said, recounting some of Woods' favorite pastimes, including driving his truck and surfing by the city's pier.
"Even though he may not be here with us physically, he will always be in our hearts forever," she said. "We love you and we'll miss you always."
Both Moore and the Rev. James King, a pastor who led the service, impressed upon those gathered that the teen-ager's death was not in vain.
Moore said Woods' death is a symptom of the alarming rise in local violence.
"We are so sorry you had to pay the highest price there is before we could realize what is going on," Moore said. But, she vowed, "we will make it safer for our children and community," and she thanked Woods for "being part of our lives."
Woods was mortally injured the night of Oct. 15 at Calafia Beach County Park after a confrontation between four carloads of his friends and the alleged assailants, whom police have described as gang members and associates.
According to Orange County Sheriff's Department reports, Woods and his friends had gone to relax at the beach after a football game and were driving from the parking lot when they were pelted with rocks, bottles and other items. In the confrontation, Woods was pierced in the skull with the rod from a paint roller.
Law enforcement officials suspect that a fight broke out because one of the assailants believed that one of Woods' companions had given him "the finger" the day before.
Woods fell into a coma and never regained consciousness, despite a constant bedside vigil by family and friends after the attack.
Four teen-agers and two adults were charged with murder on Wednesday, and all six still face additional felony assault charges. The adults charged are Arturo Villalobos, 20, and Juan Enriquez Alcocer, 20, both of San Clemente. The four juveniles are brothers Saul Penuelas, 17, and Hector Penuelas, 16, and Rogelio Vasquez Solis, 17, and Julio Bonilla, 17.
The tragedy sparked outrage in the community, which has held demonstrations, meetings and marches to protest gang-related violence in San Clemente.
As the first chords were played of "Tears in Heaven," the Grammy-winning song written by Clapton in memory of his 4-year-old son who died in a fall from a window of a high-rise building, many in the crowd began weeping.
Others, chins resting on hands, simply looked ahead in deep reflection at two photos of Woods, surrounded by wreaths of flowers at the front of the church.
"I must be strong and carry on," rang the words of the song throughout the church, "because I know I don't belong here in heaven."
Jaime Trabert, 15, stood up to read a poem she had written for Woods.
"Life just isn't fair," she said, her voice breaking with emotion, "You just ran away so fast. . . . The memories of your smile will always be glued to my mind."
After reading from the Old and New Testaments, Pastor King acknowledged the anger, outrage, and frustration friends and family are now feeling over Woods' tragic death.
"When will all of this violence end?" he asked. "How come the fabric of our society seems to be coming undone?"
But he said people must move past those feelings of rage.
"Anger and frustration alone in themselves add up to a dead end," he said.
King said the community should follow the wishes of Steve's mother, Kathy, and work to ensure that her son did not die in vain. "We must discover ways to end the senseless cycle of violence," he said.
At the close of the ceremony, small groups of friends gathered outside the church to shed more tears and exchange hugs of support.
"You can come over to my house if you want to," one tearful teen-ager said to her friend as she gave her a hug. As Kathy Woods and other family members were being comforted, nine of Woods' close friends solemnly lifted the wooden casket into a waiting hearse to be taken to El Toro Memorial Park in Lake Forest for a private burial.
Times staff writer Rene Lynch contributed to this report.