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Mothers Share Grief : Kin on Opposite Sides in Woods Case Embrace, Shed Tears

August 27, 1994|REBECCA TROUNSON and DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

United in a common tragedy, three mothers whose lives intersected with the death of Steve Woods last year had touched hands, then briefly embraced during a chance meeting recently in a courthouse hallway, an encounter that left all three in tears.

Even after the trial they were attending ended Thursday with second-degree murder convictions against Julio Perez Bonilla, 18, and Hector Penuelas, 17, in the death of Woods, 17, the mothers seemed still to share a bond, an understanding that his slaying last year had made victims of them all.

In fact, Bonilla's mother said Friday it was out of respect for Steve Woods' mother that she and other relatives of the defendants had made no public comment immediately after the verdict. Kathy Woods, in turn, said she felt only sadness for the families of the young men found guilty in the bizarre confrontation last October that left her son dead.

Nonetheless, the two women Friday voiced sharply contrasting views of the verdict reached by Orange County Superior Court Judge Everett W. Dickey. Woods expressed relief and a measure of vindication that the first two defendants in the case had been convicted of murder and nine other felony counts; Maria Perez Bonilla spoke of her faith in her own son's innocence.

Penuelas' relatives, and those of four other defendants in the case, could not be reached for comment Friday. Three of the youths, including Penuelas' brother Saul, 18, have yet to be tried. A fourth, Arturo Villalobos, 19, has pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and will be sentenced in September.

Woods died last November, almost a month after he was speared through the head by a paint-roller rod that was thrown at the car in which he was riding at Calafia Beach County Park. The gang attack, along with the horrifying nature of Woods' injury, shocked the quiet community of San Clemente, stirring protests and uncovering racial divisions in a town where violence is still a rarity.

That the slaying also left deep emotional scars on the families of both the victim and the defendants was clear in conversations Friday with Kathy Woods and Maria Perez Bonilla.

Seated near a window in a quiet booth at the Denny's restaurant where her son had worked, Kathy Woods said the two-week trial left her emotionally drained.

The first day of the trial was especially difficult, she said, with opening arguments that included descriptions of her son's wound and the events surrounding his death.

"I live in a nightmare, and I will always live in that nightmare," Woods said quietly. "But hearing the word 'murder' makes it a reality all over again. This was such a heinous thing to have happen to anyone. It's like it hits me all over again: My son was murdered."

To make matters worse, she said, others who were present during the confrontation have not been charged. "I still think of all those others," she said. "It will never be over for me."

But the verdicts, which carry possible sentences of 15 years to life in prison, did bring her a measure of relief, she said. She had feared that the youths, who were juveniles at the time of the attack but were tried as adults, would be convicted of the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter.

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Despite her sympathy for their families, Woods also said she hopes the two young men will be given prison terms of at least 20 years when they are sentenced on Jan. 13. Throughout the trial, she said, she could find no remorse in their expressions, nothing that made her think they felt much guilt over her son's death.

"I just saw stony expressions," she said. "That doesn't mean they don't have remorse, but they didn't show it to me."

In recent months, Woods, now working as a real estate broker, has become increasingly visible, making occasional appearances at victims' rights meetings and recently traveling to Sacramento to try to lobby the Legislature on several crime bills.

Although she did not end up addressing the lawmakers that time, she said she plans to continue working with crime victims and their relatives to try to toughen existing laws on crime. Her top priorities include lengthening the prison sentences for violent offenders and lowering the age at which juveniles can stand trial as adults.

"I'm not a crusader," she said, her low voice intense. "But if I can go with a group and we can speak with one voice to the Legislature, maybe we can do some good.

"I think I see my direction now, which I really didn't do before."

But if the verdicts affirmed the faith of Woods' mother in the criminal justice system, at least to some extent, they served only to shatter that of Bonilla's family.

Maria Perez Bonilla said that with her son's convictions on charges of second-degree murder, assault, conspiracy to commit assault and a gang enhancement, her family's faith in the judge--and by extension, the justice system--has vanished.

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