EUGENE, Ore. — Mary Thompson used to come by Aaron Iturra's house to take him to meetings. There, they would spread the alarm about the growing gang problem in the Willamette Valley.
Aaron, 18, knew about gangs firsthand. A self-portrait shows him flashing the hand signs of the Crips, wearing a Malcolm X baseball cap and a shirt in Crips blue buttoned at the neck.
Thompson, 40, knew about gangs, too. She had enlisted Iturra in her campaign to lift her 16-year-old son, Beau Flynn, out of the gang life that had landed him in McLaren School, a juvenile prison.
A security guard, she could talk the talk and walk the walk of the kids who wear blue bandannas to show off their ties to the Crips. She was a charter member of a community task force dedicated to fighting back against gangs.
But somewhere, things fell apart.
Aaron Iturra is dead, shot by two teen-agers as he slept. And Thompson is accused of recruiting the two to kill Iturra, so he couldn't testify against her son about a knife fight that would send him back to McLaren.
Thompson "was one of those community members who was out pounding on our doors, telling us we needed to do something," said David Piercy, assistant to the superintendent of the Eugene School District.
Ironically, he said, her arrest has done more than all the meetings, fliers and newspaper articles to convince people that there is a gang problem here.
"It certainly got our attention," he said.
Dist. Atty. Doug Harcleroad said the number of gang members in the Eugene area has been growing, from 100 members two years ago to 300 now.
It mirrors the pattern in California, he said, but appears to be unconnected to gangs in Los Angeles or Portland and limited primarily to youths who want to be tough and break into houses.
"I try to fight back against gangs, but I also try to understand the gang issues," Thompson told The Register-Guard newspaper last October. "They're people, too, and they're doing this for a reason. . . . I figure if I can get close to the source, I'll be able to understand it a little better."
In that interview, she told the story of how her smiling child turned into a hardened gangster at age 13, looking for a sense of family he didn't have at home. Nicknamed "Bishop," he sold guns under the table at an ice cream parlor, held police at bay with a handgun, and landed in juvenile prison.
Thompson drew Aaron into her family to stand between her son and the gang life when he was released from McLaren School last July.
But Beau wasn't home long before he was back in trouble.
On Sept. 13, Beau got in a fight in front of a convenience store. Aaron was there, too. Police reports say Beau had a knife and cut one of the other boys, telling them it was pay-back for ratting to police that he had stolen the gun that sent him to McLaren a year earlier.
Police arrested him three days later. Aaron was arrested, too. He told police Beau had asked him to back him up. Aaron said when he saw Beau had a knife, he took it from him so no one would get hurt. Aaron said he never saw Beau cut anyone, and gave the knife back to him after the fight.
Janyce Iturra-Holland, Aaron's mother, recalls an angry phone call from Thompson afterward, blaming Aaron for her son's troubles.
"She said, 'He [Aaron] promised me he would be there for him,' and I said, 'Mary, you are the parent.' I don't know if that was the turning point. We didn't know that two weeks later Aaron would be gone."
On Oct. 3, James R. Elstad, 17, and Joseph R. Brown, 18, snuck through the garage and laundry room to Aaron's room, where he was sleeping next to his girlfriend. Elstad fired one shot from a stolen revolver.
Unable to keep from bragging about the killing, the two teens were arrested within days. They pleaded guilty to murder and are both in prison, Brown sentenced to 10 years and Elstad to 15.
It wasn't until after their sentencing that Thompson was arrested last February. Authorities said she arranged for them to kill Iturra and drove them to a highway bridge to drop the gun in the Willamette River.
Thompson is in jail awaiting trial for aggravated murder, facing a possible sentence of life in prison without parole. Her son was sent back to juvenile prison.
It is another irony, said Aaron's mother, Iturra-Holland: "The thing about Mary Thompson is the support that she always wanted to give her son--and by these actions she'll never be there."
Nor will Aaron. On the mantel of his family's home is an old Coors bottle, where his mother and her four other children toss their spare quarters. When they have enough, they will buy a tombstone for Aaron's grave.
"Aaron was 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds," said Iturra-Holland. "He was the protector. I never locked my doors. I don't care what threats there were on the street, they never came into my home."
Until they came for Aaron.