Although her son has been dead for more than two months, Gaynell Mixon still cannot bear to erase his voice from the family's phone message service.
She often calls his voice mail to hear his jovial greeting, recorded just a few days before he was killed in a hit-and-run accident in South-Central Los Angeles in August.
Sometimes, she even leaves messages for him. "I know you can hear me talking to you," she says to her dead son.
This week, on what would have been Tyrell Anthony Mixon's 20th birthday, his mother played for a visitor a tearful message she left on his voice mail just a few weeks ago. "I'm asking you to please look down upon your mama and guide me and give me strength," it said. "I want you to know you'll always be my baby."
Tyrell Mixon's car was hit broadside at Avalon Boulevard and 108th Street, 10 blocks from his home. The suspect ran away and has yet to be found. The suspect's car, a blue 1979 Mazda, was reported stolen after the accident occurred.
Police described the suspect as a Latino male, 30 to 40 years old, with black hair, brown eyes and a mustache, weighing 160 to 180 pounds and about 5 feet, 6 inches.
City officials have stepped in to help by announcing a $25,000 reward, but so far it has not made a difference. "It's another shameful episode," said Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who helped set up the reward after Gaynell Mixon contacted his office asking for help.
Ridley-Thomas said he finds himself arranging numerous rewards, but usually for high-profile crimes that upstage incidents such as hit-and-run accidents, which take about 400 lives each year statewide.
Yet, he said, "The result is the same. . . . You have a family in grief, going through the loss of a loved one."
Gaynell Mixon says she has not slept well since her son died, often awaking at 3 a.m. and roaming her house, unable to shake the memories. Tyrell, an amateur barber, was on his way to cut a friend's father's hair that tragic Saturday morning while the rest of his family was at a church picnic. Tyrell's Hyundai was hit by a car running a red light, police say. It spun around twice and hit a pole.
Gaynell Mixon, her husband, and Tyrell's two younger brothers received word of the accident at the picnic and rushed to Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center.
By the time they arrived, Mixon said, doctors had already put Tyrell on a life support system. For the next several days, doctors desperately fought to save Tyrell's life, first with exploratory surgery to determine the extent of his spinal injuries and then by putting a "halo" on his head--a circular restraining device screwed into the skull.
Mixon said that although her son could not speak, he would laugh at her jokes. "I could see his cheeks puff out as he smiled," she said. "I could see his tears, too," she recalled.
Two days after the accident, she said, Tyrell had "a bad night"--his lungs collapsed, his blood pressure spiraled and soon he started showing signs that his brain was no longer functioning.
"I lifted his eyelids," his mother said, "and I knew there was nothing there."
About 2:30 the next morning, she and her husband got a call at home telling them that Tyrell's heart had stopped.
"It's been difficult," she said, having only her memories and Tyrell's voice-mail greeting to remind her of her firstborn.
Since the reward was announced, Mixon has printed hundreds of flyers with the description of the suspect and posted them all around the neighborhood.
"All we need," she said, "is for one person to say, 'That's him.' "