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California and the West

Town Makes Tragedy a Turning Point

Crime: A year ago, residents joined to search for kidnapped boy, then to mourn him. Now, together, they remember.

April 03, 1998|DIANA MARCUM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BEAUMONT, Calif. — This is a small town and there are still daily reminders of Anthony Martinez, the 10-year-old boy who was kidnapped outside his family's home and found slain in a desert ravine.

Anthony's mother is a familiar sight at the local bank where she works. Fliers are still plastered on car windows and there are still giant billboards out by the highway, all seeking any fresh clue.

Saturday will mark the one-year anniversary of the boy's abduction, and despite Beaumont's best efforts, Anthony's killer has not been caught.

"I just want that one call from the person who knows the man who did this," Riverside County Sheriff's Det. Wally Watkins said from his Indio office. "They're out there, and I'm waiting for that call."

A task force of local police and FBI agents received more than 100,000 tips before the leads ran dry.

Within hours after Anthony vanished, Beaumont had launched its own round-the-clock effort to find him and had posted a sign at City Hall that read, "We love you Anthony."

Neighbors scoured miles of fields for clues, passed out yellow ribbons, set up hotlines and placed ads in newspapers in a display of community spirit that caught the attention of the nation.

There had been dogged hope for 16 days after a slender blue-eyed man approached five children playing in a fenced alley behind their homes and asked for help finding a lost kitten. When two children ran in fear, the man pulled a knife from his waistband and forced Anthony into a white car with red pinstripes.

When the 10-year-old's decomposed body was found April 20, the yellow ribbons of hope began to be replaced by red ribbons of rage. Diane and Ernesto Medina, still reeling with the news of their son's death, thanked the community for their help but demanded that Anthony's memory not be tarnished with anger.

"I was awed to see their courage," said 61-year-old Pat Manifesto, a special education kindergarten teacher. "And I realized then that I was awed by this community. Like every town, we have our good, our bad, our weaknesses. But to see the people rise up--it was a turning point. We were all involved in our own little worlds, but Anthony united us, relations were forged."

In the past year, he said, various churches in this town west of Palm Springs began working together to counsel stricken residents. "All the different churches and the secular world now work together more than they ever did before to reach out and help people."

John Wood, superintendent of the Beaumont School District, felt himself cringe as the anniversary of Anthony's death approached. He vividly remembered the months after the kidnapping when there were no children playing in yards, when parents were afraid to leave their children at school.

"In a district of 3,500 students, I had 3,500 students and their parents who needed counseling and very little staff," Wood said. "We called the local churches and had youth counselors working around the clock."

"Anthony's murder changed things here. We lost our small-town intimacy, but in a way it was a wake-up call. These things can happen here. They can happen anywhere."

This month, the district is introducing "Child Lures," a safety program based on interviews with predators about how they make contact with children.

"Anthony's parents said they didn't want a memorial service. But I knew it would be on the students' minds," Wood said. "So we felt the best way to honor Anthony was to put this in the curriculum and do everything we can to make sure it never happens again."

Residents say that the day-to-day fear has abated, that children once again ride their bikes down the street, play in yards and walk home from school.

"The differences aren't obvious, but they're there," said Ray Johnson, a youth and family pastor with the Fellowship in the Pass church. "If someone sees a child walking alone and someone else nearby, they'll stop the car until they make sure everything is all right. People are more cautious not just with their own families, but with other people's children. The love carried on. We watch out for each other more."

Johnson, a father of two and head of the counseling program in the schools, said fewer children are afraid to sleep alone or wake up every night with nightmares.

"The kids in our community are doing much better. But they know about it. They think about it," he said. "They'll see a white car and jump. Sometimes they ask, 'Is Anthony's murderer going to come back to my school?' Or 'What do you think he did to Anthony?' "

Johnson says he answers those wrenching questions as best he can, knowing there are no satisfactory answers.

"Our community will never forget what happened," he said. "If there was never another yellow ribbon or media story we would still remember, always."

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